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Update on the building situation …

Posted by Dave Bull on September 19, 2020 [Permalink]

It has been a few weeks since I made the long post here about the decisions facing me on our Asakusa building. But tonight, on the six-month 'anniversary' of closing our shop, it's time for an update!

I wasn't able to post a quick followup at that time, because the scheduled meeting with the landlady that I mentioned didn't come about. It has become pretty clear that she is not interested in discussing issues such as the sale/re-construction of the building, and simply wants to maintain the status quo, with her monthly rent revenue coming in as stably as possible. So the past few weeks have been a bit more of a 'muddle' than a time of clear decisions.

But things have been happening, and it's time to bring you an update. Perhaps point by point might be an easy way to do this …

• I mentioned that the lease on the building was up for renewal. We actually have three separate leases here; because each floor came available at different times, we leased them one by one. The renewal that was facing me last month was for the 2nd floor - the place where we first started. The 3rd floor lease is not coming due until late next year, but the one for the 1st floor comes around next January, only four months from now. So instead of the binary decision I was projecting in that blog post (do we stay or do we leave), we do have the option for another way forward: keep the upper two floors, but let go of the ground level, reverting to the situation of three years ago, when another tenant was in that space.

• So that is what I have done; I signed on again for the 2nd floor, and will also (assuming we can stay alive) do so for the 3rd floor when it comes due next year. The rents for these two upper floors are very inexpensive, partly due to the fact that we ourselves were responsible for turning them into useable spaces, and partly because it is so difficult to run a business in an upstairs environment. This means that even if overseas visitors do not return in any foreseeable future, we still have a place where our workers can make prints together, and we still maintain our Asakusa 'brand'. There might not be a shop in our future, but 'Asakusa Mokuhankan' will still be a 'thing'.

• This though, still doesn't solve the problem of what to do with the shop space on the 1st floor. The rent for that floor is far higher than the other two (combined), and we can see no glimmer of any chance of visitors returning. I have punted the ball down the field a little bit, but by January will still have to make the same decision: stay or leave. And actually, according to the strict written terms, if we are planning to leave, we are supposed to give notice of that intent three months before the end of the lease (October 31 would technically be the last day for that).

• Over the past couple of weeks since I wrote the previous post, something else has changed here in Asakusa; there are now numerous empty shops in the district with 'For Lease' signs on the front (テナント募集, in Japanese). I have never seen this before in Asakusa. There has been such high demand for retail space that anytime a business decides to close, a successor is found long before the space actually becomes empty, and the 'handover' happens virtually overnight. The real estate office directly across the street from us is one such space, and - even closer to home! - the kimono rental shop next door suddenly moved out last night. (I picked up one of the cabinets they were throwing out, by 'buying it' from one of the workers who was smashing all the furniture into kindling, ready for taking to the dump …) So … it is suddenly very clear to our landlady, if it wasn't before, that we are very valuable to her; it might not be so easy after all for her to rent this out if we did decide to leave …

So let's 'add it all up' here, and see what we have:

  • we want to stay, and she wants us to stay. OK, negotiate a bit, and stay.
  • but there are no customers here (our six years of experience here has shown us that Japanese people do not buy our woodblock prints), so there is no point.
  • but there will be customers 'one day', when the virus is controlled (I'm guessing/hoping/wishing on that, but what else can you do …).
  • so … start some other kind of business in the space, one for which there is domestic demand.
  • easy to say, but even though the shop is closed, I am actually extremely busy here these days keeping things running (print production, subscriptions and the online shop), and simply don't have the resources to initiate some dramatically new type of business venture. It's not totally from lack of trying; each time I need to do a batch of paper sizing upstairs, I have to clear away the pots, pans, and various ingredient packages from the experiments I have been making on trying to come up with some kind of interesting 'edible' product that would be of interest to our local market. (Viewers of our live streams have heard bits and pieces of news about this … the elusive 'Baren Cookies' … muffins, etc. and etc.). So far though, none of these experiments has resulted in anything even remotely appropriate or marketable ...

I said a moment ago that "Japanese people do not buy our woodblock prints" and this is true; domestic revenue has been a single digit percentage of our Asakusa business ever since it began, and a low digit at that, and mostly Print Parties, a product that is not profitable, and which we can no longer offer anyway. But - and this may seem quite paradoxical - there is huge interest among Japanese people in what we do. Speaking very generically here, 'they' come into the shop and chat with staff members for sometimes literally hours about our work, before then saying 'Thank you, that was so interesting', and leaving.

Aoyama-san and I were discussing this the other day (he's the member here who does most of our in-house construction, renovation, and block making, etc. these days) and it occurred to us … might we possibly be able to turn that 'interest' into a new model for the 1st floor space? They want to come and see the prints. They want to learn about traditional woodblock prints. They just don't want to buy any. Well … there is a standard and well-understood business model that actually matches those needs. It's called a 'museum'.

Before starting Mokuhankan, when I was still doing personal exhibitions every year, I always included a selection from the small collection of interesting prints I had acquired to help me in my training. I even held 'Gallery Talks' to help show the works, and these were very well received …

That collection has grown quite extensively in the past few years, and now encompasses some thousands of prints, most of which are the kind of works ignored by major institutions, who typically focus on famous (and expensive) items.

These days, in what has been a completely spontaneous development, the final 15 minutes of each of my live streams on Twitch, in which I pull out something from the collection for a short 'Show and Tell', has become the most popular part of the streams by far.

I think you can see where this is leading, and at this point, we here have pretty much convinced ourselves that we can give this a try. Aoyama-san and I are now busily sketching and planning how the physical layout would work, and how we might actually implement this in the available space on the 1st floor. I certainly don't want just a rectangular box with a few things hanging on the wall; that would be of no interest to anybody. The space - the environment itself - has to be interesting and appealing, and then within that space, I would select and curate interesting displays from the collection.

We would make it clear to potential attendees in all our materials (pamphlets, website, media promotion) that anybody coming would need to bring their phone … and their earbuds. Why? Because I want to talk to everybody … to tell them just why I chose each particular work, just what they can look at, and just where the beauty lies. And because I can't be there every day for every person I will have to prepare this material in advance, and make it accessible to the visitors through such means as QR codes next to each print on display.

And the displays! Those of you who have seen the early entries in our online version of this collection already know what I am planning for these! Because our collection is not made up of extremely rare ancient items that are on the verge of final collapse, we are free to display them in whatever way we can devise that shows off their beauty and appeal. And as we plan to rotate the items in curated and themed exhibitions every few months, the risk of fading is not a problem for us. That room is going to look stunning!

And the space at the rear of the 1st floor - the beautiful little room we built in which we formerly held the Print Parties - that space can of course become a small shop. Things will be packed a little bit more densely than they are in the current shop space, but that is perhaps not a bug, but a feature ...

We are under no illusions that we can suddenly and instantly make a go of this new approach. We are simply going to step back in time - back six years, to the time when we first opened the Asakusa shop in that tiny room up on the 2nd floor - and give this a try. There will be very few visitors at first, and we will be operating deep in the red, but as word gets around, and as we ourselves get better at actually running this new operation, that will hopefully change.

And then down the road - at the point when tourists are again allowed into Japan, and we begin to see foreign faces in Asakusa - we will be ready for them. A great many of our previous visitors asked the same question, "Where in Tokyo can I go to see interesting Japanese prints? There don't seem to be many places for that …"

Well if we can work this out over the next few months, we might then have a new answer!

Stay tuned ...




Added by: Dave on September 18, 2020

I’m not very good at drawing up ‘concept images’, so I can’t show you visually what we have in mind for the new space. But here is what is in the ‘background’ - the storeroom where many of the prints are kept. A half-year ago, this was just a jumble of cardboard boxes, but the combination of no Print Parties, and Patreon support allowing me to re-hire staff members for this work, has allowed us to make huge strides in finally getting everything organized.



Once we get the material here in Asakusa basically catalogued and safely organized, I will then bring over the prints currently stored in Ome ...

Added by: Stu on September 18, 2020


An ingenious, and wonderful, idea! Paid museum access to your prints might even work out via your online collection -- one could browse for free, and purchase a one-time 'ticket' or a longer-term 'membership' to listen to the voice recordings, and perhaps some additional detailed photos or closeups that correspond to the voice track!

Added by: David (DH01010110 on twitch) on September 18, 2020

I think the idea of a small museum with a seasonally changing gallery would be great for domestic or international tourists, or locals for that matter. I wish there was one here in Austin, TX, and would love to go if I ever make it to Japan.

I remember in the twitch steam there was some discussion about price. Some people thought if you charged a little more, then you would get an awesome woodblock print souvenir ticket, but then there was a fear of scaring off visitors. There is a compromise: low entrance fee with the option to buy a small souvenir ticket (chibi print size?). Use an Asuksa theme, but also change it seasonally, encouraging repeat visits, (to collect all 4 in the year). I know you say that japanese people don't usually buy prints, but I think a lot of couples, or families would get one on the way out if they enjoyed the visit.

The QR codes are a great idea on multiple fronts. However a button on the display might be more accessable for a larger group, specially families, but QR would be a great backup when you have several individuals or groups. And there is no reason to stop the QR codes in the gallery. I'm sure you would have something to say about most of your own work too (or have already said it). When people have instant access to more info about say the sushi cats print and can see the thing they are holding being carved and printed it might deepen the appreciation of it enough to buy.

Also I wanted to say thank you Dave for everything you do and good luck with this new project. I have learned so much from you, I can't thank you enough.

Added by: David (DH01010110 on twitch) on September 18, 2020

Addendum to my last post just above

I would love to get a small card with an ordered print which plays or gives that same type info on the process behind the print. And it (QRs) would kinda tie together the phisical prints with the website/youtube/twitch videos connected to that print. I say add QR with or without the gallery.

Added by: Andrew on September 21, 2020

Maybe you've already thought of it but if you're thinking of a museum could I suggest a "living history" style viewing area? A place where people can actually watch a printer/Carver at work.

Of course it will be a little awkward for the staff member on display but they dont necessarily need to interact with the public, it can be safely socially distanced, people just like to see craftmanship in action.

It all depends on the space you have available too of course but this kind of thing is universally popular.

Added by: DONALD J COMMONS on October 27, 2020

Hi Dave

Sorry that the Coronavirus has impacted tourism. Love your shop and friendly, talented staff. Hoping to be able to visit in not too distant future. Really enjoyed the print party that myself and my son attended. Your ideas sound great. Don Commons (Australia)

Added by: Karl on October 28, 2020

Added by: Karl on October 28, 2020

Sad and Temporal is The World. Surely you will a find a way.

But can not change the characters meanings. That was flawed.

Please continue to share your struggle and succes


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