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Membership-based Sojeonseolim library offers space for writers, readers to mix and mingle

Membership library Sojeonseolim director Hwangbo Yumi (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Membership library Sojeonseolim director Hwangbo Yumi (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
A goose-shaped chair with a gigantic art book in front of it dominates the room. If you came expecting a typical library, you might think you came to the wrong place.

Sojeonseolim, which means “forest of books covered with white bricks,” is a new library in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, which opened Saturday.

“Swiss architect Davide Macullo designed this building in 2016 as an art museum. We changed it into a library and Korean architect Choi Wook, director of One O One Architects, is responsible for the interior design of the place.” Sojeonseolim director Hwangbo Yumi, 46, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.

“We hope that not only readers, but also writers become our members and be an inspiration to each other,” she said. “At the Paris cafe street, famous writers like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre had a conversation about art while having tea or wine, this inspired them to write great books. We hope to create a space like that.”

To begin, the library selected 50 writers to become special members.

The annual membership fee of 660,000 won ($545), entitles membership holders to a 50 percent discount on library admission fees, which are 25,000 won per day. Nonmembers are charged 30,000 won for using the library for half a day and 50,000 for the whole day. The library has around 40,000 books, including 30,000 literary works.

“On the first floor we also operate a cafe, and it turns into a wine bar at night. The users are also allowed to enjoy their drinks in the library (located on the first basement floor),” Hwangbo said.

Hwangbo understands there are some criticisms on the steep price, which she explains is justified by what the space an offer its members.

“Our entrance fee is higher than the price of a book. It is not about just reading and finishing books. We want them to read books, listen to our music and enjoy our atmosphere here. This place can also become an art exhibition, as we curated works by great contemporary artists, like a painting by (British figurative painter) Francis Bacon,” Hwangbo said.

“If you look at our ‘Art Now’ section, we also directly brought over the latest art catalogs from places like Tokyo, London and Paris. We hope to make this place the best place to find these catalogs in Korea,” she said.

She added that this is the reason users cannot borrow books from Sojeonseolim, although it bills itself as a library.

 
Membership library Sojeonseolim (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
Membership library Sojeonseolim (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)


Hwangbo said she realized the potential of this business model after seeing people in Japan at Bunkitsu Bookstore. “It was a bookstore, but it was charging entrance fees,” she said.

Once she decided to charge an entrance fee, she did a lot of market research about pricing.

“At first, we considered charging our users like comic book cafes in Korea,” Hwangbo said. Comic book cafes here typically charge users by the hour and also allow them to drink tea and have snacks while reading.

“But we found out that it is difficult, as people cannot read a regular book as fast as comic books. With comics, one can read a few books an hour, but it does not work like that for literary books,” she added.

The unique library combining literary works and art also reflects Hwangbo’s personal background.

She worked for the planning team at the Korean National Ballet from 2009 to 2012 as well as the Korea Art Management Service, which is under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, until April 2018.

“Although I did major in Korean literature, I had been working in fields a bit distant from literary business. So when I was first offered the position in the library two years ago, I declined,” she said.

But she decided to take up the position after seeing it as an opportunity for her to expand, and took charge from the planning stage of the library.

“Although it seemed risky (giving up my job in the ministry), I wanted to challenge myself,” she added.

By Song Seung-hyun (ssh@heraldcorp.com)
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