Based in Toronto, Ontario, Nancy Matsumoto is a writer and editor who covers sustainable agriculture, food, sake, arts and culture.

Pages of Recession

Culture: More than just a bookstore, Amerasia was a child of ’60s activism. Now it has become a victim of the economy.

 

            Fifteen minutes before Little Tokyo’s Amerasia Bookstore opens for its last weekend of business, owner Gary Sumida’s phone rings. It’s author John Tsukano, who has just arrived from Florida bearing four cartons of his book “Bridge of Love.”

            “This is a tragedy, a tragedy!” Tsukano bellows when he arrives at the Japanese Village Plaza shop minutes later on Saturday. “I was shocked, shocked, when I saw that sign out there.”

            It reads: “Closing Sale, 60% off and more!” and informs the world that after 20 years in business, the feisty bookstore is calling it quits.

            On Sunday, the Amerasia Boostore became the latest casualty of the recession-plagued ’90s when it closed its doors.

            It was more than just a bookstore. It was a child of the community-oriented ’60s and the consciousness-raising ’70s. It was a place where even last weekend, signs of the old activism still lived. At the entrance, there were event notices and two petitions: one advocating the establishment of a civilian police review board and one that would keep the Japanese Consulate from moving out of Little Tokyo.

            Even though he’s about to fold his business, Sumida signs for the $1,100 worth of books from Tsukano. He will soon be a bookseller without storefront, but Sumida vows he will continue to sell books by and about Asian-Americans through other outlets and will reopen Amerasia as soon as the economy picks up.

            “I see this closing as just a temporary thing,” he says. “I have to find a way to market these books more creatively until the recession is over.”

            Tsukano accepts the IOU without hesitation, explaining, “Gary has the Japanese spirit, giri: obligation. He pays his bills.”

            Before getting his money, Tsukano might have to demonstrate another virtue: patience. Although Sumida has paid off the $30,000 due to publishers when he took over the bookstore in 1985, he is still about $60,000 in debt.

            “I’m sad because the community needs a place like this,” says Sumida. “Yet I know I’m not giving up.”

            Although the bookstore opened in 1971, its ideals were rooted in ’60s radicalism. Its first incarnation was across from its present site on 2nd Street, where it was a bookstore/gallery/meeting place organized by community activists.

            The next year, backers formed a nonprofit arm of the store, Aisarema (Amerasia spelled backward), to support Asian-American artists and musicians, and in 1983, the bookstore moved just outside Little Tokyo to a Towne Avenue location.

            But removed from Little Tokyo foot traffic, the business languished. Finally, in 1984, Amerasia moved to Japanese Village Plaza, where it prospered until late 1989.

            Last year, a small group revived the long-dormant Aisarema and has so far raised more than $10,000 to aid the bookstore. Although Aisarema fell short of its original goal of buying the bookstore from Sumida, organization secretary Irene Kurose says, “We do plan to keep Amerasia events and activities going: book parties, signings, workshops.”

            Last weekend, buyers were lured into the store by a barrage of bright yellow discount stickers.

            Lynn Johnston, 38, of El Segundo, on his way to a Buddhism class, buys a video of Yasujiro Ozu’s “Floating Weeds.”

            “I’m very sad,” says Johnston. “I didn’t know about [the closing] till I walked by. For the Nisei and Sansei (second- and third-generation Japanese Americans), this was the place.”

            Amerasia was also one of the few places where books by a wide range of Asian-American writers could be found, Johnston adds. “A friend of mine wrote a book of Burmese poetry, and this was the only place you were able to find it.”

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