December’s International Bookshop of the Month – twelvebooks in Tokyo, Japan

Founded in 2010, twelvebooks is a Tokyo-based distributor that works with international independent publishers to distribute and promote contemporary art and photography titles. Emphasising each publisher’s individuality, creativity and passion, twelvebooks works to market art publications in Japan and throughout the rest of Asia through a co-curated bookshop called ‘BIBLIOTHECA’ at Dover Street Market Ginza and an innovative selling space called ‘SKWAT/twelvebooks‘ which opened during the pandemic in May 2020. Read on to learn more!

1. As a distributor, twelvebooks has recently opened a space called “SKWAT/twelvebooks” in Aoyama, Tokyo. What was your intent behind not defining this space as a bookstore?  

twelvebooks’ main business is book distribution, so we wanted to do something different from a conventional bookstore in terms of both design and function. Thus, we opened “SKWAT/twelvebooks” as a project of SKWAT in collaboration with DAIKEI MILLS, a design office we had worked with before.

At SKWAT/twelvebooks, our warehouse, office and showroom are open to the public to be a place to foster the creation of new values in the void of the city, such as in idle spaces. In our commercial Tokyo location, surrounded by luxury brands and capitalism, we wanted to create a space where people can encounter art books as a source of inspiration, rather than to just a place to buy our products. Therefore, the SKWAT/twelvebooks location, which incorporates a sense of volume and scale of inventory that only a distributor can provide, also has immersive and interactive elements which we believe have a great impact on our visitors.

2. Your approach seems to be about opening up art books to a wider audience?

Yes, I would say so. In recent years, discussion surrounding art books has become increasingly mainstream in Japan. So twelvebooks plans various initiatives to try to change the mainstream stereotype of art books to make them more accessible, and even a kind of necessity, in our daily lives. Lately, the term “art” has become widely prevalent in Japan, but at the same time, we feel that people often define that word without encountering or thinking about it – and without developing their own ways of looking at things, or their own sense of values. As a result of the pandemic, we have also witnessed a trend where past values are now changing based on new ideas and ways of living. We are convinced that art books will become indispensable in a society where people with more liberal sensibilities and perspectives are required, and where it is vital to nurture artistic thinking. For this reason, SKWAT/twelvebooks also actively includes academic titles focusing on art essays in our stock, which are often avoided in Japan.

3. Does the unique philosophy and spirit twelvebooks embodies also appear in your title lineup and stock?

Yes, it does. Art books in many bookstores in Japan tend to be those which are easy to understand, trending, well-known or visually-oriented, so academic art books are rarely seen. But stocking selections that only pander to this market leaves out some of the most important discussions about art, presenting it instead as something to be merely enjoyed visually. It is one of our aims at twelvebooks to stock and present academic titles that also allow people to explore the depth of artists’ thoughts and the artistic experiences that cannot be understood only through images. We believe that this intent should be expressed in our space. And we have future plans to launch a publishing service focusing on translated books in order to further accelerate and materialise this objective!

4. There seems to be a lot of potential in the fact that twelvebooks is successful as a business, despite the fact you do not consider “a sales-driven approach” to be of great priority. Why do you think that is?

Though we do not sell our art books simply as a means to make profit, we do value the idea of revenue so we can give back to the publishers and artists we respect in order to help them continue their creation. It has become difficult to do so now, but in the past we visited the studios of artists and publishers as much as possible, sometimes sharing meals and talking about non-business matters, to establish relationships with our partners through our own methods of communication. We believe that the trust we have built with our partners and customers is raw and unique, and that this trust is what has led to the formation of our company today.

Our strength lies in the fact that everyone—from our sales staff, floor staff, e-commerce team, to our back-office staff in charge of packing and shipping—shares the philosophy of twelvebooks, and expresses it in their own ways. We believe that the growth of clients and customers who share the vision of twelvebooks—created by the entire team— will lead to the displacement of the existing concept of efficiency, trend dominance and marketing-oriented purchasing which focuses only on sales, leading to the reconstruction of new methods.

5. What initiated the “SKWAT/twelvebooks warehouse” project which began recently at SKWAT PARK, the underground space where you are based?

The “SKWAT/twelvebooks warehouse” was born in the underground space where our previously planned work had to be postponed until 2022 due to the prefectural lockdown. So we opened to the public the temporary storage space where our art books are delivered from around the world daily. This enables customers to view our entire process of receiving books to inspecting and shipping them off, as well as allows people to pick up our newly delivered books.

In other words, we wanted to create a situation similar to that of a loading dock in the fish industry. By creating a flow from here to SKWAT/twelvebooks on the second floor, we were able to visualise the “entire” sequence of operations at twelvebooks, and are now at a state where “no one” works behind the scenes. Through this project, we hope to show not only the distribution process, but to let visitors come to understand the work and roles of each staff member involved, as a kind of performance.

6. It has been said that the project to be launched at SKWAT PARK in 2022 will have a stronger “educational” aspect that goes further than “communicating”. What are your future plans?

“SKWAT/twelvebooks warehouse” is a temporary initiative that utilises the vacant space for a period of time available until our next project scheduled in early 2022. Originally, we wanted to use this underground space not as a place to sell art books, but as a venue to conduct workshops that would encourage people to think about the future of art books and how to develop them. We plan to provide support for those who wish to start art bookstores and create new players in the art book industry, as well as to advise and assist those who are interested in distribution. In order to promote the spread of art books to a general audience—which is our goal—we aim to increase the number of people who share the twelvebooks philosophy while also possessing diverse backgrounds and strengths, and to operate as a place to communicate and enhance our development capabilities cooperatively!


To find out more about twelvebooks and their vision, you can visit their website, Facebook and Twitter page, or visit their Tokyo locations:

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