Bright Young Booksellers: Kitazawa Rika

Courtesy of Kitazawa Rika

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Kitazawa Rika, a fourth generation bookseller in Tokyo, Japan, at her family's shop Kitazawa Bookstore. Rika-san is also the first Japanese bookseller we've profiled in this series. Special thanks Rose Counsell, proprietor of Hozuki Books in Tokyo, for translating our questions into Japanese and Rika-san's answers back into English.

When did your father open his bookshop and what does the shop specialize in?

Actually, my great-grandfather Kitazawa Yasaburo opened the business in 1902, specializing in Japanese literature. The second-generation head, Kitazawa Ryutaro, ran the bookshop during WWII and added English literature due to the country’s increasing Westernization. 

The third-generation owner, my father, Kitazawa Ichiro, decided to specialize in English and American literature, so now our bookstore exclusively stocks Western books; we do, however, have a section of Japanese literature translated into English. 

In addition, the shop specializes in providing display books at hotels, cafes, and so on. In the past, most of our customers were academics or students, but now we also have interior designers and collectors who cannot read English but find Western bindings beautiful. 

The number of young customers has also increased thanks to the power of social media.

How did you get started in rare books? 

When my grandfather became ill, my father started working here part-time at age 18 while attending university. He became full-time at 24, so he’s been working here for 50 years! 

My mother, Keiko, started working just before the 2005 renovation in which we moved to the first floor. 

I started in 2016. I previously worked at a clothing store, but was worried that my father’s shop might not survive. I thought I could use my retail skills, like social media and store layout, to help my father’s business. 

Now my mother, father, and I work at the shop together, so it really is a family business!

What is your role at the bookshop?

I participate in every part of the business, from photographing, updating social media, buying books, uploading descriptions, helping customers and everything in-between! 

For our display books business, I curate books to suit clients’ needs and arrange them at venues (usually hotels, offices or cafés).

What do you love about working in the book trade in Japan?

I’ve heard that Japan’s bookseller union and auction system are unique. I like the system, as it decreases the number of books that are thrown out and improves business for the bookshops.

While we are all technically rivals, we help each other and try to get to know one another, which I think makes the network and relationships very special. I find it much more enjoyable working together with other booksellers than working alone.

Please describe a typical day for you.

I wake up at around 7, leave home at 8, bike my daughter to daycare, buy a cup of coffee, and arrive at the store around 9.30.

The first things I do at the store are check my emails, think about my plans for the day, clean up the books, put the store sign out, and open the store at 11. 

From then until closing, I prepare book descriptions and images for our online shop, clean books, and serve customers. 

From 12 to 2 I walk to the auction house and check if there are any books I want, place bids, and return to the shop. If I win any items, they will be dropped off at our shop later in the week. I don’t really eat lunch, and don’t particularly like taking breaks!

The shop closes at 6, and then it’s time for the day’s bookkeeping and to prepare ordered books for shipping. Next I clean up the shop a little, check my emails one last time, and upload some pictures to Instagram.

Until 8.10 I continue writing book descriptions, taking photos, and generally preparing the descriptions to debut on our website at 9pm on Sunday.

I leave at 8.10, pick up my daughter from daycare, drop by the supermarket, and bike home. I eat dinner while doing house chores, put my daughter to bed, and tell myself I’m going to do more work, but always end up falling asleep!

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

I’m very fond of the limited edition of In Powder & Crinoline: Old Fairy Tales Retold by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch illustrated by Kay Nielsen. It’s the first book I came across as a bookseller that struck me for its beautiful illustrations, binding, and page layout, so it’s a special and memorable book for me.

What do you personally collect?

I don’t really collect books -- I prefer the role of passing on interesting books to customers, but before I was a bookseller I worked at a clothing store, so I still like to collect and repair vintage clothes.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I like to relax at home and do nothing!

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade in Japan?

The number of people visiting bookstores has decreased due to the coronavirus, so I think business might become difficult for people running shops without websites or other online selling channels. 

Another issue is that some of the biggest secondhand and rare book shops in Japan may have to close because they don’t have successors. 

Depending on the way you think of it, the roles of bookshops may increase in the future (as a place for photoshoots, for example). There is also the possibility that people will go back to reading books due to stay-at-home mandates. 

Lastly, a new generation is on its way, so we can hopefully keep the trade going in Japan.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

We plan to put out a new catalogue next year! We’re not sure if the ABAJ fair in Tokyo will happen due to the coronavirus, but we’ll be ready!