Vintage Books and History Can Be Found at The Isseido Booksellers in Jimbocho

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The inside of The Isseido Booksellers, which opened at its current location in 1913

As I walked around Tokyo’s Jimbocho district, known for its abundance of secondhand bookstores, a historic-looking building caught my eye. Drawn to the sign “Isseido Shoten” (The Isseido Booksellers) written horizontally from right to left, I stepped into the store.

There were books everywhere. Since I was in a bookstore, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised by the books stacked up so high they almost touched the ceiling, but I had never seen anything like it. My neck hurt as I looked up at the tall stacks of books, wondering how one could reach the one on top.

There is a wide range of genres on the first floor, everything from novels, poetry and criticism to texts on history, politics, religion and other cultural topics. As I walked further inside, staring at rows of faded book spines, a grand marble staircase appeared before me.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A marble staircase leads to the second floor. Books are stacked on shelves by the staircase.

The Isseido Booksellers opened in 1903 in Niigata Prefecture as a book-lending shop. It reopened as a used bookstore when it moved to its current location in 1913. However, it burned down twice, once due to the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake.

The current store was built in 1931 and the staircase has not changed since its establishment. Filled with the designs and styles of the early Showa era (1926-1989), the bookstore has a robust personality.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An old-fashioned font on a card conveys the longevity of the store.

I climbed up the stairs to the second floor, where foreign books, including bulky tomes on sculpture and painting and an English translation of “The Tale of Genji,” are sold. Japanese books written before the Edo period (1603-1867) are on display at the back. My eyes were drown to such valuable items as paintings and an old map of Japan, but then I saw their hefty price tags. The oldest book in the shop is a Buddhist sutra from the Nara period (710-784.)

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A bookcase holds many valuable Japanese texts.

Some foreign customers could be seen browsing the section for old Japanese books. According to Takehiko Sakai, a 77-year-old representative of the shop, while the bookstore previously saw many customers from China before the COVID-19 pandemic, there are now more patrons from the United States and Europe.

In today’s day and age, e-books are readily available and widespread, but the Jimbocho district continues to be visited by those who prefer the feel and smell of paper.

“I hope people will visit bookstores so they can not only find the books of their choice but also enjoy discovering the other books around them,” Sakai said.

The Isseido Booksellers

Address: 1-7, Kanda-Jimbocho, Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo

Access: 2-minute walk from Jimbocho Station on Hanzomon Line, Toei Shinjuku Line and Toei Mita Line

Hours: Open from 10 a.m. through 6:30 p.m. Closed on Sundays and national holidays.