Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled But Still Going (November 2018)

Below is our November 2018 edition of ‘Coming Up For Air’, a monthly column we write for Ming Pao’s English language section, reprinted here in its entirety with the permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

Coming Up For Air: Grey, Grizzled but Still Going

by Albert Wan
November 16, 2018

【明報專訊】This past October we quietly celebrated our first birthday. It was around this time last year when we signed our lease to become what we jokingly refer to as the world’s first and only 27th floor bookshop. Since then we’ve learned a thing or two about the book-selling business.

One is that appearances matter. Before we opened our bookshop we believed that as long as we stocked good books — crudely defined as literature and non-fiction that has stood or will stand the test of time — sales will follow. To borrow from the great anonymous prophet of Iowa: “If you stock it, they will come.”

To a great extent that is still true. Good books sell themselves. Period. Full stop.

But being on the 27th floor also means that the bookshop is, for better or worse, largely hidden from the gaze of the passing pedestrian — the all-important marker of retail success, or failure.

We realised very early on then that there was no getting around social media as a platform to promote the bookshop and our books. Call it bookselling in the age of screens and high rents, but it’s become a core part of who we are and what we do. We have become social media junkies.

If you’ve seen our Facebook or Instagram posts, however, you know that we don’t take the “kitchen sink” approach to social media.

Rather, when we come across a book we want to feature on social media either because it has interesting content or nice cover art, or, ideally, both, we work hard to create an eye-catching and well-written post that we hope will evoke in our followers the same warm and fuzzy feeling we had when we first came across the book at issue.

To us it is about featuring the book in its entirety, rather than just, say, its cover, which can be a very easy thing to do in today’s age of high definition cameras and Instagram filters. It’s no surprise then that the copy in our posts has become lengthier and more detailed as we’ve tried to strike the right balance between aesthetics and content. A caption we wrote for a recent post featuring the English translation of Hsu Hsia-k’o’s(徐霞客)— China’s Thoreau — travel diaries came in at 127 words!

Another lesson we’ve learned is the importance of “showing up”. Sometimes we go days on end and don’t see another soul walk, or even waft, into the bookshop. Even so we continue to show up, plough through our backlog of unpriced books, and wait for the next customer to appear. The tide always changes so that we will start receiving visitors at a steady clip. Getting to that point, however, can sometimes be a challenge, physically and mentally.

It helps, of course, to have supportive customers. Once we had a customer visit the bookshop on what was a particularly quiet day. He browsed for a while, picked out a $40 paperback, and paid for it. As he got ready to leave, he said to me “you will sometimes have days like this, but when you do, just know that there are people out there who know what you’re doing for the community.” Even though he ended up buying a book, I secretly think he came to the bookshop just to send us that message. It was like manna from heaven, and I’ll never forget it.

Starting Bleak House Books is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. Yes, we’ve had our share of challenges, and I have definitely become more grey and more grizzled. It is hard to imagine life without the bookshop though. To me it represents the perfect combination of labour and literature. Only with the former can one have the latter.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Our ‘Coming Up for Air’ Column for Ming Pao: ‘Striking the Right Balance’

Starting last month Ye Olde Bookseller began writing a monthly column for Ming Pao’s English language section called ‘Coming Up For Air’. For this month’s column — October 2018 — I talk about the challenges of running a community-oriented indie bookshop in an age of increasing political polarization. It is called ‘Striking the Right Balance’, and is reprinted here in its entirety with permission of the folks at Ming Pao.

Coming Up For Air: Striking the Right Balance

by Albert Wan
October 19, 2018

【明報專訊】The word on the street is that independent bookstores are experiencing a renaissance moment of sorts. Perhaps this is the result of screen fatigue. Too much time in front of screens has turned folks into shells of their former selves. The smell and feel of books and the shelves on which they are stored can rejuvenate the senses and restore the balance lost through excessive screen time. Perhaps the renewed interest in indie bookshops stems from the desire to support local businesses instead of large corporate chains or big box stores.

Personally, I think we are seeing more neighbourhood bookshops because there is a public need for them. We live in a time of government-imposed austerity and ever-widening gaps between the rich and the poor. Local governments invest far less than they once did in community projects whose main purpose is to enhance the well-being of the community, and whose success is not tied to the amount of private wealth and profit they create for a select few.

More libraries are reducing their hours or closing altogether. Fewer community spaces — ones where you or I can visit and hang out in without being compelled to buy anything — are being maintained, expanded and built. This is not just happening in Hong Kong. It is a worldwide trend. Independent bookshops can step in to fill at least part of that void.

But what does it mean to be a bookshop that serves the needs of the community? I’ve spoken previously about hosting public events and fostering a welcoming environment where folks from all walks of life can feel comfortable and relaxed hanging out in a space filled with good books and good company. Those are obvious contributions we should make as an indie bookshop as far as we’re concerned, at least in the sense of having to do them. So we try to do them well.

Being an independent bookshop also means having an identity, however. The difficulty lies in forging that identity but also serving the largest cross section of the community that we possibly can. The two can and sometimes do clash.

For example, once we shared an interview of Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese writer. Guo spoke about her dislike of Dickens and his novels and argued that many Anglophone writers were over-rated, but she also praised works by writers such as Germaine Greer, Marguerite Duras, and Roland Barthes.

The interview was conducted by The Guardian, not us, and Guo happened to be a Chinese dissident living in London. Despite all this our post immediately drew the ire of some folks, and we were accused, among other things, of having a “far-left, anti-white, feminist agenda.”

The message implied of course that we were taking sides or trying to advance a political agenda simply because we posted an article written by one of the world’s most respected news organisations. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with being on the left or advancing the cause of women’s rights.

But we see our job as booksellers to go beyond just taking sides in political debates. Of course, we will occasionally enter the fray when we see fit (more on that below). More often than not, however, we think we best serve the needs of the community by being the platform where others can tell their stories, voice their opinions, and find the information they need to wage their own battles.

There are, however, some core values and beliefs that we hold dear as owner-operators of an independent bookshop. We believe in the freedom of speech and the freedom of thought. We believe in human rights. We believe in the dignity of the individual. And we believe, as Orwell famously put it, that “our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have”. Call it the Bleak House Books Bill of Rights if you will.

This is the starting point for every decision we make at Bleak House Books. Every event we host or book we stock needs to support these core principles. In most cases it’s an easy hurdle to clear. But there will be times when we come across something that fails our test, and we will say so. And if that means our bookshop is taking sides in a political debate then we plead guilty.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Our Inaugural ‘Coming Up For Air’ Column for Ming Pao: ‘Will You Be Our Neighbour?’

Starting this month Ye Olde Bookseller will be writing a monthly column for Ming Pao’s English language section. The column will be called Coming Up For Air which comes from George Orwell’s novel of the same name.

I am grateful to Ming Pao for giving me wide latitude in topics I will be able to cover in the column. Obviously the bookshop and its inner workings will see some coverage. But for me that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I hope to use the column to express myself in ways I cannot do at the bookshop (hence the title) — mostly because of time constrains but also because the bookshop is not always the appropriate forum for the personal viewpoints of its owner unless it relates to books and their worth!

Below is our first ‘Coming Up For Air’ column which was published in Ming Pao on September 21, 2018. It is entitled “Will You Be Our Neighbour?”

— Ye Olde Bookseller a.k.a. Albert Wan [Sept. 27, 2018]

Coming Up For Air: Will You Be Our Neighbour?

This is my first column for Ming Pao. I’m a lawyer turned bookseller. Last year my wife and I opened an English language bookshop in Hong Kong called Bleak House Books or 清明堂 in Chinese.

At first we ran the business out of our home which doubled as an office and storage space for our books and comics. We rented stalls at pop up markets, hired an awesome graphic artist to help us design a website for online sales, and wondered how we’d ever be able to afford a storefront in Hong Kong.

Sales were slow at first but business gradually picked up, and we were delighted to discover enthusiasm among Hong Kongers for indie bookshops. In the fall of 2017 we started hunting for a dedicated space for our bookshop.

Enter San Po Kong, a quiet, industrial district in the heart of Kowloon, where we found an amazing space on the 27th floor of an office building. It took us a few months to get wooden shelves installed and to improve the lighting, but finally we had the kind of bookshop we wanted. In January 2018 we officially opened for business and the rest is history.

Since we’ve started Bleak House Books many concerned individuals have wondered how we can possibly compete with Amazon and Book Depository. Obviously we can’t — we try to keep our book prices in the same range as these enormous operations but offering free shipping worldwide and hundreds of thousands of titles aren’t smart business choices for us.

Instead we focus on what we can do: understanding and responding to the needs of our community. Selling books is great, but supporting people who love to read and create literature is by far the most interesting and rewarding part of this gig.

Here are two examples of community activities we have been proud to support. First up, Cha, a literary journal based in Hong Kong and run by the talented and indefatigable Tammy Ho Lai-ming. Cha has hosted several after-hours poetry readings at our shop. The readings are always well-attended and include a diverse mix of serious, academic types and poetry-lovers.

We’ve also just started to host book club meetings. A few weeks ago an awesome book club, Run of Page, took over the shop for a few hours. Run of Page is a running club and book club in one; its members go on a brisk jog before settling down to discuss books. The heat was intense on the late July day Run of Page held its meeting at our bookshop but everyone was still very enthusiastic about the jog which included a jaunt to an old village called Nga Tsin Wai(衙前圍村). The discussion that ensued back at the bookshop was spirited and lively, even after the tough jog.

Local writers are a big part of the community we serve and we do what we can to give them a space and a voice at the bookshop. When a local writer asks us to sell his or her book (that is if we don’t ask them first) we usually say yes. At last count we had around fifteen or so local writers and illustrators whose books we sell at Bleak House Books.

In a nutshell, this is the kind of bookshop we are: welcoming to visit, community-oriented and fiercely independent (more on that in a future column).

A lot has happened since we started Bleak House Books. Of course we’ve bought and sold our fair share of books. But we’ve also gotten to know and become friends with many interesting folks from all different walks of life.

It’s a positive sign. One that tells us indie bookshops can play an important role in building a stronger and more vibrant community. For those who are not so sure or want to test our hypothesis, we invite you to visit an indie bookshop near you. Stay awhile. Talk to those around you. Then report back and tell us if we are really off our rockers.

Available from Ming Pao via direct link here.

Bleak House Books: A Refuge from the Hustle and Bustle of Hong Kong

Since opening in January we have received our fair share of visitors from outside Hong Kong. For these folks a stop at a used bookshop is just what the doctor ordered when traveling abroad, and they usually make it a point to hit one or two used bookshops along with the more traditional travel destinations and sights. This means we have met folks from Germany, Canada, Philippines, Australia, Britain, the U.S., and other far flung places (at least in relation to Hong Kong’s geographic location), and some have even become good friends of the book shop and its staff.

Apparently our friends from abroad are not the only ones who think it is cool to visit used bookshops on holiday! Flight Network, one of the largest global travel agencies, thinks so too, and they made Bleak House Books an obligatory stop for folks visiting Hong Kong, in a recent online feature of theirs, entitled ‘72 Hours in the Exciting City of Hong Kong‘! They even featured a photo of our part-time shop dog, Ella, who, as you can probably tell, was having one of her typical ‘long’ days at the shop.

We are grateful for having been selected by Flight Network as a destination for folks visiting Hong Kong who want to take a load off and get lost in our wonderful collection of new and vintage books and comics! Who knows you might get lucky and end up sharing a bean bag chair with Ella while reading your favorite Dickens’ novel. Bleak House, perhaps?

A Tribute to Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018)

It is probably cliche by now — just a day after his tragic suicide death — to say that Anthony Bourdain was more than just a T.V. personality, and somewhat presumptious to even make that observation for folks who never knew Tony beyond the cool, witty, no bullshit persona he exuded on the screen.

But judging by the shock factor elicited by Tony’s suicide, especially among his closet friends and family members, one might venture to say that no really knew Tony. What we have to go by it seems are the bits and pieces Tony left behind during a career that saw him go from lowly line cook to budding food writer to superstar media personality.

What follows is a tribute of sorts to Tony. It is a piece, which we transcribe here in its entirety, that Tony wrote for the now defunct food journal Lucky Peach. In it Tony tackles two of his favorite subjects in life: food and film. The piece is eerily titled Dead Heads, and if you read it even a bit closely you will see that it exudes the kind of despair and morbidity that perhaps ultimately led to Tony’s demise.

If you’ve read Tony’s stuff before or even listened to him speak you will recognize instantly that the piece that follows is classic Bourdain. Astute, funny, deep, even poetic at times. To borrow from Woody Allen’s classic film Manhattan — “pithy yet degenerate”, but in a good way.

If you’ve never come across any of Tony’s stuff, well, you’re in for a treat.

RIP Tony. You will be missed but not forgotten.

(The photos that accompany this blog post are taken from footage of Tony that was shot in Hong Kong which so happens is where he filmed his last full episode of Parts Unknown.)

Dead Heads
by Anthony Bourdain
(Lucky Peach, Issue 5: Chinatown, Fall 2012)

At a kopi tiam in Geylang one night, while happily tearing the flesh, fat, and cartilage out of a shark head, a Singaporean friend told me a story. He felt his were the Chosen People, the Enlightened Ones, and that this story was particularly illustrative of exactly why. It was probably apocryphal, maybe not true at all, possibly utter bullshit. I don’t care. It’s a story I want to be true. It’s a story that SHOULD be true. As my friend told it:

Back in the day, when wealthy merchants used to travel across China in caravans, they were, from time to time, set upon by organized gangs of bandits and highwaymen. These enterprising free-market enthusiasts would ambush columns suddenly and without mercy, quickly slaughtering guards and escorts, then stripping the members of the party of any valuables before killing them. The head man, however, they always saved for last. Dragged kicking and screaming and begging for his life from his litter, forced to kneel on ground still soaked with the blood of his bearers and entourage, he would find himself at the feet of the chief bandit. The chief bandit, inevitably a fearsome-looking fellow, would offer the trembling merchant a whole cooked fish. Steamed, grilled — it didn’t matter. But it was always whole.

“Eat!” The chief bandit would command, pushing the fish in the direction of his prisoner. There would be a hush as the other bandits took a break from looting, disembowling, post-mortem violation, or any totemic preservation of remains they might be engaged in to move close to the action for what was clearly a Very Important Moment.

If the terrified merchant’s fingers or chopsticks moved straight to the fish’s head, tunneling into the cheek, perhaps, or tearing off a piece of jowl, there would be much appreciative murmuring among the Chief Bandit and his colleagues.

By choosing the multitextured, endlessly interesting mosaic of flesh buried in the fish’s head, their captive proved himself a man of wealth and taste. Clearly a man such as this possessed more wealth than what he and his caravan were currently carrying. This man would no doubt be missed by his family and his many wealthy friends, at least some of whom would likely pay a hefty ransom. The bandits would spare his life in the reasonable expectation of future gain.

If, however, the merchant chose instead to peel off a meaty hunk of boneless fillet, the bandits would jerk a cutlass across his neck immediately. This nouveau riche yuppie scum would be worth only as much as he carried in his pockets. Not worth keeping alive – much less feeding. Nobody would miss this asshole. The minute he chose fillet over head he proved himself worthless.

* * *

The tale is a fairly lurid example of a widely held principle throughout Asia and Europe — the older, smarter food world — that the head is the best part. Put a pile of shrimp or crayfish in front of a Spaniard, a Chinese, or any self-respecting Cajun for that matter, and they sure as shit will know what to do with it: suck the brains and juice and all that good stuff right outta those heads!

Chefs know, too. They know that no matter how hard they try, no matter what they do, they will NEVER create a sauce better than the hot goo that comes squirting out of a prawn’s head after a short time on a griddle. In Japan, whole restaurants are dedicated to the enjoyment of carefully grilled fish heads and collars. Fish-head curry is enjoyed and cherished by millions of Indians both within India and without. In many Portuguese restaurants, the limited number of merluzza heads are reserved in advance for VIP customers. The rest must suffer with steaks and fillets.

So what’s our problem with heads? Sure, cheeks are well-known to most urban American diners these days. Tongue has been enjoying something of a comeback. But for as long as I can remember, the appearance of a whole animal head on plate or in film has rarely been a welcome sight.

* * *

Upon our first encounter with John Huston as Noah Cross in Chinatown, we identify him as a bad guy teeming with incestuous, pederastic, murderous, evil. How do we know this? Two reasons. He keeps mispronouncing Jack’s name — referring to him not as “Mr. Gittes” but as “Mr. Gitz” — and worse, FAR worse, he’s devouring a whole, sinister-looking fish.

“I hope you don’t mind. I believe they should be served with the head,” Cross says.

“Fine,” says Jake (played by Jack Nicholson), “as long as you don’t serve chicken that way.”

The thing is just lying there the whole scene, dead eyes looking up at us. The underlying message is simple: only a monster would eat a fish with the head still on — and only an entity of previously unimagined cruelty would insist that his guest do so as well.

“You may think you know what you’re dealing with,” warns Cross, “but believe me, you don’t.” He’s talking about a massive conspiracy involving political corruption, theft of natural resources, real-estate fraud, and murder, but he could just as well be talking about that fish head. It’s scary. It’s big. It’s “ugly.” It’s the unknown.

“It’s what the DA used to tell me about Chinatown,” replies Jake, our hero and, as it turns out, the only guy in the film who doesn’t know what’s going on.

* * *

Captain Willard sits at a lavishly appointed dining table in an air-conditioned trailer somewhere in South Vietnam. He is about to receive his orders from what appears to be a superior in military intelligence and two officers of the CIA. A uniformed waiter serves lunch, and the camera lingers over a platter of head-on shrimp.

“I don’t know how you feel about this shrimp,” says the commanding officer in this early scene from Apocalypse Now, “but if you’ll eat it, you never have to prove your courage in any other way.” We know now that these men Willard is sitting with are some bad bastards, untrustworthy without a doubt, and whatever they’re asking him to do will be fundamentally dishonest and awful.

But the shrimp heads, like Chinatown‘s whole fish, also imply something more. Their black, beady, unseeing eyes, sitting at this incongruously luxurious table, are full of warning. They hint at the Great Unknown, warning that no matter what Captain Willard might have seen in the past, whatever he thinks he might know, he in fact knows nothing about what awaits him upriver, beyond the Do Lung Bridge.

* * *

Of course the portentousness of sea beasts is not limited to American films. Think of the end of La Dolce Vita. Our hero, Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni), has just emerged from an almost-orgy that turned into a bitter, drunken humiliation of a woman. He and his fellow partygoers stumble onto the beach in the early morning, where they happen upon a giant sea creature, dragged up by fishermen’s nets. Marcello notes the staring eyes. Moments later, a young waitress who earlier in the film served as a possible muse/angel figure calls out to him from across a narrow channel of water. Marcello can’t hear her. They attempt to communicate for a few seconds, but their words are lost in the noise of the wind and the surf. He gives up, shrugs, and returns to his shallow, pleasure-seeking entourage, none of whom really care about him. Here, the fish head is not a signifier of evil at all, but a cruel reminder of everything Marcello has turned his back on: love, self-knowledge, any kind of spiritual life.

(During the initial release of the movie, the fish was widely interpreted as a classic symbol of Christian [and pre-Christian] belief. It’s appearance, dead — along with many other “anti-religious” images in the film — was seen by some as the director’s way of suggesting that God was dead, too.)

Certainly the mysterious fish and its wide-open, lifeless eyes are a reminder and a rebuke, once again, of the Great Unknown. But in this case, they remind Marcello not only of what he doesn’t know but of what he has chosen not to know.

* * *

Perhaps the vilest calumny against head eating appeared in the wildly popular 1979 short film Fish Heads, directed by actor Bill Paxton. Debuting as a comedy interstitial featuring Barnes and Barnes on Saturday Night Live, it quickly became a stand-alone sensation, and its message of hate and barely concealed racism only reinforced then-prevalent attitudes of cultural imperialism and craniophobia.

Under an Alvin and the Chipmunks-inspired vocal track of “Fish heads, fish heads/Roly-poly fish heads/Fish heads, fish heads/Eat them up, yum,” the action exploits homeless and Asian stereotypes, finding much to laugh at in poverty and the indigenous foodways of ethnic minorities. Soon after the video hit heavy rotation on MTV, the streets were filled with would-be skinheads chanting its infectious chorus. Worse, the song was eventually covered by Duran Duran. Perhaps no single representation in the twentieth century did so much to set gastronomy back.

* * *

By the time a horse’s head famously appeared in the bed of film director Jack Woltz in The Godfather, horse meat had long since been rejected by mainstream diners in America. Granted, during the time period in which the action takes place, horse taretare was still quite popular in Europe, but it is unlikely that Don Corleone’s emissaries delivered the head as a gift for the kitchen, so much as a straightforward and gruesome warning.

In fact, in the annals of animal heads on film, I can find only one happy appearance of this most delicious and delightful body part. Only one time when the head of a creature — in this case a duck — brings enlightenment, laughter, pleasure, or joy, as it should:

In a Christmas Story, Bob Clark’s classic film of the short stories of Jean Shepherd, our adorable child protagonist Ralphie and his family have had their Christmas turkey destroyed by a pack of feral dogs owned by their unseen neighbor and archenemy Krampus. (Is it a coincidence that the name echoes the evil Santa doppelganger of Eastern European legend?)

Their original meal cruelly demolished, the family resorts to visiting an empty Chinese restaurant where they order Peking duck as a surrogate turkey. The waiter delivers the bird whole, then brings his cleaver down, loudly separating head from body. Ralphie and family shriek with delight. It is the happiest moment in the story. The family is at its most joyful, together and functional, inspired by the severed head of a humble waterfowl — a duck epiphany, if you will. An all-too-rare example.

What is it about the topmost part of what is presumably food that elicits in us such a fear, loathing and derision? Is it the eyes that we abhor? Is it the unknown we see reflected in those unmoving, unseeing lenses — symbols of all we don’t know, or can’t know?

Or is the blank stare of the fish or game bird to be avoided lest we be reminded of our complicity in the death of another living thing? Perhaps it is death itself that we seek to avoid. The eyes of our victims beckon us, mock us, suggest that we will be joining them soon.

* * * * *

An Interview with Tsuyoshi Toyota, Founder and Owner of Doyosha (土曜社), the Japanese Publisher of “Books With An Attitude”

Tsuyoshi Toyota, founder and owner of Doyosha, an independent publishing house in Japan

Doyosha is a small independent publishing house in Japan. Its motto is “books with an attitude”. Some of the books Doyosha has published include Cowboy Kate & Other Stories, the pioneering photographic essay by Sam Haskins and a Japanese translation of A Cloud in Trousers, a key work in the Russian Futurist movement by Vladimir Mayakovsky.

A Doyosha title @ Bleak House Books (Build Your Own Independent Nation by Kyohei Sakaguchi)

Bleak House Books recently started to carry some of Doyosha’s unique titles, including Build Your Own Independent Nation by Kyohei Sakaguchi, a polemic of sorts against the problems that plague Japan and other industrialized nations today.

Unlike car or computer makers, most publishing houses are unknown to folks outside of the specialized circles in which they operate. For a publisher like Doyosha, however, the task of reaching an audience is even harder. For one Doyosha is comparatively small (its startup capital was 3 million yen or the rough equivalent of HKD $213,000.00).  And it specializes in titles that are in Japanese and mostly outside the mainstream as far as literary trends or tastes go.

We wanted to change that and decided one way to do so would be to give the founder and owner of Doyosha, Tsuyoshi Toyota, a platform here at Bleak House Books. Hence this interview, which we conducted with Tsuyoshi over email.

Tsuyoshi was nice enough to agree to do this interview even though we would be asking him questions in English rather than in Japanese, his native tongue. He responded to our questions in English and asked us to edit his answers for readability and clarity, which we did. We then sent Tsuyoshi the edited responses and sought his approval for our edits, which he gave us. What follows is the result of that process.

 

Tell us a bit about yourself — where you grew up, where you went to school, your favorite subjects in school, kinds of jobs you’ve had during and after school, your favorite baseball team or player if you have one, and anything else you want to share about yourself with our readers.

I was born in 1977 in the valley of Koga, a hidden village of Ninja. It was a place without any bookshops of any kind. So my family and I lived without books for a long time. The only reading material we had regular access to was the national paper, delivered every morning by post.

I remember my grandparents had put up photos of Japan’s Imperial Family around the house, and I used to think that the people in the photos were relatives of ours. Little did I know!

When I turned eighteen I went to Tokyo to start my university studies at Keio University. I majored in economics. I lived very close to campus — about five minutes by foot. My living quarters were small and sparsely furnished. It consisted of a single room, about nine or ten square meters with no kitchen, bathroom or air conditioning. But none of that mattered to me since I spent most of my waking hours in the university library, staying until closing time, which back then was 10 pm.

After I graduated Keio University, I got a job at the university press. The best part of the job was getting the same special access to the university library that professors had. Floors that were closed or books that were off limits to me as a university student were now up for grabs. It was a wonderful feeling!

Although I’ve been an independent publisher for the last nine years, my dream is to run a private library of my own one day.

 

I assume you read a lot for school. Did you do any reading outside of school as well? If so what kinds of books, comics, or other material did you read? Did you have a favorite writer or illustrator growing up? What about now?

When I was in school I worked in two bookstores part time. I’ve also worked in publishing for almost twenty years. So I’ve done a lot of reading, yes. Up until now, however, I feel like I don’t have a favorite book. You can say that I’m still on the hunt for that “great” book. To me that search is what makes life interesting and meaningful.

 

What led you to start your own publishing house?

Doyosha’s (土曜社) logo; Doyosha means Saturday in Japanese

There was never any question in my mind that I would go into the book business. The only question was how to go about doing it and where I would get the money. I had a few options like opening a library, a bookshop selling new or second hand books, or starting my own publishing house. I knew I didn’t have enough money for the first two options. But I had just enough — around 3 million yen — to publish 2 or 3 books, which is how Doyosha came into being.


Doyosha means Saturday in Japanese. Is there a story behind that name and if so what is it?

Coming up with a name for a publishing house in Japan is not a terribly creative activity, I’m afraid. A lot of it is based on tradition. Some names come from old time China, others from the West. Doyosha is a traditional Japanese name. In Japan some publishing houses are named after the days of the week.

 

According to its website, the tagline for Doyosha is “books with an attitude”. Can you share with us the meaning behind that statement and more generally the philosophy behind the kinds of books Doyosha publishes? In other words, what do you look for in a book before you decide that this is one you’d like to make a part of Doyosha’s library?

The tagline “books with an attitude” is based on the name of a rap group called N.W.A. or Niggaz Wit Attitudes. The idea for the tagline came from an author whose book we published at Doyosha and we decided to use it even though I don’t really listen to rap music myself.

That doesn’t mean I’m without “attitude”. I have plenty of it if you should know. One thing that gets me worked up the most is seeing how our over-programmed, over-worked lives, coupled with heavy doses of TV and smart phones have destroyed our reading culture. But my opinions don’t factor into deciding what books we publish at Doyosha. I want our books to have “attitudes” or voices of their own.

 

What’s a typical work day like for you at Doyosha?

My day usually starts at 9 am and ends at twilight. I spend most of the day reading proofs. At around 5 pm, the courier service comes to pick up books we need delivered to our customers. Then I spend about 20 minutes cleaning up my work space, and that’s when I call it a day. Sometimes during work I walk to a nearby bookshop called Daikanyama Tsutaya Books which is about one minute away, or to Shibuya public library, about 10 minutes.

 

Where Tsuyoshi spends most of his workdays

 

 

Last question: here in Hong Kong there is often a lot of hand wringing or concern about the lack of a reading culture, especially for pleasure or self-fulfillment; not that people aren’t reading in Hong Kong, but they’re reading stuff in bits and pieces and on a wide variety of devices and media platforms, the least of which are books. Is this a concern or trend that also exists in Japan? If not then what is your take on why Japan is different in that regard? If this is a concern or trend that exists in Japan what is your prognosis for Japan as a society that reads?

When I visited Hong Kong in 2004, I had a hard time finding good bookstores or vinyl shops (the one exception on the vinyl front being HMV). At times I saw people in Hong Kong who appeared to have carefree, fun lives, but for most people there, I thought they were very busy with work and family. Busy talking about business. Busy spending time with family. And busy getting to and from work. To be honest, I liked Hong Kong as a city but found its arts and reading culture somewhat lacking.

If you ask me what we need to do to create a environment that will be less hostile to readers I would say that we need to be more careful with how we manage our time, space and money. That means people, in Japan and elsewhere, should opt for quiet lives surrounded by books and family rather than leading the life of a global consumer, always on the road or watching TV.

The ‘Google Rabbit Hole’

It probably isn’t news to most folks that we have a large collection of vintage (pre-1960s) paperbacks. They occupy a special place on our bookshelves and we occasionally feature cover art from these wonderful books.
Recently a customer from the U.S. visited our website (www.bleakhousebooks.com.hk) and bought one of the rarer titles we had in our collection: Massacre by James Warner Bellah. We asked him if he would be willing to tell his story as to how he came about this book, its author, and our bookshop.
 
Here’s what he had to say:
 
I discovered James Warner Bellah (and Bleak House Books) quite by accident. I had long been a fan of director John Ford’s western films, particularly his “Cavalry Trilogy” shot in Monument Valley from 1948 to 1950. Watching the credits of “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” I noticed that one of the screenwriters had an unusual name..James Warner Bellah. As I plunged down the Google rabbit hole, I learned more about his life and writing about the Frontier West, the Civil War, his military background and his involvement with the movie industry.
 
But, his writing is hard to come by. His Western work mostly consisted of short stories that appeared in magazines in the 1930’s and 1940’s..magazine like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post that are long gone. His novelizations and short story collections (there are only a few) were put out as paperbacks and are not easy to find. It was one of my periodic online searches that led me to Bleak House Books.
 
Despite all the security and privacy concerns we share about today’s online technology, there are some wonderful things about it. Despite my visits to used bookstores, tag sales and library book fairs, it was the web that enabled me, a reader in Connecticut, USA, to find an out-of-print paperback about the U.S. Cavalry in a book shop in Hong Kong, run by an ex-Atlantan. Pretty amazing.
We think so too!

San Po Kong: A Photo Essay

Because Ye Olde Bookseller has shop duty for this weekend’s San Po Kong Arts Fair/Walking Tour — Bleak House Books is a scheduled stop during Saturday’s events — he decided to go on his own walking tour through San Po Kong today. This photo essay is the result of that tour.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Pricing (Books)

We’ve noticed that folks may be wondering how we price our used books. So here’s a rough and dirty guide to what consumes a lot of our time at Bleak House Books.

First, it is important to remember that prices for commodities are almost always arbitrary. That’s true for cars, vegetables, houses and even books (new or used). There is no all powerful pricing authority that dictates what one can charge for say a 2010 orange Honda Civic or a 1949 first edition of George Orwell’s 1984, and even if there was the prices set by such an outfit would themselves be arbitrary.

The general rule of thumb is that one charges what the market will bear, and used book shops like ours are no exception.

There are important caveats to that rule, however. The most important being that the prices we assign to our used books are ones we think are fair and reasonable given the current marketplace.

That means that when we price a used book we almost always look to see what a book of the same edition is fetching on the open market. Our go-to source for that is Abebooks.com, which is a robust, respected online marketplace for used books made up entirely of independent sellers from all over the world. We won’t do that for a 2012 mass market paperback edition of The Hobbit, for which we are well equipped to price without reference to the market. But we estimate that around 70 to 80 percent of the books we sell are priced using the above method.

But looking at similar books on the open market is just the beginning. Not every book one sees listed online provides an appropriate price comparison to the book we are trying to price. When someone runs a search on Abebooks.com for a certain book the search engine will always bring up the least expensive listings of the book first. These listings usually do not have actual images of the books featured in them or descriptions of the book’s actual condition. Some might be ex-library copies or have heavy annotations in the text box. But there’s no way of knowing. Hence the attractive price tag.

What happens next is probably the most time consuming but also the most important part of the pricing process – finding the online book listing, or listings, we believe provide the best guide for what we should charge for our copy. It helps if these listings have images of the books taken by the seller but that’s not always necessary. Having a true, individualized account — not some copy-and-paste version one sees with the cheaper listings — of the book’s condition is just as good, and usually more important than having an actual image. Of course this means we need to have a handle on the condition of the book we want to price and sell which we always do, as reflected on our own online listings. It then becomes a game of match where we pick the book listing or listings which inspire our confidence and also come closest to being a mirror image of our book.

After that the last step is to take into account the book’s unique features, if any. A book that’s signed by its author or whose cover is drawn by a famous artist might have its price adjusted to reflect that. Books we’ve bought and had shipped here from, say, the U.S., might require a higher price tag to take into account our added costs, or sometimes we simply eat those costs as the price of doing business as a used book store in Hong Kong. The point is that there are a host of outside influences we take into account when pricing a book even after we have a rough idea of what it might go for online.

Our hope at the end of this whole process is to arrive at a price that will inspire confidence and trust in Bleak House Books as an independent seller of second-hand books. And if folks ever feel like we are not living up to that promise please do tell us. We are usually open to comments and critiques – it will depend on the day of the week and what mood folks here are in. But hey at least you got your two-cents in!

The Squeeze

George Orwell once described the independent bookstore business as “a humane trade which is not capable of being vulgarized beyond a certain point. The combines can never squeeze the small independent bookseller out of existence as they have squeezed the grocer and the milkman.” [If you read the rest of what he wrote about working in a bookshop (Bookshop Memories 1936) you’ll find that that was about anything good he had to say about the experience; in fact his disliked the work so much that he said it caused him to “los[e] [his] love of books”.]

He was right in part. If by vulgarized he meant commercialized then yes there is a limit to how much an independent bookstore can be beholden to the corporate behemoths that have come to dominate much of the publishing and book retail industries. Indie bookstores are best when they strike off on their own path and become a part of the community in which they operate rather than becoming another faceless chain retail entity. But as we all know too well indie bookshops have fallen victim to “the squeeze” in other ways; by simply dying off and never coming back. Hong Kong is no exception.

Our hope here at Bleak House Books is to buck that trend and to show folks that an indie bookstore can eke out an existence even as “the squeeze” is still with us; indeed, infinitely more so than that which existed in Orwell’s time.

So here’s to used books, new friends and humble beginnings!

— Albert Wan