My Friendship With a Quiet Japanese Bookstore Owner
The first thing I noticed about Colombo Cornershop was its owner doling out takeaway coffees from the side window. His bowl haircut and baggy red jumper were visible behind the glass, his hands at work on the steaming DeLonghi machine. He moved slowly, economically, with the focus of a sniper. He smiled at customers like they were old friends.
But coffee was not his prime focus. When I walked inside I saw books like stars in the countryside sky. The owner, whose name was Takeshi, was ready to talk at length about any of them.
All through the highs and lows of living in Japan, the confusion and the loneliness, the monotony and the ecstasy, Colombo Cornershop was a constant in my life. I spent hours flicking through their range, looking at little Japanese novels that I didn’t understand (printed vertically), glossy hardbacks about design and the cosmos, and weathered paperbacks with passages, deemed by the last owner somehow significant, underlined in pencil.
Outside, ’80s Italian and French lifestyle magazines were small windows into another time and place. A book containing black-and-white photos of 1930s Melbourne once caught me off-guard, as did a high-quality, in-depth booklet about the making of the film Dumb & Dumber, complete with Japanese captions and stone-faced photos of its cast during production.
I regularly brought in books to donate, using them as springboards for discussion. The conversation would stutter along, oscillating between English and Japanese as we both took turns practicing our second language. Takeshi was 50-something, tall by Japanese standards, and he loved cats. He opened the shop at 1pm because he liked the morning. He often rubbed his eyes, looking out the window at the quiet temple opposite his shop. He spoke incredibly softly as if the sound of his voice might physically hurt me.
We were somehow friends, held together by something I couldn’t quite explain. Maybe it was as simple as a love for books, an appreciation of the singular power of good writing, or the feeling of old paper in your hands. Maybe we both valued the idea of moving slowly in a fast world, both trusted everyday life to offer up moments of incredible beauty and humour and meaning if you let it. Maybe he had no choice but to talk to me. It was hard to say.
Today is my last day in the country after two years. Like most days, I’m the only customer inside. Takeshi is hunched over, scribbling something down. He looks up at me and there’s that vacant stare for a half-second before he recognises me. I put down the books I want to donate.
The first book is called Goodbye Things by Fumio Sasaki, a Japanese author. Sasaki writes about how after he threw away all his unnecessary possessions, he could attain happiness. “I know this,” Takeshi says. “I’m definitely a maximalist.” He points to a photo of what the author’s old bedroom looked like. Does he ever want to change? No, definitely not.
The next book is Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. I tell him Carver is my favourite author. He nods dutifully, saying he has read his work, but in Japanese. “Very short, very good,” I say, and he nods again.
The third book is The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Matsuo Bashō, Japan’s most famous poet. It contains haiku about his travels through Japan from over 300 years ago.
“You know Basho? Where he died?” he says to me as he flicks through the pages.
I shake my head.
“Really?” I knew that Bashō was from nowhere near Osaka.
“Yeah. In this neighbourhood. His grave is just over there.” He motions casually in a general direction outside.
One of literature’s most important figures – the master of the haiku – was buried just around the corner, a spot I probably walked by many times mindlessly eating onigiri.
Takeshi tells me how Bashō became sick while travelling through Osaka and was staying at a friend’s house near Midosuji Street. After a little while, he couldn’t walk at all. This was a man who some thought was a ninja, impossibly energetic, rich blood in his veins, a sinewy body and a keen mind taking him to wherever he wanted to go. He travelled almost the whole country, and he landed here.
Before Bashō died, Takeshi tells me, he wrote one last haiku about a dream he had. Takeshi says it in Japanese, then pauses while thinking of the English translation.
“The last dream he had, he was running around in a field somewhere in Japan, but he didn’t know where. He found peace in that, and then he wasn’t afraid to die, because he thought if he could keep running in his dreams, maybe he could keep running forever.”
Neither of us say anything for a moment. The sun is setting, the streets outside filled with tangerine evening light. I can hear the faint sounds of traffic and car horns in the distance. Some school kids ride past on bicycles laughing, their shirts white and crisp. I want to ask him if he’s scared of dying, or if he thinks he himself could keep running forever, or keep reading forever, if only in his own head. But I can’t think of how to say it in Japanese, or even word the question in English. I tell him I’m leaving Japan, that I just wanted to thank him.
“Come back sometime,” he says. “Oh, and please take this.” He hands me a small shiny booklet with Polaroid photos of his cat, Suzu.
I go to see the grave of Bashō, a one-minute walk away on a grass traffic island on the main road. It is small and humble, and there are no crowds.
Photo by the author