Let’s Jimbocho

I just watched Night is Short, Walk on Girl. There’s the taste of red wine lingering in my mouth as I purse my lips and try to remember, but there’s this scene where the heroine enters a used book fair, at night, to search for a book she loved as a child, and she runs into this menace of a little boy. He’s sticking vanilla ice cream cones on people’s penises and swapping the price tags on books. He’s the god of used books, it turns out, and he wants her help to put a collector’s book collection back in circulation so more people can enjoy them. As he swaps the prices on books, he explains—in a beautiful, degrees of Kevin Bacon, Wikipedia challenge mania—how a crazy assortment of famous nineteenth and twentieth century authors from Europe to Japan are related. I found myself laughing as we somehow leapt from Doyle to Dumas to Tanizaki and every author in between—and the god says that all books are one book. 

Anyway, the scene is in Kyoto, but when I think of books in Japan, I think of Jimbocho, or, Books Endo (which has nothing to do with books at all). Jimbocho is the famous used book, booksellers’ district in Tokyo. I had the opportunity to be shown around by a kindly book historian. He brought me to a series of shops where the old books reached the ceiling, bound in soft covers of the eighteenth, nineteenth centuries. Scrolls in boxes. 

The oldest continually operating bookseller in Jimbocho has been in business since the late nineteenth century. It’s a family business. When I walked inside, the books were stored in piles on the shelves, with protruding white labels in big handwritten print announcing what the series was. When I was introduced to the owner, I laughed at the extraordinary shelves and asked her how it was organized. She laughed too. “When there’s an earthquake, we’re going to be in trouble.”  

It looked like something out of a woodblock print, one of the old Edo bookstores. Maybe my imagination is getting carried away, or maybe the bookshop carried away my imagination. It’s hard to say. We flipped through prints and rare books. Then we went to more shops and saw more rare books. There’s a weekly auction in the district where booksellers go to purchase the latest, and it ends up in the shops soon after. There are popular topics, where the books barely last a day or two. An early volume, in Japanese, on making Western food flew out of the store. It seems food is popular, even old food.  

Soeaking of food, we went out for sushi afterwards, ordering plates of big summer oysters, fried corn tempura, sashimi, and cold sake.  

The old books in Japan do not have that old smell. It has to do with the paper material. It’s strange to hold an old book in your hand and smell the spine and find nothing. Quite baffling. But it’s a reminder that books, what they are made of, the way we store and sell them, the people that love them—we change. All the same, there’s a lovely imaginary thread tied to the ends of our fingers as we hold books, stretching back in time around the fingers of readers before. What a thing. Thank you Jimbocho. 

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Also, I saw a nice bitchy looking man in one of the stores and he reminds me of Ayame. Look at that stare. Those narrowed eyes. He has found someone severely lacking and cannot hide it. Someone send me $700 so I can stick him on my wall. 

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