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 “
Sakamoto’s used books are cleaned and sanded using special techniques that he developed to make them look near mint.”