History of Book-Off

I happened to run across this neat little history of the Japanese used bookstore chain Book-Off from a 2003 brand profile. Perhaps surprisingly to many readers, I was actually familiar with Book-Off long before I first came to Japan due to their Manhattan outlet at 41st Street, just east of the main NYC Library building and Bryant Park. I cannot actually recall if I had ever visited before I started taking Japanese classes in the summer of 2001, but once I started learning Japanese I started making occasional trips to the NYC Book-Off, located a very short distance from either the Port Authority or Penn Station, which were the terminals by which I would enter the city from either my home town of Montclair or my college town of New Brunswick, respectively, at which I would buy things like childrens books of folktales or very easy manga, with which to work on my reading. Mirroring the Japanese chain’s pricing, it was divided into sections of variable but far less than cover price, and $1 books. Naturally, I have been to plenty of Book-Off’s in Japan over the years. Book-Off in NYC looked even more attractive when compared with the Kinokuniya outlet, which sells imported Japanese books at a significant markup from cover price. Interestingly, the Book-Off manages to acquire their used books from the local Japanese population. For example, a Japanese girl I knew in NYC who devoured stacks of $1 novels, which she would then sell back to Book-Off for a nominal fee (I believe slightly higher in store credit).

The profile paints Book-Off as a major revolution in used book-selling.

Twelve years ago, Sakamoto was abandoning his career as a piano salesman for a new adventure in sales. His idea, as good ideas so often are, was simple: establish a clean, well-lit used bookstore staffed with friendly, well-trained employees and create a pricing system designed to yield a high margin of profit.

In the service-oriented society of today, setting up shop with these ground rules might seem like a given. But in the Japan of 1990, used bookstores were dark, cramped, dusty affairs. Furthermore, an elite group of publishers, wholesalers, and bookstores had for years been cooperating closely with one another to squeeze their competitors out of the business. One of their main assets was a stipulation of the ironically named Antimonopoly Law, which prohibits the sale of books at prices other than what the publisher has fixed. This provision effectively eliminated competition among wholesalers and bookstores and raised the publisher/wholesaler/bookstore relationship to a level of prime importance.

Fortunately for the entrepreneurial Sakamoto, the Antimonopoly Law has nothing to say about used books. In less prosperous times, he reasoned, people would be forced to change their reading habits. They would be less willing to pay the exorbitant cover prices demanded by the big-title publishers. He came up with a simple but ingenious pricing system whereby his shops purchase books at 10 percent of their original cover price. They are then retailed at half the cover price. If, after three months, the books have not sold, they are then discounted to ¥100 (US .85, € .75).

I had of course never been to Japan before the advent of Book-Off so I am not sure quite how exaggerated or accurate the portrayal of all pre-Book-Off used bookstores as “dark, cramped, dusty affairs”, but it is true that a clear majority of old bookstores do match that description, usually tended by one very old man or woman who barely notices the customers’ presence except at checkout time.

The most interesting thing to me about this profile was the tidbit that “Sakamoto’s used books are cleaned and sanded using special techniques that he developed to make them look near mint.”

24 thoughts on “History of Book-Off”

  1. The store still has numerous opponents including publishers who blame it for the industry’s woes, authors who say they are seeing lower royalties, small bookshops who are going out of business and any number of people who blame the company’s business model for a rise in youth shoplifting. A friend of mine who works with one of the major publishing houses refuses to call it a second-hand bookshop and refers to it instead as an illegal discount retailer.

    Chairman of the board Mayumi Hashimoto has an interesting background. She made it to the top after starting with the company as a 600 yen an hour part-timer in their first store.

  2. And Hashimoto is the sister of the talento Shimizu Kuniaki who also does the TV commercial for Book-off.You can listen to that non-stop in any Book-Off establishment.

    There are lots of “Spin-off” from Book-Off.I once interviewed e-BookOff CEO when he first started his business in Nagoya about a decade ago.Now they are starting On-demand rental comic book service.A night mare scenario to the publishers.

  3. I had no idea Book-Off existed outside of Japan.

    For anyone from Minneapolis: Magers & Quinn in Uptown has a small collection of Japanese books, probably acquired from Japanese residents. I actually bought a bunkobon there once that I later found out had belonged to an exchange student I knew from high school.

  4. I didn’t notice “Book-Off” until months after I had seen “Hard-Off”, which was located almost across the street from “Right-On”. I did my best not to mix those two stores up.

    I like Book-Off, but not so much for the books and more for the CDs. For the life of me, I can’t figure out how they price some of the stuff… Taylor Dayne costing more than Led Zeppelin IV? De gustibus non est disputandum…

  5. Recently I’ve been buying lots of books from E-Book Off which sells through Amazon Japan. So far I haven’t paid more than 50 yen for a book. Unfortunately you have to pay around 300 yen in shipping for each book no matter how many you order at one time. Still beats the price of new books.

    I’ve often wondered how Book Off stays in business. Every time I’ve been in an actual store the number of people selling outnumber the people shopping by about 5 to 1.

  6. “I’ve often wondered how Book Off stays in business.”

    I gather that they pay bugger-all for buying books. A book they sell for 100 yen might have been bought for 5. If that.

  7. If you want to sell a book that you know is popular (or better yet a full set of manga or books) it is apparently a better deal to sell through Yahoo Auctions. My father in law discovered this and now does all his reading through Yahoo Auctions. He reads the series and then resells for at least as much as he bought it for, sometimes making a profit.

    For unpopular books that you need to offload, taking them to Bookoff is almost like charity since they wont pay much at all. I once sold a full set of GTO and received all of 300 yen (at almost 30 volumes the series would sell for a minimum 3000 yen). For my money, I will probably donate my excess books to the local library, which remains far underused, a fact that makes me both sad and grateful.

  8. Good thing about Bookoff is they take all the books even if they don’t want buy them and throw it out later.Many second hand bookshops simply refuse to take the books they don’t need and you end up carrying them back home.

  9. Aceface makes a good point. Book Off has changed people’s behaviour. Where someone might have thrown away books and comics before, they can now dispose of them at Book Off without the need to tie them all up and remember the right day to put them out for the rubbish collectors. Book Off won’t turn anything away and you will also get a small sum for the trouble. They will even pick them up from your home – around 10% of books are collected that way. As Adamu says, anyone who is really serious about selling books second-hand will do so elsewhere.

    Once people realized how simple it was to take goods along to Book Off, they began to do so more frequently instead of letting volumes clutter up their space. No matter how much of a hoarder you might be, once you get into the habit of deciding you don’t need to keep something forever, it becomes easier and easier to let it go. What this meant is that Book Off began to take in increasing numbers of more recent titles in better condition.

    That’s important because it has undermined local small bookstores even more. These stores need to have popular titles in stock to bring in regular traffic. One of the problems is that they can’t always get a good supply because publishers will fill the orders of the bigger stores first. If people can’t find a copy of a hot item in their local store when they want it then they end up not bothering to go. Worse, because people sell to Book Off faster, you can often find the title there when you can’t even get it new at the local store. That means that people who never thought about buying second hand books, and still probably wouldn’t go to Kanda-Jimbocho, are now prepared to buy at Book Off.

    Unlike traditional second-hand shops, Book Off also refurbishes books before it puts them back on sale. Although everyone knows that Book Off is a second-hand store, you can find volumes there in the same condition as those in a new book store. This is something publishing companies object to vigorously. They maintain that Book Off is effectively selling new items and so should pay royalties and even be regulated in the same manner as new book stores. Book Off acknowledges these claims in part and last year offered a 100 million yen to a group representing copyright holders.

    Book Off also deals with CDs, DVDs and games where the quality issues are less significant and there are more places for people to sell but the company has so many outlets that they still get a significant share of that pie too.

  10. Of course, the reason those old men and women running secondhand bookstores don’t like to talk to customers is because they’re afraid that those customers will try to sell them some books, and in the process prove to be one of the 95% of the population who wildly overestimates the value of their library shavings to a retailer (as opposed to another reader who shares the same interests). 10 yen per volume for an ancient commodity manga like GTO is actually pretty generous… of course, Book Off don’t go lower than 10 yen per book IIRC. They practically are a charity when it comes to stuff like that. (Burn! Sorry, Adamu.)

    On the other hand, Book Off also don’t pay much for books that actually have value, but complaining about this is like complaining that about the quality of the food at McDonalds. It’s true, but that’s the whole business model: fast and easy transactions in a convenient location, in exchange for the customer agreeing to get screwed on the deal to a certain extent, all facilitated by underpaid, generally disinterested staff who just follow the algorithms they were taught in training. (Sometimes the lack of staff knowledge results in the screwing going the other way, though. I know a guy who found a first edition Norwegian Wood in a Book Off a few years ago in the 105-yen section.)

  11. Just checking Yahoo! Auctions and the two volumes of the first edition of “Norwegian Wood” (with book belt) are 1000 yen.Whether you take this as a bargain or Murakami being undermined is your choice.

  12. Yeah, this was at least ten, fifteen years ago, so I’d call this an example of the phenomenon Mulboyne describes. No doubt the country was awash with first editions of NnM back then, but they were staying on shelves in people’s homes, or being sold one by one to booksellers who doled them out carefully for maximum profit. No doubt the ebbing of Murakami fever had some effect too… all the seriously dedicated fans have been following him for so long that if they wanted a first edition, they’d have one by now.

  13. I imagine that as first editions go, that’s not a very rare one though. I mean, yes it was the book that made him a huge star but he already had like a half dozen novels by then, so even the first edition would have been printed in fairly decent numbers. I’m sure a first edition of 風の歌を聴け is worth a lot more. Incidentally, I find it truly baffling how that and the sequel haven’t been published in English outside of Japan, even though the latter two books in the tetralogy were.

  14. I’ve read an essay by second-hand book pundit and essayist,Tsubouchi Yuzo on the price of the first edition and he was witnessing this newspaper reporter coming to Jinbocho right after Oe Kenzaburo get the Novel Prize in ’94 and asking the show owner of 田村書店 how much it would cost to buy the first edition of Oe and whether they get any higher after the Novel.(the owner is a legendary short tempered man.However they have awesome 均一棚 in front where I always stop by when I’m in Jinbo.)
    According to this essay it seems to be that the first edition price since 第三の新人(Endo,Yasuoka,Yoshiyuki )are never gets expensive and this trend is also including that of Oe’s work.
    It’s a whole different story if you have the first edition of Nagai Kafu though…..

  15. “The most interesting thing to me about this profile was the tidbit that ‘Sakamoto’s used books are cleaned and sanded using special techniques that he developed to make them look near mint.'”

    That’s precisely the thing I remembered from seeing the article when it first appeared – that Sakamoto had fashioned some kind of trimming machine that shaved off all the dog-eared nastiness that lurked on the edges of the pages.

    -there must be bags of Book-Off Funk ™ at the end of a shaving session

  16. “dog-eared nastiness”

    catone,You just write one post that doesn’t have man’s best friend notion in it and you are member of the club.

  17. “exorbitant cover prices demanded by the big-title publishers”

    Wow. Would people really consider 480 yen for a popular softcover exorbitant?

    Big Bookoff news brewing –


    And here I was thinking that Bookoff stocks were up because I bought 300 titles there in the last week….

    On the issue of GTO – Bookoff also keeps track of how much these things sell for elsewhere. There is a local used bookstore chain around here that has GTO sets for 1600 yen. Twice a year, they do a ‘half off set comics’ thing which means that you could get all of GTO for 800 yen if the timing was right (I pick up some sets that I might read and toss this way). In this context, 300 yen is fairly generous. The market is really flooded with GTO. With something newer (say, Crows 愛蔵版) you can get 300 yen a volume (but this is probably the kind of thing that you could sell for 25% less than cover price online).

    I’m not sure if it is mentioned above, but Bookoff will also come to your house if you are selling more than 50 volumes. They go all out to pay little.

  18. @Aceface

    “catone,You just write one post that doesn’t have man’s best friend notion in it and you are member of the club.”

    I’ll try, but it’s hard for an old dog like me to learn new tricks! You guys might just have to throw me a bone and let me join the pack anyway.

  19. Write like “How I got a copy of Dogs & Demons from 100 yen section of nearby Bookoff and sold it off the next day” or something.

  20. If you mean 初版, that by itself does not make a first edition that expensive. It’s the 初刷, or first print run, that’s valuable. In recent years, Japanese publishers have tended not to indicate the number of prints. Note that this shouldn’t raise the value of a first edition by much, since the number of copies bearing the singular “first” distinction is multiplied by the number of print runs.

    I’m writing from memory, so I stand ready to be corrected.

  21. M-Bone, can you tell me of that store you mention? Also, where it is located?
    Also, what are the prices for the kanzen editions in book-offs?

    Thanks in advance.

  22. It is called PuccaPucca. I think that it is only in Western Japan. They probably won’t have another half off sets sale until September or October.

    In any case, the first thing to keep in mind when going to a Bookoff is that while there are some patterns, there is a great deal of randomness as well. I found a copy of a manga that I was looking for for 100 yen and a copy of the same volume in WORSE condition for 350 yen in the same store. Always check both sections and if you are going to buy in bulk, it never hurts to go around to a few stores as what is 500 yen in one shop could very well be 100 in another. I think of Bookoff hunting as a sort of game where the goal is to never pay more than 100 yen…. (I mentioned this here before but I also deliberately rebuy some things that I like to “support” in order to help the publishing industry). Another general rule of thumb is – never buy sets at bookoff. It can actually be cheaper to clean out the 100 yen volumes of a series that you want, and then buy the ones that they didn’t have new.

    That being said, it is rare to find a kanzen edition for 100 yen. Most of them are 50-70% of the new price regardless of condition. Something like the Hokuto no Ken kanzen ban could run you around 650. However, depending on the title(s) that you are looking for, some may be more likely to show up in bunko or if you are not that picky, the crap editions that are sold for “one coin” (500 yen) in konbini can usually be had for 100 yen (50 yen in some shops) which may not be good for the collection but are fine for reading. If you let me know what you are looking for (within reason) I’ll be happy to give you some advice on how to get it as cheaply and quickly as possible.

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