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Osaka bookstore plots revival in retailers' fortunes with unique cover designs

The unique book cover designs by Yasuhiro Konishi for his family's Seiwado Book Store are seen in this image taken in Tsurumi Ward, Osaka, on May 15, 2021. Some of the designs include special bookmarks, such as the spoon for the honey-themed cover. (Mainichi/Mai Suganuma) =Click/tap photo for more images.

OSAKA -- Cream sodas, popsicles, musical organs, Mount Fuji -- all these designs and more have graced the popular original book covers given free to customers buying books at Seiwado Book Store in Tsurumi Ward, Osaka, west Japan.

    Running a bookstore in Japan is a tricky business amid a publishing industry downturn and the emergence of online book buying, but Seiwado's approach of turning the covers themselves into marketable items has become a catalyst for its attempt to join hands with other shops like it across the country and support bookstores.

    The store was established in 1970 and has a stock of around 100,000 books; but the person behind the book covers is Yasuhiro Konishi, 34, the founder's grandson. Though employed at a printing firm, he began helping out with the family businesses on weekends beginning in 2017.

    Yasuhiro Konishi is seen holding two of his original cover designs at Seiwado Book Store in Tsurumi Ward, Osaka, on May 15, 2021. (Mainichi/Mai Suganuma) =Click/tap photo for more images.

    "Every day about 200 books are published. I wanted to reduce the number that get crowded out without anyone knowing they exist," Konishi said. To realize his goal, he began featuring certain books on social media including Twitter and Instagram.

    But while the shop's social media followers grew steadily, it didn't lead to more customers in store. It was then he decided to put the printmaking and design skills he learned at university to use making original book covers that he thought they might be able to hand out at the store and encourage more customers to come.

    His designs took inspiration from local sights in town and interiors, and in summer 2017 he completed the popsicle-themed book cover. Once it was shown in-store and on social media, customer numbers visibly rose. People told him it had made them enjoy reading, and public awareness of the store shot up, with customers coming from afar as Japan's northernmost prefecture Hokkaido, and even Bali, Indonesia. Until then most of their customers had been men, but apparently more women started visiting, too.

    Because cover stocks soon run out, the business now bulk orders 2,000 of each design. Currently it has 10 types of book covers available, with new ones added each season. Popular options seem to include the popsicles, whose bookmarks look like a popsicle stick, and the soda float design with a bookmark in the shape of the ice cream on top. The shop allows customers to choose one cover with each paperback they buy.

    But their circumstances changed with the coming of the coronavirus. People were urged to stay at home, and although they saw a slight rise in sales from people who couldn't go to their regular destinations during the state of emergency declaration period, overall economic conditions for bookstores across the country were difficult.

    To fulfill two aims -- to get covers to people who want them, and to support other book stores -- Konishi came up with the idea of working together with others in the industry by providing the original covers to other interested shops across the country.

    Six cover designs, including the highly popular popsicle one, were laid out. They also include a logo that uses a quote from a letter written by Isaac Newton: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." To pay for it, a crowdfund with a 1-million-yen (about $9,100) target was established; it ended up making about 1.5 million yen (some $13,700) by the deadline.

    So far, the book covers are set for distribution to some 70 bookstores in the Kansai, Tohoku and Kyushu regions, with delivery to start Aug. 1. Arrangements with roughly another 100 stores are apparently ongoing.

    The publishing industry downturn is leading to a one-way fall in bookstore numbers nationally. According to the Bunka News Co., there were 11,024 bookstores in Japan as of May 1, 2020; about half of the 21,654 recorded 20 years ago. Sales are slumping. Diversification in entertainment and the popularization of e-book formats readable on smartphones also appear to have had a significant impact.

    Under these circumstances, what can bookstores do to revive their fortunes? Konishi said, "First we need to have people reading books. Then raise the profile of bookstores. Marketing that will encourage customers to come is essential for that."

    In the introduction to the crowdfunding campaign, Konishi wrote: "I feel like Newton's words are saying, 'Reading books and thinking about them is experiencing a distillation of the great knowledge and experiences of authors -- giants -- and that we can discover new things by doing so.' I think bookstores are the places where we stand on the shoulders of giants."

    Now, Konishi says he wants to spread the custom of attaching covers to books even overseas, where it is not typically done, and further communicate the joys of bookstores and reading.

    (Japanese original by Mai Suganuma, Osaka Regional News Department)

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