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Book cafes are evolving

While bookstores are disappearing, book-themed cafes emerge as cultural spots

The inside view of Cafe Comma, run by the major publishing house Munhakdongne Publishing Group. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
The inside view of Cafe Comma, run by the major publishing house Munhakdongne Publishing Group. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)
Cafes have been a favorite place for many writers and artists.

Some of them actually have become historical spots, including La Closerie des Lilas in Paris, where Hemingway was asked by F. Scott Fitzgerald to read the manuscript of “The Great Gatsby.” In St. Petersburg, there is the Literary Cafe, where Russia’s top writers ― including Dostoevsky and Pushkin ― were among its regulars.

In Seoul, cafes that provide books to read reflect the ever-changing trend and culture of the publishing industry here, where physical bookstores are booming while offline ones are virtually disappearing.

Many of these cafes are clustered in the city’s Hongdae area, known for its urban arts and indie music scene. Hongdae used to be home to Korea’s major publishing houses ― before many of them moved to Paju Book City in Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in 2002. Some publishing companies still remain in the artsy district, however, including Hainaim, Jaeum & Moeum Publishing and Hongik Publishing. It is where editors and writers have their meetings and discussions, and invite their readers to special events.

The Hongdae district, which stretches from Seogyo-dong to Hapjeong-dong, has seen a heyday for cafes in the past decade. Today’s visitors have many choices ― there are cafes with cats and dogs, cafes with fortune-tellers, and cafes with cool vintage furniture and even artworks. Among them, the book-themed cafes are evolving into multi-purpose culture spots, replacing the fast-disappearing bookstores and even attracting library-goers.

“I think many people used to visit cafes only for special occasions,” says Jang Eu-ddeum, who runs a book-themed cafe named Cafe Comma in the Hongdae area.

“But people visit cafes almost every day now. They just come here to hang out. Our families have become smaller, and so have our residential spaces. I think more people are in need of a space that is identical to a living room.”

Jang, who used to work as a marketer for major publishing house Munhakdongne Publishing Group, opened a cafe in Seogyo-dong back in 2011. His cafe also works as a bookstore. Visitors can purchase books, all published by Munhakdongne, at a 50 percent discount. These are the books that have been returned to the publishing house from online and physical bookstores, as they did not get sold by the required time. All of the books are in very good condition, many looking brand new.

“Before opening the cafe, we (the publishing company) had to throw most of these books out,” says Jang. “It cost too much to hire someone to take care of them. It really was heartbreaking to see them taken away to be destroyed.”

Cafe Comma is the kind of place that Jang has always dreamed of. The bookshelves in the cafe stretch from the floor to the high ceiling, occupying an entire wall of the property. There is a ladder that lets visitors explore the books on the high shelves. People enjoy their coffee and converse freely, while others browse the books or work on their laptops. Some, of course, end up purchasing the books.

“When you are a voracious reader and have a lot of books at home, you constantly think about the best way to house and display them at the same time,” says Jang.

“I’ve always wanted floor-to-high ceiling bookshelves.”

For Jang, the biggest joy is seeing his customers reading the books that he participated in creating. “When you work at a publishing company, you hardly get to see the readers who actually enjoy the projects you created,” says Jang. “But in this cafe, the readers are physically here. It really is an enormous joy to see your books being read by real people.”

Another major publishing house, Changbi Publishers in Paju Book City, opened its own cafe in Seogyo-dong in February last year. The cafe, which also sells books by the publishing house, has become the hot spot for literary events and gatherings. 
Author Gong Ji-young (left) speaks during a literary event held at Cafe Changbi. (Cafe Changbi)
Author Gong Ji-young (left) speaks during a literary event held at Cafe Changbi. (Cafe Changbi)

The cafe has already held more than 80 events featuring some of the most celebrated writers and scholars in the country. Some of its frequent visitors include scholar Kim Doo-sik, who is the author of popular nonfiction “It is All Right to Desire,” as well as poet Kim Seon-woo and novelist Gong Ji-young.

During the presidential election campaigns last year, the cafe was also often visited by DUP candidate Moon Jae-in and independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, whenever they had meetings with literary figures.

“We really strive to be something more than a cafe, or a bookstore, or a library,” says the cafe’s manager Jeong Ji-yeon.

“Many editors of Changbi also work in the cafe, holding their editorial meetings here. We receive visits from both our readers and writers. We think it’s important to have a physical place to display the books and interact with the people, in spite of the increasing number of online bookstores. While e-books are all about the content, books as hard copies have something more to offer.”

Meanwhile, Rabbit’s Wisdom, also located in the Hongdae area, is the kind of cafe that feels very much like a library. It has reputation for being very quiet, with an academic vibe. The cafe, which opened in 2007, shows off its vast collection of books, including the new publications from bookstores.

According to its owner Choi Won-seok, many of its customers are illustrators, translators and freelance writers.

“This place is not owned by a publishing house, so our collection of books is very diverse,” Choi told The Korea Herald. “Many of the customers, such as writers and illustrators, come to the cafe to work.”
“Between Pages,” a book-themed cafe run by Kaya Media Corporation. (Kaya Media Corporation)
“Between Pages,” a book-themed cafe run by Kaya Media Corporation. (Kaya Media Corporation)

Meanwhile, a book-themed cafe in southern Seoul is attracting visitors for its fashion and beauty classes. The cafe, Between Pages, is run by Kaya Media Corporation, the local publisher of Harper’s Bazaar, Esquire and Motor Trend. Here, people can freely browse the back issues of the magazines while enjoying their coffee. They can also purchase the latest issues of the magazines as well. Opened last September, the cafe hosts beauty and fashion classes related to the content of their magazines.

“One of the purposes of running the cafe is to sell the magazines, because most (physical) bookstores are disappearing,” says Hong Won-jun, an assistant director at Kaya. “Our next class will be about how to style your hair.”

On top of everything else, however, books are public goods, says Jang of Cafe Comma. “The disappearance of (physical) bookstores is unfortunate for the reading public and the country, and really putting the existence of publishing houses at risk,” he says.

“But reading (hard copy) books is the kind of experience that is incomparable to anything else. It requires one’s initiative and physical actions. The stories don’t continue unless you flip the pages with your hands. That’s why every reading experience is very personal, and that is why we need physical spaces to offer that opportunity to the public.”

By Claire Lee (
Korea Herald Youtube