On a very sunny day in Sendai, the employees of Crow Street Independent Booksellers & Café crowd around the front windows and watch a huge sign—four meters tall, at least—going up across the street.
A NEKOMA BOOKS SUPERSTORE ARRIVING SOON AT THIS LOCATION.
And beneath that a slogan, the cat is coming to Crow Street.
“Bastards,” says Nishinoya again, his nose wrinkling.
Sugawara Koushi, Owner and General Manager of Crow Street Books, is not inclined toward strong language, but as he stands there watching this enemy flag being unfurled, he finds himself agreeing with his short, outspoken café manager: anyone who would open up a big-box chain store right across the street from an independent retailer and virtual town landmark must be some kind of bastard.
Hinata, their youngest and most rambunctious clerk, presses his face to the glass door. “Is this bad, Suga-san?”
Suga smiles, mostly genuine. “I don’t think so. We’re a different sort of store than that, more personal.” But in his head are sheets of expense reports and bills nearing due—just when he’d been thinking about raising prices, too.
“You’re smudging the glass,” Tsukishima, one of their baristas, tells Hinata flatly. The redheaded boy pulls himself away from the door and starts rubbing at the oily spot, only preceding to make it bigger.
“I’ll get the window cleaner,” says Yachi cheerfully, and she bobs off to the back of the shop.
Tanaka, Noya’s assistant manager in the café, glares at the sign with enough intensity to make birds scatter. “What are we gonna do, boss?” he asks Suga, like he expects an attack order.
“Wipe that look off your face so maybe we actually get some customers in here, for once?” Tsukishima quips. Tanaka growls at him.
Suga smiles again, the kind of smile that disperses tension, he’s found. He smiles until he can piece together an actual answer for their little troupe, the right mix of nonchalance and determination to succeed. He settles on, “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. Selling people the books they love.” Hinata nods, Noya pumps a fist, Tanaka cracks his knuckles. “Which requires all of us getting back to work!” A collective groan. “Come on, cheer up. We’ve got a couple months before we’ve even got to worry about that chain store, let’s make the most of it.” Noya, Tanaka and Tsukishima retreat to the café (which does more business than the bookstore on some days, thanks to Tsukki’s latte art skills), Suga gets Yachi stocking New Arrivals and Hinata sweeping up, and takes the register himself.
That’s the last he’ll think about Nekoma Books until he has to, Suga decides; there’s no use getting bogged down by competition that doesn’t even exist yet. He has more pleasant things to think about, like checking his email at the end of the day. Small business ownership is hard: it demands fastidious organization, people skills, shrewd thinking and above all else, pragmatic, relentless optimism. Which has always made Sugawara very, very good at it. Now’s not the time to stop trusting himself.
Of course, it’s tough not to think about Nekoma Books when their rival comes knocking. The very next day, three men enter the shop, sidle up to the register, and their apparent leader – a brunette with a flashy smile and a flashier wardrobe – demands to speak to the owner.
Fortunately for him, Suga happens to be sitting at the counter, peeking at these newcomers from over a copy of Middlesex, which he’s challenged himself to read in English and not translation. “I’m the owner. Sugawara Koushi.” Aside from the flashy one, there’s a frowny guy in a suit who clutches a leather appointment book to his chest, and a dark-haired man dressed more casually than either of them. He’s the only one of the three that peeks around at the store at all, hands shoved in his pockets, until his eyes settle on Suga. It’s an intense look, but not unfriendly. He’s not scary like the appointment book guy, and he’s better looking.
“I’m Oikawa Tooru,” announces the flashy one. Suga can feel a tiny smile on his lips. “Owner of the forthcoming Nekoma Books Crow Street branch—maybe you’ve seen our sign?” He jerks a thumb over his shoulder to indicate said sign. Suga’s smile vanishes.
“I saw it.”
Oikawa smiles broadly; he’s somehow unassuming despite the threat he represents, like he couldn’t manage malice if he tried. But a part of Suga suspects that unassuming exterior is exactly how he gets what he wants. “This,” Oikawa gestures to Frowny Face, “is Iwaizumi Hajime, my personal assistant. And this,” he turns to the third man, the handsome one, “is Sawamura Daichi. He’ll be managing the new store when it opens.”
The manager. Suga feels his stomach sink with odd, misplaced disappointment. Not that he had any expectations, only… “How can I help you?” he asks, setting aside his book. He’s all about the benefit of the doubt, but why are these guys here if not to declare war?
Thanks to Nishinoya’s superhuman hearing, he has no time to contemplate the possibilities: his glaring café manager appears in the arched entrance to the café as if on cue. “Did someone say Nekoma Books?”
“Noya-san,” Suga sighs, as the little man weaves between Iwaizumi, Sawamura, and Oikawa to climb the front counter, where he sits in a predatory crouch. Noya has a bad habit of climbing counters—especially problematic given he works with food. Yachi spends a chunk of her workday running after him with a towel.
“What do these corporate bastards want?”
“Go back to the café, Nishinoya.”
“Ryuu and the tall kid have it covered!”
“They don’t need you taking orders?”
“No customers to take orders from.”
Suga winces—some stellar management he’s got here. He can see the smirk playing at Oikawa’s lips. He leans around Noya to better address their visitors.
“Was there something I could help you with, Oikawa-san?”
“Haven’t you got any sort of respect for local culture?” spits Nishinoya. He’s souring Suga’s attempts at politeness so Suga takes him by the collar and drags him down from the counter, where Noya hovers by his elbow with a scowl.
“I do,” Oikawa simpers, “We know we’re competition, but we have the utmost respect for what Crow Street Books has meant to this neighborhood. How many years has it been, Sugawara-san?”
Suga’s throat feels dry. “Twenty-two. Twenty-two years. My mother started it.”
“Bastards,” mutters Noya again. Suga kicks him gently in the shin, earning a hiss.
“That is certainly impressive,” says Oikawa with a little bow. “We would hate to see an institution like this fall prey to hard times. Which is why we have brought you an offer. Iwa-chan?” Iwaizumi draws an envelope from his appointment book and offers it to Suga; it looks like it might contain some official document. “That,” Oikawa explains, “is a contract for the purchase of this establishment. We want to buy out Crow Street—your whole inventory, the property, the name.”
There’s the sound of a gong ringing in Sugawara Koushi’s ears.
“Buy Crow Street?” echoes Noya. Suga is grateful to ear him speak, since personally he can’t feel his tongue.
“Yes,” says Oikawa, with a wary glance at Noya.
“We had our lawyers draw up that contract as a tentative proposal,” Iwaizumi adds, speaking for the first time. “The terms are negotiable, if you decide to hire your own council, which is advisable.”
“Iwa-chan is full of advisable ideas,” Oikawa chimes. The long-suffering expression on Iwaizumi’s face is unmissable.
He removes the contract from the envelope, but his head swims and he can only make out flashes of dates and legal jargon and Crow Street Independent Booksellers and Café. “The name,” he realizes, “You’ll buy the name?”
Oikawa nods. “It’s a buy-out, so we become you!” Suga suddenly finds this guy’s nonchalance very objectionable. “Instead of just another Nekoma Books, this’ll be Crow Street Booksellers and Café: A Nekoma Books Superstore—bigger location right across the street, cheaper prices, same family atmosphere.” Oikawa rubs his hands together, it sounds like he’s giving a sales pitch. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies Sawamura, the rival manager, shift uncomfortably.
Suga’s face feels hot. His eyes drift to a photograph hung above the door, in which he can recognize his own young face, about six years old, and the glowing image of his mother. They’re standing behind this very counter, beaming. Crow Street’s grand opening. He remembers there was a line out the door. She’s been gone three years now, but his mother lives on in every corner of this store. She’s in the air and the wood and every time he hands a precious book to its new owner, he can feel her smile at him. It’s miraculous—this has always been his life but everyday it changes him for the better, too. He inhales.
“No.” The word edges out of Suga without consideration, but he doesn’t need to think about this, not really. “I won’t sell.” A smile breaks out over Noya’s face. Suga sees a rustle of red hair behind one of the bookshelves and realizes Hinata has been eavesdropping, and probably Yachi with him. He slips the contract back into the envelope, and returns it to Iwazumi, whose expression has darkened. Oikawa is frowning.
“You didn’t even let me give you the offer. I was sort of looking forward to it.”
“He won’t sell, you shit,” Noya snaps. “You can get out of here.”
Oikawa watches them both for a moment: little Nishinoya with his fixed glare, red-faced Sugawara holding his chin up high. He sighs. “You’d rather run this store into the ground than surrender your pride and let it live on a little differently?”
“I won’t run it into the ground,” Suga says, though he isn’t sure he believes it.
Iwaizumi tucks the contract back into his book, and Oikawa starts for the door, with a final quip: “And you think I don’t respect this place.” He leaves followed by his assistant, the bell on the door jingles as they go, and Suga can feel his shoulders relax, until he realizes – Sawamura hasn’t moved.
Before Suga can stop him, Noya is back on the counter. “What’s with you? Are you supposed to be the strong silent type or something?”
Sawamura’s mouth opens but nothing comes out—he really is good-looking, but if this display is any indication, he’s also a bit weird or awkward or something. Suga’s not entirely recovered from the exchange with Oikawa, but he manages a little smile.
“Can I help you with anything else, Sawamura-san? I hope you’ll respect my decision.”
Sawamura still doesn’t say anything. Noya elbows Suga. “This guy’s a weirdo, huh,” he mutters, and Suga feels a rush of embarrassment. He elbows back.
“The café, Nishinoya.”
Noya throws his hands up in surrender and hops down from the counter. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”
“I’ve told you three times!”
“Eh,” Noya dismisses, before he disappears.
Which leaves Sugawara with the stoic one.
A part of him believes if he waits, Sawamura will find whatever he wants to say. And if there’s one thing Suga can manage, it’s patience. He gives the other man a nod, and picks up his copy of Middlesex again.
He finishes half a page before a calm, low voice cuts the silence in the front of the store.
“I’d like to buy a book.”
Suga looks up. He can see it, that voice fitting with that face.
“Isn’t that counterproductive?”
“I don’t know,” Sawamura says, inscrutable, “Nekoma’s not open yet, and I want to get a handle on the competition.”
This is either strange or cute. Suga isn’t sure, but he’s leaning toward cute. Which is a pity, considering who this guy is.
“Okay,” says Suga slowly, “What are you into?”
Sawamura’s eyes widen for a half-second, and then he splutters, “Sorry?”
Suga is trying not to laugh. “What sort of books do you like? I was going to help you pick one.”
“All books,” Sawamura replies; he looks like he’s starting to get frustrated with his conversational impotence. Suga nods sagely.
“That makes sense, from the manager of a bookstore. You’d have to like all books.”
“Do you like all books, Sugawara-san?”
“Suga,” he corrects breezily. “And yes, I do. Believe it or not, I even love some of them.” He’s grinning, because he’s always grinning—he can’t stop himself sometimes—but right now it feels especially wide. He hopes Hinata and Yachi have abandoned their eavesdropping, for the sake of Sawamura’s dignity. His rival/customer is (and this is another weird-cute thing) still standing a solid meter and a half from the counter, stock still, as if glued to that spot. So Suga decides he’s going to come out from behind the register, maybe ease the tension a bit. For this one exchange, anyway.
When he does, however, Sawamura takes a step back. It’s a bit disconcerting, this behavior; Suga’s not used to people feeling uncomfortable around him. “I don’t bite,” he chirps. Fighting awkwardness with cheer, because… well, because he doesn’t really have another weapon in his arsenal.
Sawamura laughs. Definitely still awkward.
Suga is a good reader in several senses: firstly, he finishes two to three pages a minute in an average novel; secondly, he can look at a person’s face and gauge their feelings with a good deal of accuracy. Ninety-percent, on his sharpest days.
If it didn’t constitute a professional disaster, he would say that right now, Sawamura Daichi is feeling attracted to him.
Of course, something about Sawamura Daichi tells Suga that he’s not a lover of professional disasters, so even if his hypothesis is correct, it doesn’t mean much. Which is (he finds himself thinking yet again) a real pity, considering that Sawamura Daichi ain’t so bad himself. But they are rivals, and Suga is almost, nearly, sort of a taken man, he reminds himself.
In the interest of saying something, rather than continuing their current, increasingly intense staring contest, Suga swivels on his heel and announces, “I’m taking you to New Arrivals.” And he does.
As it turns out, their tastes run along the same lines, and Sawamura relaxes when he’s talking about literature. He lights on the name of an author he likes and rubs the back of his neck so Suga notices the way his dark hair curls against the nape, and the smoothness of his tan skin, and the bob of his Adam’s apple. He’s broad-shouldered but not burly, and his shirt is tucked in so when he moves the fabric stretches and crinkles over his hips. After a long discussion—Suga forgets manning the register entirely, but it’s not like they’ve got customers to serve—he settles Sawamura with a newer novel, one he’s been meaning to read himself. “Tell me what you think.”
“Of course, I’ll give you a full review,” says Sawamura, though it might be one of those empty promises—we should do this again soon; I’ll tell the kids you said hi; and so on.
“Good,” he says anyway, and they head back to the counter so he can start to ring up the purchase.
“I’m sorry about Oikawa.” Suga’s hands freeze over the buttons on the register. When he glances up, Sawamura’s face is serious, all the flirtatious mirth vanished. “He… he seems frivolous, but he cares about the company a lot. He’s a good boss.” Suga can hear the implication, loud and clear: you should reconsider his offer. And they’d been having such a good time.
“Then you should enjoy working for him, shouldn’t you, Sawamura-san?” Suga replies, and as he bags the book, he flashes the only fake smile he’s given all day.
Sawamura bites his lip. Lip biting is very unappealing, Suga tells himself, as earnestly as he can manage. Still, the words don’t sound very convincing, even in his head.
“Daichi is fine.”
But Suga pretends not to hear this—he isn’t curt or rude, he smiles just the same, but the switch flips and he’s dealing with a customer. “Would you like your receipt in the bag, Sawamura-san?”
“Ah… yes, I suppose so.”
He hands over the bag maybe a little too forcefully, and perhaps he can feel his smile growing manic, but it’ll all be over soon. Sawamura accepts his purchase with a nod and a frown. “Have a good afternoon,” Suga trills, and then he turns his back to do some busy work.
It takes too long for the little bell on the door tell him the day’s lone customer has left, but when it does he turns around, and the shop is empty again.
The six of them close up together and head their separate ways outside the shop. Suga and Yachi are going the same direction, so they walk part of the distance together, Suga rolling his bike alongside. Yachi gushes about a trip she’s taking with her mother soon, and Suga (horribly) thinks that at least that’s a week where he has one less paycheck to write.
He leaves Yachi at her bus stop and bikes the rest of the journey, the air whirling at him, seeping through his flannel. The cold wakes him up after a long day.
He is excited to go home.
It hasn’t always been this way. He used to leave the shop and return to the apartment and feel downtrodden by its quiet, particularly after his mother’s passing, when the silence took on a new grimness. In the shop he had his eclectic, energetic coworkers and the constant distraction of striving for success, and at home he was alone. Just himself and a standoffish cat.
My dear friend.
He curls up on the futon in his front room, buried under blankets, peering at the glowing screen of his laptop. It takes all the control he can muster not to check his personal email at work, nowadays.
My dear friend,
I think maybe you’ve swayed me. I always thought the literature of thought was above the literature of feeling, but I read your last correspondence and found myself wondering. What are you more likely to recall when you’re old, an abstract theory of morality or the time a book made you cry so hard your eyes stung for days afterwards? I suppose I am not old enough to know yet, but I could guess.
How was today? The sun’s only just risen, but by the time you read this I suspect it will have set. I hope you had a good day. Perhaps if I write that now and send it out into the ethos, it will come true. And if not, at least you’ll know I wished for you.
Suga has the silliest grin on his face.
Five months ago, the end of April, he’d replied to some post on a book lovers’ forum (“Looking for recommended translations of early 20th century Pan-American fiction anthologies”) and gotten into an exchange continued over private messages and then into emails—a discussion that traipsed from books to politics to relationships and family to philosophy and then back to books. Two or three emails every twenty-four hours from each of them, traded at the top and the bottom of the day, and sometimes instant messages into the wee hours of the morning, because there is something about this voice on the other side of the internet’s impenetrable ephemerality that winds up Suga’s heart. The way he—that’s all he knows, that the other person goes by he—strings words together and sneaks in little jokes and checks himself from straying into romantic syllogism (“Is this too sappy?”), which is somehow even more romantic than if he didn’t restrain himself.
One day, a few weeks ago, Suga wrote a very short email.
I think I like you.
Lots of like,
Sugawara Koushi is almost, nearly, sort of a taken man.
He snugs his nose against his arm, staring at the glowy letters of this latest correspondence. Then he starts to type.
You’re right that I’m right. And it’s nice to know that you’re not some old fuddy-duddy.
I wouldn’t say today was good. It was complicated. Bad, really. But I met someone. But he was bad too. I don’t know. I’m writing short sentences.
How was yours? Better, I hope.
He gets up and makes a quick dinner, and by the time he returns to the laptop with his bowl, there’s a new message.
Oh, I’m still a fuddy-duddy, just a young one.
You met someone? It’s a good thing I’m not jealous.
Suga sticks his tongue out at the screen.
There’s nothing to be jealous of. It was a fluke.
I met someone too, actually. And I made an ass of myself.
I guess we’re stuck with each other.
He hesitates with his hands over the send button, and then taps it. The next couple of minutes pass slowly. Reading the reply, Suga exhales, and his smile inches wider.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.