When Kinokuniya opened its first U.S. store in San Francisco in 1969, the company intended to provide Japanese people living abroad with books and magazines and to introduce Japanese tradition, culture, and literature to the American market. What no one could have predicted at the time was that Japanese manga, graphic novels, and comic books would eventually take on the rock star popularity that the genre enjoys today and which thrives at Kinokuniya. Founded by Moichi Tanabe in Tokyo in 1927, Kinokuniya has 65 stores in Japan and eight locations in the U.S., including Seattle; Portland, Ore.; New York; Orange County, Calif.; and Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles store, which opened in 1977, is the premier retailer of Japanese manga, literature, magazines, and design, architecture, and art books in Southern California. "This place has become a mecca for young, mixed-race Japanophiles and second- or third-generation Japanese-Americans, and the manga category—along with the magazines—is really our bread and butter," says Sherry Kanzer, who has worked at the Los Angeles store for 28 years and is now its book buyer. The anime books—5,000 titles in English; 15,000 titles in Japanese—sell in both editions regardless of the language of the customer. "Americans will buy the Japanese version of manga because they consider it the pure experience," she says.
It wasn't always so at Kinokuniya. Until manga rose to the fore, people shopped at the store primarily for Japanese literature in translation, Japanese language books and bilingual dictionaries, and children's books, all of which continue to sell consistently but have been dwarfed by the sheer volume and amount of space now devoted to manga. Also, the 6,300-square-foot Los Angeles store, one of the smaller in the chain, has long had a reputation for its pen and stationery department, which accounts for 12% of its sales. People come from all areas of Los Angeles to browse through the vast selection of Japanese writing implements and wide range of unusual blank journals, notebooks, and other related items. NBC Stationery rents space from Kinokuniya and handles all ordering and sales of these products, which include racks of school supplies for children. Brightly colored erasers in the shape of animals and cartoon characters, sticker art, pencils, and a variety of whimsical organizers and boxes in which to carry them give Kinokuniya's displays the look of a radiant box of vintage toys.
Among Kanzer's most important book vendors are Viz, Tokyo Pop, Del Rey, Tuttle, Kodansha America, University of Hawaii Press, and Diamond Book Distributors, from whom she purchases Dark Horse and Marvel comics. Buying for the American locations is done at the individual store level. The staff at the Los Angeles store includes three employees in the English department, eight in the Japanese department, and two managers; most of the staff are bilingual. At least 50% of the book inventory consists of Japanese imports. "The sales on our books in Japanese are twice that of those in English," Kanzer says. According to store manager Masahiro Kumashima, in 2009 sales of English-language books were $500,000, of Japanese $900,000, and magazines accounted for another $420,000. Because of the nearby Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, the demand for American and Japanese fashion magazines is significant despite their high-ticket prices.
The clientele at the Los Angeles Kinokuniya has changed dramatically over the past few years. "It's been interesting to witness and participate in the evolution of Little Tokyo," says Kanzer. "There was a time when most of our customers were aged and aging members of the Japanese-American community—and they still shop here—but now the area is much more diverse." Downtown L.A. now includes an upscale loft district and has become home to a booming creative community that includes young writers, artists, and musicians. They go to Kinokuniya for the trendy book and magazine selection, the manga T-shirts, imported origami paper and gift wrap, and on every weekend to watch the "Cosplay Groups"—people in their teens and early 20s who dress up as their favorite manga characters.