This week, without any notice, without a liquidation sale or tacky yellow banner announcing a “Going Out of Business Sale,” the Shirakabe bookshop disappeared. I suppose it’s not a particularly earth-shattering event. Bookstores are closing everyday, all over the globe. Last year eight thousand bookstores closed in Japan alone. Eight thousand! But the Shirakabe bookstore hung in there – at least until last week. Now it’s gone.
I may not have paid particular attention to the closing myself, had I not known the owner. He turned 63 this year. He opened the shop when he was 22. For those of you opposed to math, that’s 41 years… or maybe 42 depending when his birthday falls. For 41 (or 42) years, the Shirakabe bookstore occupied that storefront. for 41 (or 42) years the store had the same owner – a simple, gentle man who loved selling books, reading books, and being apart of the community.
The store opened a year after the Fujigaoka subway station opened in 1969 – last station on the busiest line in Nagoya. In those days Fujigaoka was on the edge of civilization, but the train brought the settlers, and it wasn’t long before the remaining rice fields had all metamorphosed into high-rise condos. In those days the store couldn’t serve all the young upwardly mobile clients milling about the busy station, so a second location was thrown together on the West side of the station. Within plain sight of each other, the two locations thrived for more than a decade. My friend, the 22-year-old upstart entrepreneur, was on top of the world, with a wife and son at home and a business that people couldn’t seem to get enough of.
But people did gradually get enough of Shirakabe Books. The store shrunk back down to its single location, and business tapered off. Not enough to throw in the towel, but Shirakabe Books would never be what it was in the ’90’s. Back at home, my friend’s son grew up and his wife left this world, but he kept selling books from his perch in the back of the shop under some stairs that probably led to nowhere important.
As the years passed, his eyes started failing him, but, unlike most of us whose eyes get worse with age, his eyes kept going–kept getting worse until he was legally blind. He can still read very large print with a magnifying glass, but reading the books he’d loved his whole life is no longer possible. Still, even then, he didn’t give up, or sell out. The front door of Shirakabe Books was still unlocked everyday at 10AM.
Last year he told me he was planning to close the store when he turned 65. It was a good time to retire, and business wasn’t what it used to be. I never expected to hear the news he told me this past Halloween night, as the neighborhood kids trotted in costume from business to business in Fujigaoka tricking or treating. He told me he was planning to close up shop in two weeks. I was shocked. I refused to believe him.
After Halloween I checked the store everyday as I got off the train and headed home. No signs, no closeouts, no liquidations. I was certain he’d changed his mind. Until the day I came home to see the windows covered in paper. the next day the paper and the books behind it were all gone. After 41 years that storefront was empty.And so was my heart. And now I wonder what my friend is doing tonight.