The objects for sale at the Nakano Thrift Shop appear as commonplace as the staff and customers who handle them. But like those staff and customers, they hold many secrets. If examined carefully, they show the signs of innumerable extravagances, of immeasurable pleasure and pain, and of the deep mysteries of the human heart.
Hitomi, the inexperienced young woman who works the register, has fallen for her coworker, the oddly reserved Takeo. Unsure of how to attract his attention, she seeks advice from her employer’s sister, Masayo, whose sentimental entanglements make her a somewhat unconventional guide. But thanks in part to Masayo, Hitomi will come to realize that love, desire, and intimacy require acceptance not only of idiosyncrasies but also of the delicate waltz between open and hidden secrets, in this novel from the author of Strange Weather in Tokyo that “captures an untranslatable Japanese mood” (The New York Times).
“Uses a series of vignettes to chronicle a girl’s time working at Mr. Nakano’s secondhand store in Tokyo . . . Pleasant, leisurely prose.” —Publishers Weekly
“Hiromi Kawakami’s charming novel illuminates moments of kindness, love and friendship that pop up like the unexpected treasures amid the shop’s dusty collection of pretty mismatched bowls and plates, castoff eyeglasses, task lamps and old electric fans.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
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About the Author
Allison Markin Powell is a literary translator and editor in New York City. Her translations include works by Osamu Dazai, Fuminori Nakamura, and Kanako Nishi, and she was the guest editor for the first Japan issue of Words Without Borders. She maintains the database Japanese Literature in English at www.japaneseliteratureinenglish.com.
Read an Excerpt
You know what I mean? Mr. Nakano had a habit of saying this. I was caught off guard when he said abruptly, 'You know what I mean — pass me that soy sauce pourer.'
The three of us had gone for an early lunch. Mr. Nakano ordered the gingered pork set lunch, Takeo the simmered fish of the day, and I went for the curry rice. The gingered pork and the simmered fish came right away. Mr. Nakano and Takeo each drew a set of disposable chopsticks from the box on the table, snapped them apart, and began eating. Takeo muttered under his breath, 'Excuse me,' but Mr. Nakano just started bolting down his lunch without a word.
My curry rice arrived eventually, and the moment I picked up my spoon was when Mr. Nakano spoke up with his 'You know what I mean ...'
'When you say, "You know what I mean," isn't it, well, out of place?' I asked.
Mr. Nakano set down his bowl on the table. 'Did I say, "You know what I mean"?'
'You did,' Takeo affirmed in a murmur from just beside him.
'You know what I mean — I don't say that.'
'You just said it again.'
Mr. Nakano scratched his head in an exaggerated gesture.
'It must be a verbal tic.'
'It's a strange one.'
I passed the soy sauce pourer to Mr. Nakano, who doused his two pieces of pickled daikon with it and then munched away on them.
'I guess it's part of a conversation that I have inside my own head.'
He went on, For example, in my mind I think: if A happens, then B, so that must mean C, and it follows with D. But when I start speaking, I just say D, so then 'You know what I mean' comes out unintentionally.
'That what happens?' Takeo asked as he poured the broth from his fish over his leftover rice.
Takeo and I were working in Mr. Nakano's store. For the past twenty-five years or so, Mr. Nakano had been running his thrift shop in a western suburb of Tokyo that was full of students. Apparently, his first job was at a mid-sized food company, but he quickly lost interest in working for a corporation so he quit. This was around the time when the phrase 'corporate dropout' was gaining traction but, he said, he would need to have worked at the company longer in order to be considered a 'dropout.'
In any case, he explained to me in his slight drawl as he tended the store, I hated it and quit my job — I was humiliated at the time.
'These are not antiques. They're second-hand goods. That's what I sell here,' Mr. Nakano had stated plainly during my interview.
Pasted in the window of Mr. Nakano's store was a notice written in sloppy calligraphy: PART-TIME HELP WANTED, INTERVIEWS NOW. Although the sign said that they were interviewing now, when I went inside to inquire, the shopkeeper told me, 'Interviews start on the first of September at two in the afternoon. Punctuality is of the essence.' With his beard and knitted hat, the trim shopkeeper made an odd impression. That had been my first encounter with Mr. Nakano.
With its second-hand goods (not antiques), Mr. Nakano's shop was literally filled to overflowing. From Japanese-style dining tables to old electric fans, from air conditioners to tableware, the shop was crammed with the kind of items found in a typical household from the 1960s and later. In the mornings, Mr. Nakano would raise the shop's shutter and, with a cigarette between his lips, he'd arrange the goods intended to tempt customers outside the front of the store. Bowls and plates that had any kind of fancy pattern, arty task lamps, onyx-like paperweights shaped like turtles or rabbits, old-school typewriters and the like — these were all attractively displayed on a wooden bench set outside. Sometimes ashes from his cigarette fell on the turtle paperweight's back, and Mr. Nakano roughly brushed them off with a corner of the black apron that he always wore.
Mr. Nakano stayed at the shop until the early part of the afternoon, and from then on I usually tended the store by myself. In the afternoons, Takeo and Mr. Nakano went out on pickups.
Pickups were exactly what they sound like — they would go to clients' homes to pick up goods that they had acquired to sell. The most common situation was when the head of a family had passed away and the household belongings were being disposed of. Mr. Nakano's shop collected everything in bulk — be they items not regarded as mementos or keepsakes, or entire wardrobes. For the price of anything from a meager few thousand to at most ten thousand yen, he acquired enough goods to fill his small truck. Clients usually called for a pickup because they figured that it was better to set aside the items they thought were worth something and get rid of the rest, rather than having to pay for it to be hauled away as oversized garbage. Most of them accepted the token amount without complaint and were happy to see Mr. Nakano drive away with his truckload, but once in a while things got awkward when the client grumbled about the offer being too low, or so I heard from Takeo.
Takeo was hired to help with pickups only a short time before I started working there. When it seemed like a light load, Takeo would go out on a pickup by himself.
'What to do about the price?' Takeo asked with a hint of anxiety, the first time Mr. Nakano ordered him to go out alone.
'You know what I mean — whatever you think is appropriate. You see how I do it, don't you, the way I decide how much to offer.'
Whether or not he had watched how Mr. Nakano came up with his offers, at that time Takeo had only been working there part-time for a little more than three months. Mr. Nakano seemed to me like the kind of person who said wild and random things, but when I saw what a surprisingly brisk business the shop seemed to be doing, I wondered if maybe it was because he simply inhabited this very recklessness. In any case, Takeo appeared quite nervous when he left, but by the time he returned he was back to his normal self.
'Was no big deal,' he said casually. Takeo said he had offered 3,500 yen for the pickup, to which Mr. Nakano nodded repeatedly; however when he actually looked at the haul, his eyes grew wide.
'Takeo, you know, that was a steal. This is exactly the kind of thing that's scary about amateurs,' Mr. Nakano said, laughing about it.
The haul included a jar that must have been worth 35,000 yen. At least that's what Takeo told me. Mr. Nakano's shop didn't deal with those kinds of things, so he had sold the jar at an antique market that was held on the grounds of a local shrine. The girl Takeo was dating at the time had tagged along with him to the stall at the market, under the pretext of helping out. Apparently, once the girlfriend saw that such a dirty-looking jar could fetch a price like that, she had pressured Takeo incessantly — why not get into the second-hand business professionally himself? That way he would be able to leave home and get his own place. Whether or not it was because of that, Takeo broke up with the girl soon after.
It was unusual for the three of us — Mr. Nakano, Takeo, and me — to eat together. Most of the time, Mr. Nakano was running around buying things at markets or auctions, or else meeting with people, and Takeo went straight home after he finished with pickups; he never hung around. The three of us had gathered together that day because we were going to see an exhibition by Mr. Nakano's older sister at a gallery.
Masayo was single and in her mid-fifties. Long ago the Nakano family had been one of the original landowners in this part of the city, and although their fortune was already considerably in decline by the time of Mr. Nakano's parents' generation, apparently there was still enough left for Masayo to be able to live off the income from rented houses. 'Because she's an artist, you know.' There were times when Mr. Nakano said things to make fun of his sister, but he certainly had nothing against her work as an artist. Masayo's one-woman show was being held at a tea shop called Posy that was by the train station and had a small gallery on the second floor. This time it was an exhibit of her doll creations.
I had heard about her previous exhibit, which had been held shortly before I was hired, a show of 'various wood-dyed items.' She had gathered leaves in a small forest that still stood on the edge of town, and had utilized these materials for dyeing fabric — Masayo used the word 'chic' to describe the colors this produced, but according to Takeo, shaking his head in puzzlement as he thought back on the exhibit, the colors reminded him of those found in the toilet. From the ceiling of the gallery, Masayo had hung the branches from which she had plucked the leaves for her creations, and they had fluttered in suspension. Perhaps because of the dangling branches and dyed pieces of cloth, the space felt like a labyrinth, and with every step, the fabric seemed to envelop your head and arms and hold you in place — that had been Mr. Nakano's account.
This time, the dolls featured in the exhibit were not hung from the ceiling, but instead appropriately arranged on tables lining the space, and placed under title cards such as DRAGONFLY AT NIGHT or STANDING IN THE GARDEN. Takeo made a quick and absent-minded pass through the exhibit, while Mr. Nakano looked around, carefully picking up and turning over every doll. Daylight streamed through the window, and Masayo's cheeks were flushed in the heated room.
Mr. Nakano bought the highest priced doll there, and I bought a small cat from among the dolls that were heaped in a basket by the reception desk. Masayo waved goodbye from the top of the stairs, and the three of us went out onto the street.
'I'm going to the bank,' Mr. Nakano said as he disappeared behind the automatic door of the bank in front of us.
'As usual,' Takeo said, thrusting both hands into the pockets of his baggy trousers and starting to walk.
That day Takeo was supposed to go on a pickup all the way out in Hachioji. Mr. Nakano referred to the clients in Hachioji as 'the spinster sisters' — two elderly sisters who telephoned almost every day to complain about how no sooner had their eldest brother passed away than relatives upon whom they had never before set eyes started showing up, one after another, each of them trying to steal away the artworks or rare books or other such things that their brother had collected. 'Yes, well ... Yes, this is a terrible loss,' Mr. Nakano politely responded each time. He never once tried to cut short their phone calls.
'That's how it goes in this business,' Mr. Nakano had said with a wink, after spending more than thirty minutes listening to them complain. Despite the fact that he seemed to pay such close attention to the spinster sisters' grievances, he made no attempt to go out to the old ladies' home for the pickup.
'All right for me to go alone?' Takeo asked, and Mr. Nakano stroked his beard as he replied, 'You know what I mean — make sure your offer is at the lower end. The old ladies might be flabbergasted if the bid is too high, and if it's too low, well, then too.'
We reached the shop and opened the shutter, and while I was trying to arrange the goods on the bench like Mr. Nakano always did in a way to lure customers, Takeo maneuvered the two-ton truck out from the garage at the back. See you later, I called out, and Takeo revved the engine as he waved with his right hand. He was missing the part from the top knuckle to the tip of his little finger on his right hand. That was the hand that he waved to me with.
Apparently, during his interview with Takeo, Mr. Nakano had asked, 'Does that mean you're one of them?' He was referring to the yakuza practice of finger shortening.
After Takeo had been working at the store for a little while, he said to Mr. Nakano, 'Be pretty dangerous, wouldn't it, if I really were one of them.'
Mr. Nakano laughed, 'When you work in this business, you tend to get a sense what kind of person you're dealing with.'
Takeo's finger got caught in an iron door: that's how he lost it. A classmate had slammed his finger in the door; it seems he had bullied Takeo for all three years of high school, saying that the sight of Takeo 'made him want to puke.' Takeo dropped out of high school six months before graduation. Because, he said, ever since the incident with the iron door, he felt like 'his life was in serious danger.' Neither his teachers nor his parents seemed to pay any attention. They pretended that Takeo dropping out was his own lifestyle choice or the result of a fundamental lack of self-discipline. Even so, Takeo claimed, 'Dropping out of school was lucky for me.' Meanwhile, he heard that the guy who had made him feel that his life was endangered had gone on to a private university and last year had got a job right away with a corporation.
'Aren't you angry?' I asked, but a look crept across Takeo's face — one corner of his mouth sort of curled up — as he replied, 'What difference does it make for me to be angry?'
'What difference?' I repeated, and Takeo chuckled to himself.
'Hitomi, you don't understand,' he replied. 'You like books, you have a complex mind. Me, I'm just simple.' That was how he put it.
'I'm simple too,' I said, and Takeo laughed again.
'In that case, you must be really simple then,' he said.
The tip of my little finger is smooth, Takeo explained. The doctor at the hospital told me I didn't have a predisposition for keloids, so it would be a perfectly clean scar.
After I watched Takeo drive away in the truck, I sat in the chair by the register and read a paperback. Over the course of an hour, three customers came in; one of them bought a pair of old glasses. I wondered why anyone wanted to buy glasses that weren't the right prescription, but it turned out that old glasses were a sleeper bestseller at Mr. Nakano's shop.
'People buy things exactly because they're of no use,' Mr. Nakano liked to say. Is that how it is? I said.
'Hitomi, do you like useful things?' Mr. Nakano asked with a grin.
'Yes, I do,' I answered, and Mr. Nakano snorted, before suddenly breaking into an odd little melody. 'Useful plates, useful shelves, useful men ...' He surprised me.
There was a lull after the customer who bought the old glasses left. Mr. Nakano had yet to return from the bank. Seems like he's got a woman, Takeo had let slip sometime recently. When he says he's at the bank, I bet that usually means he's with a woman.
A few years before, Mr. Nakano had got married for the third time. With his first wife, he had a son who was a university student; with his second wife, he had a daughter who was in elementary school; and with his third wife, he had a six-month-old son. And now, he had yet another woman?
'Hitomi, do you have a boyfriend?' Mr. Nakano had asked me. He hadn't seemed particularly curious about it. He had asked while he was standing by the register, drinking coffee, the same way he might comment on the weather. He pronounced 'boyfriend' in the kind of monotone that was current nowadays.
'I had one for a bit, but I don't have one now,' I answered, and Mr. Nakano just nodded and said, I see. No further questions about what the guy had been like, or when we broke up, or anything else.
'How did you and your current wife meet?' I asked in reply.
'It's a secret,' he answered.
'Saying it's a secret will only make me keep asking, won't it?' I went on.
Mr. Nakano just looked me straight in the face.
'Why are you staring at me like that?' I asked.
In a serene voice, Mr. Nakano replied, 'Hitomi, there's no need for such banalities.'
He was right — I wasn't particularly curious about how Mr. Nakano's romance with his wife began. The shopkeeper was inscrutable. Probably what makes women like him, Takeo whispered furtively in my ear later.
Mr. Nakano wasn't back from the bank, Takeo had gone to Hachioji, there were no customers. With nothing else to do, I went back to reading my paperback.
Lately, there was a man who came in when I was tending the store on my own. He looked like he was about the same age as Mr. Nakano or a little older. I had thought it was a coincidence that he always seemed to show up when I was alone, but apparently not. If he saw that Mr. Nakano was there, he darted out of the shop. When Mr. Nakano disappeared from sight, he rushed back inside.
That guy, does he come here a lot? Mr. Nakano asked one day, to which I nodded. The next day, Mr. Nakano had spent the whole afternoon rummaging around in the back storeroom. The man came by late in the day and was hovering about, between the front door and where I was sitting at the register; Mr. Nakano was steadily observing him from the storeroom. Just as the man approached the register, Mr. Nakano sprang forward with a beaming smile and struck up a conversation with him.
That was the first time I heard the man's voice. In the course of chatting with him for fifteen minutes, Mr. Nakano found out that he lived in the next neighborhood over, that his name was Tadokoro, and that he was a sword collector.
'I don't sell old things here, you know,' which seemed like a strange thing for Mr. Nakano to say, since the sign outside read THRIFT SHOP.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Nakano Thrift Shop"
Copyright © 2005 Hiromi Kawakami.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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