Saturday, October 24, 2015

"The Fork in the Road": an article about Book Ideas in the AFWJ Journal

In October we published the article "The Fork in the Road" in the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese (AFWJ) Journal. We're sharing it here for anyone interested in reading about how Book Ideas started, how it has developed over time, and our thoughts about its future. It might also give our members, users, and friends an answer to the question, "why are we doing this?!

The Fork in the Road
Book Ideas: a community library of foreign books and future book café?

We’ve been on the road for nine whole years: me, the many boxes of books that I’ve moved from location to location on a handcart, and Book Ideas.

I first wrote about Book Ideas for the AFWJ Journal in November 2006, documenting the beginning of our journey; and again later, in the context of “neighborhood involvement”, the topic of the April 2013 journal, under the title, “If it wasn’t for my Neighbors in Fuchu”. All this time, my mobile library has been an opportunity to bring books collected from all over the world to curious readers; to connect neighbors and make friends, to share experiences from home and abroad; and to find my own feet in Tokyo.

Now, all of these books finally have a permanent home. This summer Book Ideas moved into a rented space in Fuchu with a lease for exactly three years.

A Work in Progress

After dreaming about this moment almost since the beginning of Book Ideas, it was an incredible pleasure to unpack my books; to decide on which shelf, on which wall, under which category to group each one, and to bring order to the garden around the house. And it is a great relief not to have to unpack, sort, display, and repack everything at the end of the day, especially after a long week at my school.

Although I am only renting the ground floor of the house, both the one-room apartment and the garden are beautifully large by Tokyo standards. While the inside was good to go after some cleaning, the garden poses an ongoing challenge. Not only because I’m not exactly a gardening expert, but also because I am working largely with found and re-purposed objects: like discarded flower pots, or stones and pebbles that are transformed into walkways. To a visitor, it might look not so much like a work in progress as a full-blown construction site!

Construction will continue when my husband finds time between overseas assignments to build his “vinyl house”, the greenhouse in which he plans to raise cacti from seed. It’s his own parallel dream to my book library/café. In a way, the new Book Ideas is a joint project between us...and a celebration of our thirty years of marriage in August.

Hard Questions

The work I’ve been doing at our new location leaves me exhausted and happy. But I am no longer situated in the public space of the Bunka Center, where we often received “accidental” visitors. We are less visible and will have to work harder to inform people about our location and opening hours. People might no longer feel comfortable to casually wander in, take a look, and leave again after satisfying their curiosity (and maybe seeing what on earth this foreigner is doing here!). And there is less space for tables where kids can play board games or with dolls, where their parents can sit together to chat, less space for larger groups to gather when we host presentations, and for quiet reading corners.

But while I trust that all these issues can be sorted out over time with the help of advertisement and creative use of space, the bigger question has become: what is Book Ideas? Will we remain a city-registered group that offers reading material for free? In time, will I expand into to a coffeehouse business?

The answer to the last two questions is “yes”, and the challenge really lies in combining the two in practice. I’d like to remain being a community service operation where visitors can wander in just to browse without any obligations, but also to eventually sell coffee and baked goods for those with a sweet tooth to enjoy while reading.

The luxury of books

It might be hard to understand that I’m paying rent for the space, but not charging for the service. But the parameters of the project are clear. Our contract is limited to three years and not renewable. After that, we can take stock and decide whether to continue, perhaps in another space. The costs have been calculated and deemed bearable for us, with two wage earners in the family and an adult child whom we no longer have to support financially, and well worth the joy and satisfaction of seeing a dream realized.

I have told the Book Ideas regulars that I compare this undertaking with booking a trip around the world, or buying a fancy car, or with any other luxury that some of us do afford. It just so happens that for me, the urge to travel has pretty much been satisfied and neither diamonds nor a car can compare with the pleasure of leafing through a copy of The Gingerbread Man from the 1950s, when I grew up. Or of trying to imagine the person who owned it before me, or, best of all, to share it with a visitor who can treasure it in their own particular way.

For Visitors: Where, When, Why?

Book Ideas is located at Momijigaoka 1-39-4, just off Hitomi Kaido Road. It’s a five-minute walk from Tama Station on the Seibu-Tamagawa Line. For the time being, we’re open between 10am and 5pm, once a week on weekends, alternating between Saturday and Sundays. Our blog, is updated regularly with news about openings and special events. You’ll also find photos, more information about our history and location, as well as a comprehensive list of our books.

Book Ideas is a space for discovery and special encounters. We have books, old and new, in every imaginable size, on many different topics and in different languages. I’m especially proud of our large selection of children’s books! And I’d like to think that Book Ideas is for everyone, whether you’re a bookworm, a conversationalist, or a parent with kids who’ve exhausted the library at home or school; whether you’re looking for a peaceful garden in which to read and drink coffee or are just someone who is curious about other people, countries, and lifestyles.

by Birgit Zorb-Serizawa; edited by Mine Serizawa, co-founder of Book Ideas

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