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Break-ups, porn, and bakas: The legend of the Barnes & Noble manga section

When Heather was 13, she dreamed of meeting a boyfriend. She didn’t want anything too special, just a pretty boy who shared her interests. When she finally entered high school, she thought she’d find the perfect guy — but no such boy arrived. So she started dreaming about bumping into her imaginary crush while out shopping for books, similar to the stories that she used to read in her favorite shojo manga. That’s when she started looking for love in the Barnes & Noble manga section. She fantasized, What would happen if I met someone in this very aisle?

This is the legacy of the manga section of Barnes & Noble. On the outside, it looks just like any section inside a corporate chain bookstore, but the contents are special. The term manga is a general term that refers to Japanese comics. There is no “typical” manga story; plots can feature anything from shonen, which often follow a hero on an action adventure, to the aforementioned shojo, a type of manga that often contains romance plots and depictions of everyday life. Sometimes people read manga online using a digital subscription, but many fans still enjoy the feeling of holding a paperback copy in their hands.

On the shelf, they appear almost like encyclopedias, except with striking cover art of demons and boys with blue hair and large swords. The imagery lures teens, making the manga section home to countless stories like Heather’s. Over time, it has become mythologized as a destination for manga lovers to meet up, make friends, and, if they’re lucky, maybe even find love.

Unlike many of the novels sold at Barnes & Noble, serialized manga comes out every week. “Every time there was a new volume of Bakuman, I would run to my nearest Barnes & Noble to read it,” Naomi Norbez, a longtime manga fan who frequented the store in their youth, told Polygon over Twitter. Once there, having all the options in front of you makes it easy to stay and read something new, especially if you’re a kid who is low on cash. Pair that with a laid-back atmosphere and air conditioning, and you have the perfect reading locale.

“Growing up, the Barnes & Noble manga section, not the beach or the swimming pool, was my favorite place to hang out,” said Shannon Liao, a reporter at the Washington Post’s Launcher, in a Twitter message. And sure, Barnes & Noble isn’t a library, but a representative from the company told Polygon that young people are free to read there — so long as they don’t obstruct the aisles or otherwise violate the fire code.

Liao got the full Barnes & Noble experience — she got asked out by a stranger in the manga section who spoke to her about Naruto and One Piece. She said she felt “flattered” by the attention, especially because she didn’t expect Barnes & Noble to be a place for dating.

For others, the manga section is a cursed place full of smelly nerds that you try to avoid.

“Inevitably there’d be at least one or two people, camped out, a pile of manga stacked high beside them,” Hunter Bond, a regular Barnes & Noble customer, told Polygon over Twitter. Bond and his friends even developed a jokey phrase for passing by these regulars: hitting the “manga speedbump.”

The popular rest stop for otaku has become infamous for awkward encounters. Polygon’s own Julia Lee had a near-visceral reaction to the sheer idea of the section, characterizing it as “riddled with bad energy.” She once saw a couple breaking up there. “The dude was sitting on the floor across from her in the fucking middle of the aisle being like, ‘It’s not you, its me,’” Lee said.

Sometimes the encounters are mischievous. Travis Manick told Polygon over Twitter that he used to spend a lot of time in the store between classes while in college to read hentai, or pornographic manga. “I felt like I was getting away with something,” he said. Once he picked his book, he would find a corner and “side-eye everyone who came around,” nervous that people would notice what he was reading.

The Barnes & Noble manga section is now basically a living meme, especially on platforms like TikTok, where users repurpose an actual image from the store as a green screen backdrop.

In one video, the uploader pretends to read their manga quietly as My Hero Academia fans scream without regard for those around them. Half the words are usually in Japanese, and even for those within the fandom, they sound embarrassing. The audio goes, “Dekuuuu! Good morning, you sussy baka,” which roughly translates to a greeting for a suspicious fool. The audio clip, which has gone viral and is used in a variety of situations, is intended to roast fans of the My Hero Academia manga. Manga, and, in particular, anime that adapts the medium, is full of dramatic cartoon characters — so seeing someone shouting in a made-up accent or doing a super high-pitched voice makes them stick out a ton. It’s an especially audacious type of performance at a place as banal as a chain bookstore.

Another video taken inside the store, pokes fun at know-it-all fans that try to recommend you titles, even if you weren’t interested in their opinions. Other viral videos have even documented particularly “cringe” behavior firsthand, such as videos of people watching anime inside the aisle with the volume turned up. The gist is always the same: The manga section at Barnes & Noble is an experience, for better or worse.

The Barnes & Noble manga section isn’t exactly popping during the pandemic, but people are still coming in. Mitch Newport, a manager in the manga section at a store in Minneapolis, told Polygon that the section “is still abuzz with activity,” except now, conversations are brief and masked. Still, Newport is “no less energized and excited [to talk] about customers’ favorite.”

In the end, Heather did not end up finding love in the manga section. But going there allowed her to imagine a world not all that different from the shojo she grew up reading in that very place.

“Looking back, it’s obvious that I was just enthralled by the what ifs of the whole scenario… it wasn’t the person or outcome that was as exciting to me, it was the setup,” she said.

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