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My Life with Bookstores

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Nowadays, it is said that children and young people are moving away from print media and reading fewer books, and there are concerted efforts to stop this trend. Wondering if children were really reading less, I did some research and was surprised by what I found. According to a survey by a library association, the number of books read per month by elementary school students has actually increased (60th Reading Survey, School Library Association).

Why then do we get the impression that children are reading less? One reason may be the sluggish business conditions of the publishing industry. My business associates who work for publishing companies also complain about poor book sales these days.

So, just how bad are conditions in the publishing industry? I looked at the Publishers Almanac 2014, and the results were surprising. New book publications have been steadily increasing on an annual basis. At the end of World War II, they numbered 20,000, but exceeded 80,000 in 2012.

Of course, new publications do not necessarily mean higher sales for publishing companies. This is because if subsequent editions decline, sales will also fall.

But there is something else that occurs to me. Might this situation have something to do with the decline in bookstores? That's what the statistics indicate. In 1979, there were 53,000 bookstores, including stationery shops, and book-lending shops, but in 2004, this number had declined by about two-thirds to 34,000 (Census of Commerce, Ministry of Trade, Economy, and Industry).

There were three bookstores near the house where I lived from elementary school until I entered university, and I used to stop there on the way from home from school. The first was the large S bookstore near the station and the other two were small, cozy shops. I often went to the S bookstore on Sundays, too, where I would spend an hour or two looking at all kinds of books. In contrast to the large S bookstore that was frequented by many people, the cozy and small N bookstore felt crowded with only a few customers, but for a time, I stopped by every day after school to browse around. I feel nostalgic when I recall how the rather timid shopkeeper would start dusting the bookshelves nearby when I stood reading for too long. I managed to escape the duster and stand around reading, and I remember buying quite a few books, mostly "shinsho" paperbacks--serious nonfiction paperback series.

At that time, the internet and on-line bookstores did not exist, so the local bookstore was a place where we came into contact with world history and culture through books. In ten minutes, it was possible to scan the different kinds of new and old books on the shelves. Even small bookstores stocked recently published books of current interest, and pocket-sized and "shinsho" paperbacks, so they served as a base for new information. A famous author once declared that any bookstore that didn't stock books published by Iwanami Bunko didn't deserve to be called a bookstore, and I remember being oddly convinced. Just by looking at the back cover of the Iwanami Bunko books, I could learn about the world's greatest authors or the well-known works of leading thinkers, philosophers, or scientists (or at least the titles of their books). It is hard for browsing the internet to match this efficiency.

Much later, when I was in the mid-thirties, I spent several months in Boston. Since my family did not accompany me, I had nothing special to do on my days off. To kill time, I would spend weekend mornings in bookstores on Newbury Street, near my apartment. At the time in Japan, major bookstores like Kinokuniya and Shosen Grande were packed with customers on Sundays, but the large, carpeted bookstores in Boston, which were built like libraries, enabled leisurely browsing. On the top floor of a three-story brick building book store, they had a large desk, a sofa, and comfortable chairs with baroque music playing softly in the background. A number of customers would take a stack of ten books or so and sit at the desks where they took their time leisurely looking through them. Mind you, this wasn't a library; all the books were brand-new and for sale. Over time, I came to spend my mornings at this bookstore where I also enjoyed this type of reading. Of course, the shopkeeper never came around with a feather duster. You could take your time to look around and read and then buy the books you liked.

The bookstore became a space where I could become familiar with books and enjoy reading. While the environment doesn't compare with that in the U.S, small bookstores like the one in my neighborhood where a feather duster could not drive me away created an atmosphere where I learned to like books.

Today it has become a common practice to order books on the internet. Small bookstores are closing, and only large bookstores with a network of stores are able to stay in business by attracting a large number of customers. Neither the large S bookstore nor the small N bookstore I frequented still exists. Am I being nostalgic when I wish for an environment in which not just the library, but bookstores would also provide children with a place to encounter books?

Sakakihara_Yoichi.bmp Yoichi Sakakihara
M.D., Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Ochanomizu University; Director of Child Research Net, Executive Advisor of Benesse Educational Research and Development Institute (BERD), President of Japanese Society of Child Science. Specializes in pediatric neurology, developmental neurology, in particular, treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome and other developmental disorders, and neuroscience. Born in 1951. Graduated from the Faculty of Medicine, the University of Tokyo in 1976 and taught as an instructor in the Department of the Pediatrics before working with Ochanomizu University.