Book-Off: More Than Just A Japanese Booklover’s Paradise

The Japanese Used Bookstore For All Your Lifestyle Needs

By Elizabeth Sok
July 17, 2020
Families, Lifestyle

Whether you are a reading, music, gaming, electronics, or even fashion buff, look no further than your local Book-Off to satisfy your passions. Read on to find out how to best make use of this beloved discount chain.

At the end of one particularly hot summer, my boyfriend and a friend helped me pack as many books, magazines, CDs, and DVDs as possible into a cardboard box. It was one of my last days in Japan before returning to Canada to start my PhD. 

That box, totaling just under the 50-pound limit for freight shipping, as well as the carry-on suitcase threatening to break open as I dragged it through Narita Airport, were filled all courtesy of the same store: Book-Off

A New Discovery

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Before coming to Japan for the first time, I never would have guessed that yearly pilgrimages to a second-hand store would become such a central part of my Japan experience. Yet, as a graduate student hungry for language practice and SMAP photo books on a limited budget, there was no way I could stay in Japan as long as I liked every year while buying all my research goods and fan materials brand new. 

As such, egged on by my PhD supervisor, the ultimate Book-Off detective, each subsequent trip to Japan brought me to more and more of the second-hand books, clothes, and furniture chains’ locations until I planned an entire month of my summer in 2016 with the goal of visiting as many of the Tokyo locations as I could. Read on to find out why this discount used book and goods chain stole my heart and why it should be a must-visit for every international woman visiting and living in Japan.

Welcome to Book-Off

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Book-Off, founded in 1991, has managed to build up an incredibly successful brand throughout Japan’s long recession. With incomes dropping, precarious work on the rise, and fewer full-time jobs for new graduates, Japan’s economy has been rife for second-hand and discount chains to prosper in the post-financial bubble period. And prosper Book-Off did, expanding to 807 locations in Japan with 13 overseas stores by 2018. 

While at its core Book-Off is, as its name asserts, a used bookstore, your lack of Japanese shouldn’t deter you from checking it out…

Although its floors are dominated by Japanese paper media of all types, different Book-Offs also have a varying selection of many other goods, ranging from English used books, gently used electronics to toys. Book-Off’s Super Bazaar stores, for instance, have a wide range of used clothing, accessories, furniture and bags, and even some designer brands. The electronics sold in many locations are also priced very competitively; I can vouch for their cellular phones which my husband purchased when his unexpectedly met its maker when we arrived to live in Japan. 

Many Book-Offs also contain a large toy and hobby section, a playground for both collectors and children. My daughter’s vintage car toys, a ¥200 attempt at pacifying her as I looked at books while she was still being carted in a baby-carrier, are still on her list of much-loved items.

Books, Books, Books

Of course, the books and paper media are where Book-Off shines the brightest, and where most of my money is usually spent. And there is much to explore for everyone, from Japanese reading buffs to the forever traveler fascinated with exploring new parts of the country. Most large Book-Offs also have a small selection of English books to peruse as well as Japanese language learning books—such an asset given the steep prices these are sold for at mainstream bookstores, like Kinokuniya and Maruzen. 

Another key finds are the used guidebooks, usually only behind by a few months to a few years, which you can snag for a fraction of the price of getting one new. If you are always on the lookout for new places to visit, these cheap location guides can come in handy! 

Most large Book-Offs also have a small selection of English books to peruse as well as Japanese language learning books- such an asset given the steep prices these are sold for at mainstream bookstores…

Initially, as a researcher, I was astonished and overjoyed to find that every Book-Off has a large selection of 新書 (shinsho, “mass-market nonfiction paperbacks”), which allowed me to keep up to date with general media and policy discussions in my field for a mere ¥100-¥500 each. They also have wonderful lifestyle materials—parenting books and manga, cookbooks, interior, beauty, and fashion magazines from the previous year—which are often grouped together in an area alongside gardening, pets, and household health. Naturally, much of the floor space is also taken up by fiction, both prose and manga, and organized first by publishing house and then by author. 

Fan Goods for ¥100      

As a fan of Japanese popular culture, as well as my academic interests, Book-Off’s wide selection of music, DVDs, and fan culture material—usually books and magazines, but also occasionally うちわ (uchiwa, “handheld fan”) and other memorabilia—gave rise to a personal challenge: buying every SMAP single, album, and DVD produced as well as any paper media, such as photo books of members and Bistro SMAP cookbooks that I could find. 

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The summer of my overflowing suitcase and box, I also lugged a backpack full of magazines with Kimura Takuya on the cover back to Canada—only to carefully repatriate these goods when I finally moved to Japan myself. 

For music aficionados of all types as well, Book-Off has you covered; from English and Japanese popular music to classical, jazz, and video game CDs, everything can be bought for under ¥3000. And don’t forget to check the ¥100 CD rows: you never know what you might find! 

Why Book-Off Is the place to shop

So, my obvious affection for it aside, why should you take time out of your day to explore the closest Book-Off? 

1. You can both buy and sell goods 

  • Whether you’re in the market for used books, media, clothes, accessories, or appliances, Book-Off can provide you with the products you are looking for. It’s also great when moving home—you can both unload unnecessary things (at a nominal price), but also buy for your new place.

2. There is probably one just down the street from you

  • With 98 stores just in the 23 wards of Tokyo, you won’t have to travel far to get your book fix.

3. Its organization is standardized

  • Since the organization of all Book-Offs is standardized, you can find what you need very quickly. Used Books, for example, are organized by genre, then by publication house, then by author, although they are also price differentiated, such as a special section for ¥100 books.  

4. It’s sustainable

  • Looking to make your Japan experience greener? Because Book-Off’s goods are all second-hand, you are not contributing to further waste production and you can avoid (most of) the plastic wrap surrounding most new books. 

 5. It’s tax-free      

  • If you are an overseas visitor in Japan for less than 6 months, spend over ¥5000 in-store, and can show your passport at the cash when you pay, you can walk away with your loot tax-free!

My First Stop Post-Lockdown

Nowadays, as the lockdown slowly lifts in Fukuoka City, where I am living, the first day I brought my daughter to a public place, I knew exactly where we would go. Bored silly of the picture books we read and re-read during our time stuck inside, we masked up, packed our hand sanitizer, and walked to the nearest Book-Off. 

Immediately, upon seeing the telltale sign, I felt a rush of a very familiar bookish adventure to come. Happily, with minimal searching, we found two books in her favorite series, Nontan the cat, which she held onto like precious jewels in her stroller on the way home. 

That’s my love story with Book-Off! What about you, do you have any Book-Off treasures to share? 

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