If you’re chronically online like me, you’ve already heard of the new Japanese bookstore in town. Tsutaya Books is considered Japan’s largest bookstore chain and is known for its beautiful design and architecture.
So, considering this is the first Tsutaya Books branch in Southeast Asia, the new Bukit Jalil store has received plenty of hype. Its virality online has manifested IRL, with people queueing up just to enter the store on opening day.
Stepping in for the first time ourselves, we were quite in awe of just the sheer amount of things to look at: on one side, we had rows upon rows of trinkets and accessories from Japan, on the other, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with titles, and mirrors overhead giving the place more depth.
Once we headed deeper inside the store, it was just a maze of books, which is why there’s a digital map near the entrance to help you find sections you need.
But we just had to know—are people visiting the bookstore just to snap some pics for the ‘Gram, or are they actual bibliophiles looking to pick up some new reads?
Naturally, we proceeded to find out.
Nostalgia for Japanese culture
Strolling in the travel section, I happened upon Kimberly, who came for a specific reason.
“Previously, I went to the one in Japan, so I’m quite interested [in the store],” she said. “In Malaysia, I think there is a lack of bookstores like this one.”
She thinks the Bukit Jalil bookstore is pretty similar to the one she went to in Japan, though she did notice a difference in the service. According to her, the staff in Japan were friendlier.
To her, most of the visitors are there to experience the setting, rather than shop for books.
Another customer, Mira, also has great memories of Japan.
She had heard about Tsutaya on TikTok. While the selections fell slightly under her expectations, she found the environment to be pleasant and peaceful.
“They’re bringing up Japanese culture here,” she shared with me. “As you can see, there’s a lot of merchandise from Japan. I somehow feel like I’m in Japan.”
And Mira has been to Japan—more than five times, in fact. She used to make it a point to visit the country every year, but due to the pandemic, she has been unable to visit.
But the new Tsutaya bookstore has exceeded Mira’s expectations, reminding her of her days travelling in the land of the rising sun.
Here for the overall experience
Beyond the Japanese culture, Mira also appreciates the environment created in Tsutaya.
“First of all, I love books, and I love this kind of place where it’s situated in a mall, there are books, and at the same time, you can read and have some leisure,” she explained, referring to the café area in the store.
Another person who enjoyed the layout of the store was Thiva, who was walking around the store with Amy.
“I actually like the architecture compared to other bookstores,” Thiva said. “That was very enticing for me.”
The main difference to him is the seated areas and the general design of the store.
While he was there to browse, Amy actually had a book she wanted—Psychology for Dummies. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to find it.
One thing I noticed in the store was that it didn’t have a kiosk or computer for customers to look up books. Instead, you’d have to flag down one of the many employees around, who will then search the book for you.
In a way, the lack of computers does maintain a more cohesive aesthetic in the bookstore, but I wonder if it discourages customers from actually looking for their books.
But books are still in with the crowd
While the majority of people we spoke to were there for more than just books, there were some who still came with a singular mission of leaving with books.
Browsing a shelf full of classic literature was Danielle, who had heard about Tsutaya online and thus came for a visit.
“I’m finding a lot of books I’ve seen online but never actually in bookstores in Malaysia,” she marvelled.
She shared that she wanted to make the trip to Tsutaya to check out its collection of books, stationery, and other products.
Over in the romance aisle, I found Nurfarhah, who was carrying around three books in one hand, while her other pulled out another one from the shelf.
“You want the honest comment?” she asked surreptitiously. “I think… there are not so many books that I want here.”
Peering at her full hands, I had to chuckle.
She went on to explain that she prefers dark romance, but the genre was hard to find in Tsutaya, compared to other bookstores.
Lots of books, not enough substance?
Between sociology-related books, I found two visitors who were intently scouring the books, scanning through the spines with great focus.
The two, Hafiz and Halil, didn’t have specific books they wanted, but the duo’s genre of choice included humanities, social sciences, philosophy, and politics.
As avid readers, Halil said that the two were checking out the availability of titles in the store.
“Before this, we just went to Kinokuniya,” Hafiz brought up. In comparison, he found Tsutaya’s books were slightly cheaper.
However, he also felt like many of its selections were just popular titles, and that it lacked in-depth books. With that said, they really liked how the store catalogues its books.
They explained that Tsutaya has really specific and precise breakdowns of each of its sections, but they hope to find more niche books.
Another visitor, Shelby, also noted that the categories were very detailed, but she was actually overwhelmed by the sheer number of options she had.
Selling a lifestyle
Everyone I had spoken to was first-time visitors to the store, so I decided I needed someone with more expertise. Who better to ask than an employee?
I spotted a staff member hanging around the cafe and approached her. Dhivya was warm and welcoming, a trait that was shared by other staffers despite being tired from the volume of customers that have been gracing the store since its opening.
“We had to stock up a lot of books since we’re running out of stock,” she revealed.
I was surprised by this, as I had the preconception that people were there mainly to take photos and window-shop.
Dhivya laughed when I told her that, saying that there have definitely been people who visit just for the photos. According to her, the percentage of patrons actually looking for a book versus those who are there for pictures is 50-50.
“Also, we do have a cafe in here,” she explained. “So, there are people coming to the café as well.”
She believes that Tsutaya is not just about the books, but instead about lifestyle.
Visitors are even encouraged to read in the bookstore, and according to her, you need not purchase a book to read it.
Perhaps that was why we noted that there was ample seating in the store, from study desks that lined one edge, to benches scattered around Tsutaya and of course, not forgetting the cafe area’s plush seating.
Needless to say, we saw that many of these seats were filled by readers lost in their books.
There wasn’t a queue when I visited the store on a weekday evening, but Dhivya expected the crowd to spike again come the weekend.
It’s clear that people are going to Tsutaya not just for the books or for the ‘Gram, but instead for the whole experience—the experience of browsing its many books, admiring the store’s layout and aesthetics, learning about Japanese culture through stands along the accessories aisles, and more.
Calling Tsutaya “just a bookstore” would be doing it an injustice, because there’s so much more that it offers, and it’s something you can’t quite describe unless you head there yourself.
As they say, don’t judge a book by its cover, so yes, while many people aren’t there just for books, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.