On a Friday night at Asakusa Smile hostel in Tokyo Nick joined the smoking area, a ridiculous square metre outlined on the floor with white tape next to the entrance. Somebody asked him where was he from and he said, “I’m English, from Yorkshire” and he became the centre of attention. When my cousin joined in he yelled: “Hey! I was trying to be the chatter here, but no, now an Italian comes in, I have no chances against an Italian, so f**k off!”
He said that with a heavy dose of self-humour and my cousin’s reaction was so relaxed that the two immediately bonded. I stepped away from the smoking group for a little while and although I wasn’t in the mood for partying I joined the random bunch of people in search of a non-existing local night-scene in Sumida, an Eastern part of Tokyo on the outer side of the river. An affordable area that still resembles an older version of Tokyo without all the glitter, not far from Sensej-temple, where tourists abound.
Asakusa Smile is a hostel with a convivial atmosphere. Nick came there with the aim of inviting new people to his bookshop down the road. The next day he would have a Japanese cover band called The Nicks and he would serve Bass Ale and Japanese beer. It was a bookshop with a bar and a soul, we later found out. We had to go, no argument about that.
Later that night, in an empty bar in an unidentifiable street of Tokyo I gravitated towards a conversation, this time he was aiming at me, shooting his words. He was damn rude and honest about things he said. At some point he looked at me straight in the eye and said.
“How old are you?”
“It’s about time to start thinking about what you really want to do in life”
I attempted a reply. “I want to use my skills to do something similar to what I do now.”
“Yes, ok, but, what are you going to do after this job?”
“I don’t know Nick.”
“Listen, you are the only normal person here, think about it then”
You are the only normal person here stuck in my mind. I looked annoyed, going back and forth the empty dance floor and the bar, why was I there? It was crap. I felt out of place. He still had some words loaded in his throat for me. Stop blaming other people if you can’t find a woman. If you want one, go get her. That’s all you need to do, not linger around. Nobody is going to do it for you. But you need to want that. I didn’t care actually. So at some point, in the early hour we left the place. I was probably sober than anyone else so I had to really push it to go my way when the Australian twenty-something was pointing to the opposite direction. Although Nick lives there he had no clue but trusted me that I knew better. The Australian was annoyed but finally I convinced everyone to follow me.
I couldn’t believe I had to lead the way in a place I barely knew.
Later on, on the bridge to Sumida, my cousin fell and for some reason he held me responsible. “You made me trip over”. Nick became the English diplomat and intervened by giving him the speech. “Hey Listen, nobody did anything, you are responsible, you are drunk and you just tripped over, get yourself together and stop blaming other people.”
Nonetheless my cousin seemed convinced I was to blame, that got on my nerves, but I refrained from answering and let his anger out, and slowly it disappeared. But boy, what a night.
The next day we went to Infinity bookstore. I got to speak to the Nicks as we were the first punters. Then this group of Japanese came and as the night progressed and alcohol was poured, this Japanese girl was all over me. She was lifting my t-shirt to check my hairy chest and did all this in front of her husband, the other member of The Nicks, with whom I had a nice conversation earlier.
I escaped by going back to talk to Nick. “Elena Ferrante is damn good. I’ve read everything she wrote. She is so honest and straight, and tells it how it really is. She’s the best thing I have read in the last 10 years.”
He kept on going.
“Books are my passion. I don’t care if I don’t make any money, I am going to be the last bookshop of Tokyo, I am telling you. Nobody wants books, they are disappearing. Everybody is on their damn phones, playing games, or they have kindles. I have a kindle too, it’s great. I can take it everywhere. I am going to be the last bookshop of Tokyo. I am telling you.”
I said: “Well, that’s a bit of a negative prediction”.
“I’m a pessimist, to be positive.”
In the land of technology Nick believes that books are destined to disappear. Asakusa is a backpackers area, travellers come with their own kindles, so quite a terrible location for selling second hand English books. All his friends are somewhere else in the city, yet he likes this part of town known as Sumida because the rent for the bookshop is quite cheap. On top of that, there is always a bag of locals mingling with internationals at Asakusa Smile Hostel in Sumida. Nick’s plans to get a bunch of them to spend a Saturday night at a bookshop definitely worked and I had one of the best nights of my journey in Japan.
I hope his prophecy will stay real so that more people can enjoy the last bookshop of Tokyo. According to an article published in Japan Times, the store currently has a stock of some 15.000 titles, all stored in beautiful wooden shelves made by one of his friends. If you are in the area, make sure you check it out and buy some books, or have a pint. He might be wrong and you won’t find this special place anymore.