Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Rose Counsell

Rose Counsell

I was born in the UK, and moved to Australia when I was two years old with my parents (one of whom is Australian, the other English). My interest in books dates from childhood when I volunteered at our local library at the age of twelve. I was fascinated with old books, and bought them at garage and library sales whenever I could. At that age it was less about the content than the physical object. I remember buying an elaborately-bound family Bible for the whopping sum of $30, and was dismayed when a rare books valuer, passing through our village, told me it only had sentimental value.

In 2011, I moved to Sydney and took a degree in Japanese Studies at the University of Sydney. I wrote my thesis on Yokai, the demons and spirits of Japanese folklore. At the same time I worked at the university library, and did a diploma in Library and Information Services. After graduating I went with my mother to Japan in the summer of 2014, and we walked and hitchhiked from the most northern part of Hokkaido to its southernmost city, Hakodate. My mum caught a flight back to Australia, and I intended to continue with my plan to walk the length of Japan. When the hotel manager gave me a bike, however, I decided to cycle the rest of the way down the mainland and through Kyushu.  From there I took a ferry to Okinawa, where I met my future husband at a festival on a little island.

When I finished the trip, I was rather at a loss what to do. After spending  a couple of months near Sendai, working on the clean-up effort following the tsunami of 2011, I moved to Tokyo with the idea of working in a library. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t work for a Japanese library as all the positions required applicants to have a Japanese library diploma. I figured that maybe I should have a shot at working in a secondhand bookshop. I sent my CV to forty-eight  booksellers in Tokyo, and received two replies. One told me there were no positions open, and the other reply came from Sato Ryu of Kagerou Bunko, who offered me a part-time job. I started working for Ryu-san in 2015. It was my first encounter with old Japanese books, which are completely different from Western books in format and binding. If I were to translate Kagerou Bunko into English, it would mean something like Mayfly Books. The Kagerou Nikki is the title of a classic work of Japanese literature, first translated into English as The Gossamer Years to convey the idea of the ephemeral nature of existence. The mayfly lives for a very short time and passes away. The awareness and appreciation of the transience of things is a fundamental concept in Japanese aesthetics.

At the same time, but through a different route, I got another part-time job at the World Antiquarian Book Plaza, the joint venture of the late Nitta Mitsuo of Yushodo Ltd and Michael Steinbach, both ILAB Members of Honour. The Plaza opened in 2011, and is located five minutes from the central station in Tokyo, on the third floor of Maruzen bookstore. Michael Steinbach describes it as a kind of paradise for book lovers, where you can find books from antiquarian booksellers from all parts of the world. I only met Mr Nitta briefly, but he and Michael Steinbach were both very kind to me, and I worked there for a couple of years. My job was to look after customers who came to the Plaza. Many of them had not come deliberately to look at old books, but had wandered up to our floor after browsing in the new bookstore below. Other visitors were knowledgeable Japanese collectors or foreign dealers, who knew exactly what they were looking for.

My experience of bookselling at Kagerou Bunko was very different, and much closer to the traditional Japanese way of doing things. It began with a long period of doing fairly menial tasks, during which I had almost no involvement with the cataloguing and purchasing of books. The system in Japan is very hierarchical, and there was nothing unusual about the restrictions on my activities. I spent my first year making acetate covers for dust-wrappers, and learning to pack parcels with Japanese precision. When I was able to write characters well enough, I was allowed to address the parcels and take them to the post office. I also went to the bank to make payments, and picked up books from auctions.

When I started working for Ryu-san, he exhibited at a few international book fairs. By the time I left, he was attending six or seven. I think it helped the business that we were able to prepare catalogues in English. At first I would just translate Japanese descriptions, and then I found that I was able to add information about the books that would appeal from a foreigner’s point of view. Japanese booksellers’ descriptions are typically very short, often with nothing more than the author, title and date, regardless of the price. The assumption is that the person ordering an expensive item will either know everything about it already, or will make an appointment to come and see it.

After working for five years at Kagerou Bunko, I decided to go independent at the end of 2019. Before doing so, I took some time off to clear my mind, and went on another long walk with my mother, and attended a conference in Bulgaria for Japanese resource specialists. I got back to Japan and coronavirus hit. It wasn’t the ideal moment to start Hozuki Books, but it wasn’t my only challenge. As a foreigner in Japan, it can be difficult to know how to act in the book trade which has its own conventions, and is dominated by family firms that have been in the business for generations. Misunderstandings can easily happen.

Gradually things began to improve and my business is now in its fourth year.  Hozuki is written using the characters for ‘demon lantern’ in Japanese.  It  can have negative connotations in traditional ‘flower language’ because the seed concealed in the orange lantern signifies that something bad is being hidden from view. I see the delicate structure of the lantern very differently; it reminds me of looking at piles of books at an auction, trying to find the one hidden treasure amongst them.

I work from home, buy most of my books at auction, and release online catalogues twice a month or so. I haven’t done a printed catalogue since my first one, which I produced at home and sent ten copies overseas. I had about twenty books as my opening stock, accumulated over the years because I liked them, not thinking that I would some day sell them.  To start with I was buying books about Australia, Japanese translations of works by Australian authors and early Japanese texts on Australia and New  Zealand. I don’t think I could buy anything that I’m not personally interested in – just because I knew it was saleable.   

I love books of Japanese design with colour woodblock-printed illustrations.  Fortunately these albums of traditional crafts are very popular with my clients who are mostly overseas. In a recent catalogue, I had an album of brocade-embroidered pouches, published in Kyoto in 1921. The pouches, shifuku, were used in the tea ceremony for bowls and other utensils. They were designed by Shimomura Gyokuko, the founder of the Kyoto Design Association. You don’t need to read Japanese to appreciate the fantastic designs in these pattern books, and that is part of their appeal for my clientele.

Playful calligraphy is another example. Although it often depends on clever word play that is only accessible to someone who can read Japanese, there is still much to enjoy in terms of humour and design. I’m always looking for moji-e (character pictures), in which the hiragana characters form part of the composition of a drawing. If it’s a picture of an animal, it will include the Japanese characters for its name, and perhaps a proverb featuring the animal.  I have a woodblock-printed book of moji-e from the mid-Edo period (1680-1780s), in which the characters forming the image of a bull read ‘pulled by a bull to visit Senkoji temple’, meaning ‘to be invited and unexpectedly led in the right direction’.

When I started bookselling, it was definitely a male-dominated business, but there has been an enormous change in the last few years.  Two female booksellers, Tengyu Miyako and Kitazawa Rika, were interviewed by Nate Pedersen for his column ‘Bright Young Booksellers’ in Fine Books & Collections. Nate also featured Seki Naoyuki, who is the manager of the World Antiquarian Book Plaza. I was delighted to act as translator for my colleagues’ interviews. Although Kitazawa Rika is the fourth generation to work in her family’s bookshop, there is an increasing number of young people in Japan who are entering the trade because they like the independent lifestyle. Such people are no longer attracted by the traditional model of working long hours in a large corporation for  the social status associated with it.  Perhaps the sarariman and woman are discovering that bookselling is another way to support oneself and offers more freedom.

Interviewed in April 2023









Rose Counsell

A Poland & Steery Co-production