With 12 stores and counting, Japanese bookseller Kinokuniya is slowly expanding its footprint in the U.S. The most recently opened locations are in Texas. The first site it picked was in Plano, but the company soon realized it was too small so it found a larger location. The 5,000-sq.-ft. outlet in Carrollton opened in February and an 1,800-sq.-ft. shop in nearby Plano opened in April.
Asked why the company opened two stores in such close proximity to each other, Shige Ono, general manager of Kinokuniya USA, said it was a pragmatic decision. “Toyota moved its headquarters from Torrance, Calif., to Plano last year, so we saw an opportunity to cater to the thousands of Japanese engineers, executives, and members of their families who will be moving there.”
Kinokuniya is headquartered in Tokyo and has 100 stores worldwide, including locations across Asia, in the U.S., and in Dubai. Its first American store opened in San Francisco in 1969, and today its American head office is in New York City, at the chain’s branch near Bryant Park, which, at 26,000 sq. ft., is its largest location in the U.S. Other locations in the U.S. include five stores in California and one each in Chicago, New Jersey, Portland, and Seattle, as well as five stationery stores under the brand name Mitsuwa.
“We are expanding slowly and deliberately,” Ono said. “Just one or two stores per year. Last year was phenomenal, as we saw double-digit percentage increases at our stores. This year’s increases are more modest, ranging from about 5%-8%, depending on the store, but we are still very happy with the continuous growth. Adding new stores helped further increase the total sales for the company.”
The product mix at Kinokuniya stores encompasses a wide range of books—of which 30% are in Japanese—and sidelines, including manga, anime-related toys, games, and other media. “Our line of Japanese manga and anime is unsurpassed in North America,” Ono said. “A big part of the appeal for customers is that we have things you cannot buy anywhere else. We have a special relationship with [publisher] Kadokawa, and they work exclusively with us on many items. Manga is definitely the strongest category, but fashion and design is also very popular. Another strong category is literature; what makes us unique is that we specialize in literary works from around the world, especially Japanese and Asian authors.”
Ono stresses that the authentic Japanese products are part of what has helped the company keep a foothold in a very competitive marketplace. Still, the retailer is a bookseller first, with nonbook items representing 20%–40% of stock, depending on location.
The stores, said Ono, serve as “ambassadors” for Japanese culture to American shoppers. The demographic of customers shopping at the stores has changed over time. “My impression is that, 20 years ago, more than half of our customers came from Japanese backgrounds,” Ono said. “Today, that number is probably down to about 20% or less.”
As such, Kinokuniya is becoming more active in its stores’ communities. The two bookstores in Texas recently participated in Texas Independent Bookstore Day, the New York store routinely holds author events and book signings in conjunction with Bryant Park, and several of the California stores hold children story-time readings and offer classes in Japanese subjects, such as origami paper folding.
The stores are in no way standardized. “Our goal is to give each store the appeal of an independent bookstore, rather than the cold feel of a massive corporation,” Ono said. “Our slogan is ‘read books, meet people,’ and tailoring our stores to the surrounding communities is a key part of making that slogan a reality. If you compare our stores in Texas, New York, Tokyo, and Singapore, you will be surprised at how much they differ. But they, as a whole, form the Kinokuniya brand, of which we are very proud. We strive to make Kinokuniya not just a place to buy books, but a place where people come together and enjoy the experience.”