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[Weekender] Book cafes aren’t just about books

Library-style cafes rarely spur reading, but provide new cultural hub

The publishing industry might be struggling, but book cafes -- library-like cafes that offer a collection of books for people to read and purchase -- are thriving. Enter most book cafes in the Seoul area on a weekend afternoon, and you will be hard-pressed to find an empty seat.

The cafes’ popularity, however, does not necessarily signify an equal love for books among the public, it seems. One glance around the cafes shows the majority of customers working on their laptops or poring over textbooks they have brought with them; only a few browse the shelves. For most, the book cafe experience centers less on books and more on the quiet atmosphere the presence of books creates.

Book cafe Cafe Comma (Cafe Comma)
Book cafe Cafe Comma (Cafe Comma)

There are two types of visitors at the Humanitas Book Cafe in Hapjeong-dong, according to owner Kim Jae-sun. 

“You have people like freelancers, students, entrepreneurs or designers who are looking for somewhere quiet to work,” Kim said. “Then you have people who come in for our book collection, but they’re few and rare.”

For many book cafe-goers, books take on a symbolic meaning, more significant for what they stand for -- silence, introspection, knowledge -- than for the actual contents of their pages.

University student Kim Ye-jin said she visited book cafes more for the “feeling of being in a studious environment” and “being surrounded by books” than the books themselves.

“I usually go to study for my exams,” said Kim, who majors in business. “I look through some books when I need to cool my head. But I don’t really have the time to finish a book cover-to-cover. I like the library-like atmosphere.”

At Cafe Comma, where full shelves tower up to the ceiling, books double as interior decor items, said Jang Eu-ttem, who runs the cafe. But they are more than purely decorative, he emphasized.

“We wanted to make books more approachable by arranging them artfully,” Jang said. “People might at first be drawn to our cafe by the visuals, but proximity to books can lead to a genuine interest in them. People might browse absentmindedly at first, and become hooked.”

Book cafes evolve into multicultural spaces

In an attempt to stimulate waning sales, many Korean publishing companies -- including Dasan Books, Changbi Publishers, Kimyoungsa and various others -- have branched out into the book cafe business, hoping the cafes might provide a new source of revenue.

But while book cafes do help promote their publishers’ brands and serve as a new platform in which to sell books, their popularity has not necessarily led to the increase in book sales, according to Jang of Cafe Comma, which is owned by publishing house Moonhakdongne.

“Most of our profit comes from selling beverages and cakes,” said Jang. “Book sales remain largely unaffected.”

Some book cafes have decided to redefine themselves entirely to stay profitable in other ways. Red Bookstore (Bbalgan Chaekbang), owned by publishing company Wisdom House, dubs itself a “culture cafe” and acts not only as a space for reading and studying, but also as a gallery, event hall, and podcast station -- resulting in monthly profits of around 80 million won ($70,000), according to reports.

“We do everything from hosting lectures and small concerts to displaying artwork,” said Kim Ji-min, the cafe’s manager. On the third floor of the cafe, film critic Lee Dong-jin hosts a podcast series which reviews and introduces Wisdom House’s books. 

By Rumy Doo (