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.”

Mass transit plea

Having been rather frustrated by the lack of much serious discussion of guiding any of the so-called stimulus money towards investment in much needed mass transit infrastructure upgrades, I decided to compose a letter to my two Senators and one local Representative asking them to work towards this agenda. I’ve attached my text below, and I implore registered USA voters to send a similar letter to their own congressional delegation, and to pass along a request to potentially interested registered voters you know. So few people actually write politicians on these issues that a surprisingly small number of contacts can, on occasion, spur them to take at least a mild stand on an issue. This is the first time in many years that Congress has even considered taking an interest in mass transit/rail investment and we mustn’t let it pass Continue reading Mass transit plea

Inventing Xmas

Christmas is over but “the holidays” continue.

As you recover from over-eating, you might enjoy reading about how America’s modern Christmas traditions were born. About.com has a concise guide. One interesting tidbit on the first depiction of the modern Santa:

Santa’s suit features the stars and stripes of the American flag, and he’s distributing Christmas packages to the soldiers. One soldier is holding up a new pair of socks, which might be a boring present today, but would have been a highly prized item in the Army of the Potomac.

Beneath Nast’s illustration was the caption, “Santa Claus In Camp.” Appearing not long after the carnage at Antietam and Fredericksburg, the magazine cover is an apparent attempt to boost morale in a dark time.

If you saw the Colbert Christmas Special, you might remember Toby Keith singing “Santa Claus and Uncle Sam are one and the same.” I guess there was more truth to that than is widely recognized!

Chomsky on 911 Conspiracy Theories

I don’t even remember why I stumbled across this on youtube, but it’s quite good.

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His thoughts on this issue are almost 100% the same as mine, which I discussed some time ago as part of an off the cuff essay I wrote on conspiracy theories prompted by, of all things, checking up on the history of GPS.

1905 NYC Subway footage

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This is all kinds of awesome, particularly since it looks basically the same as today. The first 5 minutes is more or less the same, but at 5:00 you can see a station full of people.

Falun Gong theatre in New York

The NYT has a rather funny article about New Yorkers who attended what they thought would be a traditional Chinese New Year theatrical spectacle at the Radio City Music Hall, but ended up seeing a very different kind of show.

Then the lyrics to some of the songs, sung in Chinese but translated into English in the program, began referring to “persecution” and “oppression.” Each time, almost at the moment a vocalist hit these words, a few audience members collected their belongings and trudged up an aisle toward the exit.

Before long came a ballet piece in which three women were imprisoned by a group of officers, and one was killed. At the end of the number, more members of the audience, in twos and fours and larger groups, began to walk out. At intermission, dozens of people, perhaps a few hundred, were leaving.

They had realized that the show was not simply a celebration of the Chinese New Year, but an outreach of Falun Gong, a spiritual practice of calisthenics and meditation that is banned in China. More than three years after flooding city corners and subway stations to spread the word about the Chinese government’s repression, Falun Gong practitioners are again trying to publicize their cause. Only this time, it involves costumed dancers and paying audiences in that most storied of New York concert halls, Radio City.

The article then goes on to mention that Faul Gong is well known for their elaborate street theatre protests around the city, in which they use props and stage makeup to dramatize the torture their compatriots are undergoing in China, as they hand out literature on the subject. Here are some photos I took of one such protest back in May of 2005.







Has anyone ever seen something like this anywhere besides New York? I saw Falun Gong protesters in Hong Kong, by Victoria Bay, and handing out flyers and DVDs outside of Taipei’s National Palace Museum (prime location to find tourists from the mainland) but never anything like this sort of dramatic reenactment.

New and old

For those who are curious, the old voting machines in my area looked very much like this one, color and all


The actual controls were a bit different, and significantly the big lever was vertical along the right side, but you certainly get the idea.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a photo of the new machines I could embed, but you can see a hilariously 1980s educational film style demonstration of them, courtesy of the Essex County Clerk’s office here on their web site.

Obama in Washington Square

I attended the Barack Obama rally in Washington Square Park this Thursday evening entirely by accident. I meet my Mandarin tutor at a NYU building on Washington Square East (since she’s also teaches Chinese classes for NYU,) and so I was walking from the 4th St subway station towards the park when I noticed police had set up a security perimeter and cleared the park, and there were thousands of people thronging on all sides. When I found out that Obama was going to be speaking there later on, I decided to go and listen after my lesson, but not having one of the tickets printed out from the website I went and stood in one of the outer, grassy areas of the park on the NW corner, from which I could just barely see Obama’s spotlit back as he gave his speech.

And it was a good speech. Not, admittedly, very specific or detailed, but I consider that simply part of the format of an event that one would classify as a general rally, and not a speech targeted at a particular group-although he was smart enough to give a number of nods to both the financial plight of college students, as well as his days living in New York, hanging out in that very park, and going to nearby bars in the Village (although he did not mention, in the heart of NYU, that he had been studying at Columbia at the time.) I read enough political news so that I wasn’t particularly interested on what he had to say about issues, since I’ve already heard the positions, but it was impressive and rewarding to see how well the man can work a crowd when he’s doing well. I’m not at all a fan of attending political events like rallies, protests, marches, and so on, but I am glad that I saw this one, and as a bonus I got to watch it with my friend Charles (yes guys, Charles from Rits) and that I met up with my friend Imara and a couple of his friends from political science class afterwards so there was someone to discuss it with.

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Here is some video of the speech, courtesy of Salon.com, and you can get some more in depth coverage from the Ameripolitics nerds who blog at Salon, or from the New York Times article on the event– which naturally makes a big issue out of his criticisms of Hillary Clinton, to whom he referred as “the senator from New York.” And yet, somehow we knew that he wasn’t talking about Chuck Schumer.