Hitomi takes a job as a shopping assistant in a business of Mr Nakano – a dealer of all things second-hand. As she gets to know co-workers and the regular clients, she is invited into an interesting circle of people: the shop owner Mr Nakano, his sister Masayo – an artist, Takeo – her colleague, and their friends and lovers; and we become closer to them alongside her in The Nakano Thrift Shop.
Hiromi Kiwakami is a popular contemporary Japanese writer. Widely recognised in her homeland, she is known in the West for Strange Weather in Tokyo. Her latest book translated into English, The Nakano Thrift Store, is a well-crafted depiction of the society norms and an emotional story that is built around themes that let us get to know the colourful characters the storyline is populated with.
The plot is based on smaller stories, each of them centred around a theme of a thrift shop item. Every second-hand thing has its own story, which is unravelled as the lives of the main character progress. The community around the shop stays the same: Hitomi narrates the story and becomes friendly with the family that owns the shop, and gets involved in a complicated romance with shy Takeo. The story tells us about the ordinary life and normal events – but in a way that makes it resonate with calm surroundings of the thrift shop. There are busier and quieter days, minutes pass as the characters talk over tea or beer, seasons come and go – but we can easily imagine and understand how the sleepy life of the usual store gets influenced by four main characters that fill the space with their personalities, and by little, sometimes juicy, sometimes heart-breaking, sometimes funny stories of people who are just passers-by.
The first, and the most important major theme of a story is to shed some light on a community – and how people who are bound to be together in one place become friends, and how the atmosphere around the place supports that. It’s one of the books that holds the events which could happen at the shop down the road – and that’s perhaps what makes it so compelling. Although it’s floating around love – and what it means to different people – it doesn’t force you into classic schemata of a romance either. It’s funny, mixes both daring and innocent perspectives of the characters as they explain themselves, and it touches on the absurd things people do when they are in love, or when they start falling out of it.
What’s so compelling about this story is that we get an insight into the society. It’s not intimidating and overwhelming at all, as it sometimes is when we try to understand a different cuture; the way of living is explained without any obviousness, the hints to Japanese pop-culture are subtle and put into context so that they’re much easier to digest. Thanks to a great translation by Allison Markin Powell, we knock at the door of a thrift shop, we’re welcomed warmly, and we get to know the routines and understand how people think. The rituals and the attachment to tradition mix with the modern way of life as we see two generations colliding and learning from each other.