A Sense of Home: Books Kinokuniya in Singapore (Part 1)
By Daryl Li
I remember my amazement during my first visit to Books Kinokuniya in Ngee Ann City along Orchard Road when I was in secondary school. My parents would bring me and my sister to bookstores when we were young, but I had never seen a bookstore of such a scale before. It would quickly become my regular haunt, as I frequented it throughout my adolescent years.
Books Kinokuniya was established in Japan in 1927 by Moichi Tanabe. From its humble beginnings in a two-storey wooden building in Shinjuku, it would go on to become a global company with bookstores in the United States, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates. It arrived in Singapore in 1983, setting up its first store in Singapore within Liang Court in December 1983. Initially catering to Japanese expatriates, Kinokuniya broadened its target market and expanded with more stores in Singapore. However, it is perhaps best known for its flagship store in Ngee Ann City along Orchard Road.
Setting up this massive store in 1999 was an audacious move. After all, the world was only just beginning to recover from the Asian Financial Crisis. The location would also put it in direct competition with the Borders megastore at Wheelock Place. In the same year, the book retail industry hit a slump and a public library was opened in the Orchard area. Faced with such immense challenges, the opening of this Singapore Main Store seemed unwise. Yet, years of success followed, proving that it was not at all an imprudent decision.
I have fond memories of walking through the store on weekend afternoons, browsing its extensive selection, looking for buried treasures. I knew the layout like the back of my hand, from each aisle and section down to individual shelves. I have memories of chatting with friends and strangers, excited about books, making and receiving recommendations. I also remember joyfully making my way down to the store every promotional period, armed with my membership card, struggling to hold onto a stack of seven or eight books each time, as if afraid that someone would take them away, and having to choose from the shortlist to fit things into my limited budget. Through Kinokuniya, I discovered numerous authors, amassed a collection of graphic novels, learnt the joy of photography books, and rediscovered Chinese books.
Today, Kinokuniya has bookstores in four different locations in Singapore – at Ngee Ann City, Liang Court, Bugis Junction, and most recently, jem – but the Main Store remains the most iconic. In my case, it holds a very special place in my heart, and represents the Kinokuniya of my mind, a welcoming space, but also a place of memories, where we seek connection among shelves and books, across pages and words.
Abroad, At Home
In early 2016, I found myself in San Francisco and met up with a friend from Singapore who had recently started working in the city. After lunch, we went for walk and ended up in Japantown. There were surprisingly few stores there, and none that attracted our interest except for a branch of Kinokuniya. I went in without a second thought. While it was noticeably different from the stores in Singapore, it nonetheless felt like a reunion with an old friend.
This consistency is in part due to an adherence to principles that have sustained the bookstore chain throughout the years. Every Kinokuniya bookstore overseas is characterised by the same friendly and professional service, an inviting space, and thoughtful design. Additionally, each store continues to cater to Japanese expatriates with a sizeable selection of Japanese publications.
At the same time, Kinokuniya works to promote local culture in all of its overseas bookstores. Its book selection is informed by the tastes of the local readers. Kinokuniya Singapore has long supported local literature, prominently displaying local books, and holding events for local writers. Recently, it even had a special edition membership card and relevant merchandise in support of Sonny Liew’s acclaimed The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.
One of the key factors contributing to Kinokuniya’s success in Singapore is the leadership of its Store and Merchandising Director Kenny Chan, who joined Kinokuniya in 2001 and had previously worked in the Popular Group (Harris Hong Kong and Popular Singapore) and MPH. Alongside Chan is Kinokuniya Singapore’s Managing Director Takuya Yamada, and they are supported by a dedicated team. With their combined efforts, the bookstore chain has managed to tailor the bookstore to the local market while ensuring that it maintains a strong sense of identity in its Singapore stores. Coupled with the excellent customer service, wide range of products for readers of all ages and with all interests, competitive pricing, and selection of hard-to-find books, this has set it apart from the competition.
More generally speaking, by successfully negotiating the balance between steadfastness and adaptability, Kinokuniya has maintained a strong sense of identity while also endearing itself to local readers in different countries across the globe. Effectively balancing its original identity and the needs of the local, it has managed to become an endearing fixture across different countries.
Perhaps it should have been no surprise that when I returned from the States and visited the Main Store at Ngee Ann City again, it felt just like coming home.
*Special thanks to Kinokuniya Singapore and Tan Kay Ngee Architects.
Please look out for A Sense of Home: Books Kinokuniya in Singapore (Part 2)