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How Japanese bookstore Kinokuniya has evolved into a 'destination'

The biggest misconception: that it solely serves Japanese speakers and readers.

Kinokuniya is a destination for manga and more.

Kinokuniya is a destination for manga and more. Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz-Gordon

New York may be almost 7,000 miles away from Tokyo, but the city is booming with Japanese culture, from the newly opened Japan Village in Industry City to the decades-old epicenter of Japanese literature and paper goods, Kinokuniya.

First opened in Tokyo in 1927, the Japanese bookstore soon became a beloved brand, importing English-language books to its small Japan shop. Eventually it expanded across Asia and the United States, launching offshoots in San Francisco (1969), New York (1981), near Rockefeller Center, and more geared toward Japanese expats and visitors.

In 2007, the New York store relocated across from Bryant Park. The three-level flagship has since become a “destination store in Manhattan,” says manager Kotaro Takano, thanks to its diverse offerings. In addition to carrying Japanese literature, animé and comics, the bigger space allowed the bookstore to include a selection of English-language books, further attracting a wider range of customers, he said. It also has a variety of goods falling within the wider category of Japanese culture, from stationery to magazines to toys.

“Recently, we are getting more and more tourist customers who are looking for fine gifts, especially during summer and the holiday season,” Takano says.

The biggest misconception of Kinokuniya is that it’s a Japanese bookstore solely for Japanese speakers and readers. Takano points to the expansive selection of books in English on the main floor, as well as the popular stationary section in the basement, as evidence that anyone can enjoy Kinokuniya.

The rainbow of imported Japanese pens (which can, of course, write or doodle in any language) are becoming an increasingly sought-after item, along with Japanese notebooks. Japanese manga titles translated into English are some of Kinokuniya’s best-sellers.

“Most of the major manga titles in English always sell amazingly,” Takano says.

Kinokuniya hangs on to its roots as a Japanese bookstore, too, with Japanese literature (both in Japanese and translated) in high demand; the most popular title recently is Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, “Killing Commendatore.”

Still, the English-language titles symbolize an important shift for Takano: Kinokuniya’s recognition as a general interest bookstore, a shop New Yorkers can pop into for contemporary American literature, a staple in Manhattan’s literary scene.  

FAST FACTS

  • Michelle Obama's “Becoming” was Kinokuniya’s best-selling title in December.
  • When riding the escalator up to the comics floor, guests are greeted by original artwork by Inoue Takehiko (the Japanese manga artist behind “Slam Dunk” and “Vagabond”).
  • Bubble tea, cakes and bento boxes are top choices at the shop’s in-store cafe.
  • Kinokuniya is located at 1073 Sixth Ave. For more info, visit usa.kinokuniya.com.

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