One of the most buzzed-about attractions in the recently opened Mitsukoshi mall in BGC is the first Books Kinokuniya store in the country. And no one is likely happier about the excitement surrounding it than the Filipino partner that helped make it happen: Jaime Daez of local bookstore chain Fully Booked.
It’s no less a dream come true for Daez, seeing the brand he built billed alongside the esteemed Japanese retail star up on the store frontage. He’s long been a fan of Kinokuniya and has been a frequent visitor of the flagship store in Singapore’s Ngee Ann City ever since it opened in 1999. That was back when he was just a young retailer. “They were always the gold standard in terms of retailing,” Daez tells ANCX. “I felt like that’s the best-run book store in the world. I mean just the sheer variety they had. Even the design was incredible.”
The link responsible for the Fully Booked-Kinokuniya merger is Mitsukoshi whose people began talking to Daez roughly five years ago. “When they reached out to me, they told me they were setting up a mall here in Fort Bonifacio. And they said that they wanted to invite Kinokuniya and wanted to get a local partner,” recalls Daez. He and the Kinokuya team then met in Tokyo in 2018. “That was when we started talks. And as is normal with Japan, it takes quite a bit of time to actually formalize things with them because they're always very cautious. But, you know, normally relationships with the Japanese might take time to nurture but once you have it, it's good for life.”
The deal sounded quite simple in the beginning, really: Kinokuniya basically supplies Japanese books to Daez’s chain. The Filipino businessman says Fully Booked has actually been carrying Japanese titles since 2019. “But we we were not using yet the name of Kinokuniya because at that time, we were still kind of experimenting; it was our first time selling Japanese books. Honestly, we didn't know if there was really a market.”
The last three years will tell him there is. When pandemic restrictions pushed Fully Booked to finally take its online business very seriously, they discovered the country has quite a sizable manga fan base. “To be honest, manga during the pandemic, the sales just shot up like crazy,” Daez offers. He credits it to the manga shows that cropped up on streaming platforms like Netflix. “And a lot of these manga titles, some of them have as much as 80 volumes. People really started buying a lot more manga. In fact, during the whole pandemic it’s really the segment of manga as books, they are the ones with the biggest increase in terms of sales. And this is actually also kind of a worldwide phenomenon. Because talking to Kinokuniya, even in their stores in the US, their manga sales have also really shot up.”
Daez knows he’s feeding a very niche market, and is thankful there are manga otakus in the Philippines—collectors with an obsessive love for the genre. In fact, many of the hardcore fans don’t mind collecting the books even if they can’t read Japanese.
Daez himself is a manga fan and admits to being a comic book freak. He may be the managing director of Fully Booked but he’s also assigned himself to be the official buyer of its manga and comic book stocks over the years. And he’s never relinquished the task to anyone, nor is he planning to. “I love graphic novels and manga so much that I want to keep abreast of everything that's happening,” he says. “I guess this is also my way of sharing the love and passion for graphic novels to the Philippine public.”
Of the 340-sqm store at Mitsukoshi, Daez says around 150-sqm is dedicated to Japanese titles, two thirds of which is manga. The rest includes language books for people who want to learn how to read, speak and write Japanese, and art books. “We are here also to really kind of study. Although we've carried Japanese books before in our flagship store, this is the first full blown variety that we're really putting on display. It’s going to be a learning process as well for us—[to know] what moves fast, what doesn't, and then we'll also be adjusting within the next few months based on customer demand.”
No doubt part of the reason why Daez is very pleased with the Kinokuniya partnership is because he’s always been an admirer of the Japanese retail scene. “My wife and I go to Japan a lot. I think in 2019 I went to Japan probably eight times. Because, to be honest, the retail scene in Japan to me is the most advanced in the world. The concepts that they have there—it’s like you see the future of retailing in the Philippines happening in Japan five years ahead. As a retailer, I love going to Japan because it really broadens my horizons. Kind of allows me to see, ‘Okay, this can probably happen in the future in the Philippines.’”
As it did for most businesses, the pandemic posed a real challenge for Daez’s bookstores. He ended up closing four Fully Booked outlets, although he says these stores were already not doing well prior to the Covid lockdowns. But what really saved his enterprise was e-commerce. “We really pivoted, and pivoted very hard and fast to selling as much as we can online because, to be honest, we probably had less than one thousand books available in our website prior to the pandemic. And now I could probably say our selection online is probably as extensive or almost as extensive as our flagship store in High Street.”
Many of his physical stores have returned to its normal sales performance, Daez reports. The e-commerce numbers may have started dropping when the public began getting out of their houses during the second quarter of 2022 but traffic started normalizing in his brick and mortar spaces by April. “Many of our stores are actually back to normal when it comes to sales, some of them are actually even doing better than pre-pandemic.”
Daez says business is definitely better now than in 2020, and what’s more, while they have closed four Fully Booked stores, they recently opened five new ones—which includes one in The Podium, another at SM Grand Central in Caloocan, one in Bacolod, and of course the Fully Booked Kinokuniya store at Mitsukoshi which seems to have made Daez very happy (he proudly shows us a mural done by his artist friend Yuku Shimizu depicting a geisha driving a tricycle packed with readers; an image showing the coming together of Filipino and Japanese cultures).
“I think as a bookseller I will keep learning from them,” Daez says of his Kinokuniya partners. “Because for me they're probably the best at what they do.” He adds: “It’s like—if you're a basketball fan—being teammates with Michael Jordan. You're with the best of the best.”