With an empty suitcase in tow, Daniel Wiltshire trawled through shelf after shelf of musty second-hand books in the Tokyo suburb of Jimbocho. When he exhausted the offerings at one shop, he moved onto the next, all the while searching for compelling titles on all facets of Japanese culture, including samurai swords, zen gardens and ninja assassins. If all went well, he’d soon be on his way home with a suitcase full of paperbacks specially curated for his bustling online business.
In a city known for its technological advancement, you might never expect that buying and selling books could still be a thriving industry today. But remarkably, with a history spanning almost 150 years, this legendary neighbourhood – known locally as hon no machi or “book town” – supports around 180 new and used bookstores, thanks to its prestigious universities and a voracious demand for books by knowledge-hungry students. There are so many books in each store that they literally spill out onto the sidewalk. However, shops have no good way of indexing each item – certainly not electronically – thus making it difficult to get desired titles into the hands of wanting book collectors.
“The stores specialise in certain broad genres and attempt to categorise books manually on shelves around topics,” Wiltshire explained. “If I want a particular book or theme, I’ll head to shops where I’ll have a better chance of locating it.” From there, he’s on his own. Whether or not he can find exactly what he’s after comes down to luck.
Born and raised in the US, family ties brought Wiltshire to Tokyo about 15 years ago, where he spent years working for a telecommunications company that required long hours for low pay. A desire for a more satisfying, flexible job grew stronger and stronger, and then, some eight years ago, he stumbled upon an idea that would give him just that – while also giving collectors better access to the world of Japanese books.
Wanting to give away what he thought was an ordinary book on the Japanese art of origami, Wiltshire turned to eBay. Unaware of its actual value, he set the book’s starting bid price at one penny. Astonishingly, two buyers got into a bidding war and it sold for more than $200. Immediately seeing a business opportunity, he contacted the book’s publishing company in Jimbocho and bought the remaining few copies, effectively launching a new book export company called Gria.
Now a seasoned book hunter, Wiltshire has honed his list of shops to explore, a favourite being a huge wholesale store called Yagi Books (3-8 Ogawamachi, Chiyoda, Tokyo), where he knows he will leave with his suitcase a little bit heavier. However, in Jimbocho’s bookworm heaven, those brave enough to lose themselves in the stacks upon stacks of books are guaranteed to discover some remarkable paperback treasures of their own. And for those willing to take on an extra concentrated dose of book hunting, the 56th Tokyo Specialty Kanda Secondhand Book Festival takes place 23 October through 1 November.
Celia Knox shares up-to-the-minute snapshots, trends and goings-on from the capital of Japan. Follow along on Twitter and Instagram via #BBCLocalite.