Cambridge, Mass., may not seem the natural home for an independent Japanese bookstore. It doesn't have a large Japanese population, and the Kinokuniya Bookstore chain has already made inroads in many U.S. cities. But despite the odds, Sasuga Japanese Bookstore is thriving and is celebrating its 10th anniversary this summer.

That the 1,100-sq.-ft. Sasuga, the only mom-and-pop Japanese bookstore in the U.S., has managed to survive is largely due to the flexibility of owners Minoru and Karen Yahara. "We've evolved a lot," Karen told PW. "That's the joy of being small. We're so close with the customers. We hear what they want." Of course, some things have stayed the same over the past decade, such as displaying books Japanese-style, spine-out on floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves. The anime and manga sections, which account for half the store's sales, take up even more space and the overflow is stocked spine up in cardboard boxes ranged along the floor.

In Japan and, later, in Canada, Minoru worked in the Japanese restaurant business; Karen received a master's degree in Japanese literature from Harvard. Originally the couple thought about opening a Japanese restaurant, but when Minoru came to the U.S. and couldn't find Japanese magazines and Karen had trouble finding a good Japanese dictionary in Boston, the two decided on a bookstore.

"When we opened, we lucked out," said Karen. "We rode the economic wave nicely. For a while, we had a second store in Brookline, Mass." Now times are tougher, but Karen reminds, "Selling Japanese books is a niche, so our core audience isn't going to go down to zero."

The Internet has enabled Sasuga to expand its client base; it now accounts for 40% of the store's sales. The pair set up their Web site ( seven years ago.

Because the store is also close to Harvard and Tufts, the Yaharas initially concentrated on building an academic clientele and taking books to academic conventions. Unfortunately, the conventions were too expensive, and professors seldom stopped by the store. "We still have a good base of academic libraries that order from us," said Karen. But now the store concentrates on anime and manga. Minoru packs their van with 60 boxes of graphic novels and hits the road for comics conventions in Illinois, North Carolina, Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey. Sasuga has also found success with elementary and high school teachers who are seeking materials for Japanese segments of their curricula. The store produces an annual catalogue of appropriate English-language books, ranging from martial arts to origami, poetry and biography.

About 85% of Sasuga's stock comes from Tohan—the Ingram of Japan—and is nonreturnable. "We can get it all in one stop through them," said Karen, who acknowledges that pricing can be tricky. "You have to worry about currency changes." Both discounted and new anime and manga titles are placed in clear plastic bags to prevent customers from reading them in the store. In addition to books, Sasuga stocks videos, DVDs, CDs, traditional games and electronic dictionaries.

Minoru airlifts magazines to the store, so that they go on sale in the store at the same time as they do in Japan. Because of the timely arrival, the store has more than 200 customers who subscribe to Japanese magazines through Sasuga, which are mailed out to them from the bookstore.

Plans are under way to mark Sasuga's first decade. The store is partnering with local businesses for some events, such as a series of anime screenings at a local movie theater this summer.