Days at the Morisaki Bookshop is a sweet, gentle tale about the power of books to bring solace to troubled souls and offer them hope for the future.
The title takes us inside a bookshop housed in an old wooden building on a quiet corner of a Tokyo district that has come to be known as “Book Town.” This paradise for book lovers does actually exist — this article on the Savy Tokyo website tells me there are more than 100 bookshops in Jimbocho, many of them selling second hand and antique books.
The Morisaki bookshop becomes a temporary home and a refuge for 25-year-old Takoko when she’s unceremoniously dumped by her boyfriend. Her uncle Satoru who owns the store, offers her a room rent free in exchange for some help running the business.
She doesn’t relish the prospect because her uncle is “a weirdo … “the exact opposite of anyone’s idea of a dignified man.” but the alternative is even less palatable — return to her hometown to live with her parents and very likely get pushed into an arranged marriage. So she moves into a miniscule room above the shop, so full of books that “If I got even the slightest bit careless, my Towers of Babel would collapse.”
Days at the Morisaki Bookshop has a simple structure. In the first part we follow Takako’s experience of living and working at the bookstore and see how she develops a deep and abiding love of literature. The second part gives us the beginnings of a romance and the start of a new life for a woman who has grown in self respect and confidence.
That’s where my real life began. And I know, without a doubt, that if not for those days, the rest of my life would have been bland, monotonous, and lonely.
None of this would have been possible but for the supportive presence of Uncle Saturo. He not only gives practical support, urging her to view the shop as a harbour, but passes on lessons he learned from travelling the world as a young man. it took him years to decide what he wanted from life, he tells Takako, now it’s time for her to start figuring that out for herself.
“Your life is yours. It doesn’t belong to anyone else,” he tells her.
Taken in isolation Saturo’s words of wisdom about life and love can come across as trite; a bit too much like those awful slogans found on motivational posters; but they do play an important role in the novel. It’s through those conversations that Takoko learns how to trust people again, so she can make friends and build relationships.
The most important relationship she develops is the one with books.
Takako hasn’t been much of a reader before, beyond the occasional visit to a chain store to look at their Manga shelves. All it takes to turn her around is one book, one that she picks out at random from the thousands of modern classic Japanese novels piled floor to ceiling in the shop. She’s stunned by the revelations a book can hold:
It was as if without realising it, I had opened a door I had never know existed. That’s exactly what it felt like. From that moment on, I read relentlessly, one book after another. It was as if a love of reading had been sleeping somewhere deep inside me all this time, and then it suddenly sprang to life.
In the course of the novel we learn of the joy of discovering a new author, the delight of walking into a bookshop and that feeling you just have to finish your book despite the late hour.
Inevitably when I read any book about books, I end up with a list of authors I’ve not heard of previously and now want to read: Jun’ichirõ Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, Kafū Nagai, Haruo Satõ. I’ll have to temper my enthusiasm however because at the end of the book there is a warning from translator Eric Ozawa, that not all these authors are available in English. In fact the book that spark’s Takako’s reading passion — Schoolgirl by Osamu Dazai — has yet to be translated.
I suspect Days at the Morisaki Bookshop will appeal to bookworms around the world. What’s not to love about a tale set in a bookshop?? It’s a gentle story told with a light touch; doesn’t have the quirkiness of some more recent Japanese fiction (like Before the Coffee Goes Cold) but it’s a wonderful reminder of the way books can open doors to new experiences and emotions.