For years, I've followed Craig Mod, a designer and essayist who splits his time between New York and Tokyo and who thinks about such subjects as photography, air travel, Haruki Murakami books, publishing, the experience of Japan, and coffee — in other words, the finer things in life. But like all of our obsessions, his have deeper connections, and I sense them when I read a passage like this one from his piece on drinking a near-perfect cup of "Façon blend" in a newly opened little coffee shop in Nakameguro:
Real craftspeople. Quiet. Focused. No chitter chatter. Not serious business but good business. Proud business. Smiles and good work.
Everyone has seen the Jiro movie.
It seems like Jiro is an aberration. Nobody could possibly care about anything else like Jiro cares about his sushi. The joy in exploring Japan is you quickly realize Jiro is not an aberration. Perhaps his skills are, but his ethos isn't. That ethos pervades. And what a joy it is to witness, unexpectedly, on the fourth floor of a new building, in a smoke filled café.
Whenever I go into a Japanese or Korean bookstore, I come away impressed, not just by the care that goes into their operations — though you really should see the uniforms in some of these places — but by the care that goes into their products. For whatever set of complex cultural reasons, a disproportionate number of publishers in northeast Asia put in the time, effort, and money for design work that makes their books desirable objects in and of themselves.
American publishers sometimes give lip service to the idea of a book's "physicality," but rarely do they put out anything better than what feel, in this day and age, like printed-out e-books. But the U.S. publishing scene has one glorious exception in the Seattle-based Chin Music Press, who have devoted themselves specifically to making books worthy of their own objecthood.
I first came across Chin Music when arranging an interview with Todd Shimoda, author of their novels Oh! A Mystery of Mono no Aware and Subduction. The appeal of not just these novels' contents but their heft, texture, and sheer sense of aesthetics led me to discover their other titles, such as Shiro, a lavish biography of Seattle's best-known sushi chef (the Jiro of the Pacific Northwest, surely), Patrick W. Galbraith and Androniki Christodoulou's Otaku Spaces, and Yokohama Yankee, whose author Leslie Helm I also interviewed on my podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture.
Given the level of their craft, no wonder Chin Music has such a strong Japan connection. The anthology Kuhaku, their very first publication, constituted "the celebration of a collective experience in contemporary Japan," and their most recent, Yoshinori Henguchi's bilingual poetry-photography-essay book Lizard Telepathy Fox Telepathy, intends to "plunge the reader into a subculture somewhere in the backstreets of Osaka."
But in parallel, they also put out books rooted firmly in American soil, such as the lines of New Orleans-related fiction and nonfiction as well as pure Americana in their catalog. And they not long ago redoubled their commitment to the physical world by opening up their own bookstore in Seattle, one of the U.S. cities with the readingest reputations.
After all this, it added up, to say the least, when I read the story of Chin Music and found out the identity of the press' founding designers: book designers Josh Powell and — you guessed it — Craig Mod. Everything connects, I guess, and not just in well-built novels.