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[Weekender] A trip around unique bookstores in SeoulBy Lim Jang-won
Published : March 20, 2021 - 16:00
While some head to mega bookstore chains like Kyobo Book Center and Aladdin Store to find books, others head to smaller neighborhood nooks or unique retailers in hopes of coming across interesting titles. Unique bookstores like Seoul Book Bogo, Arc N Book and Starfield Library have attracted both tourists and Koreans alike looking to both check out books and take lasting photos of the stores’ stunning interior. However, smaller independent bookstores are vastly different from those which get hundreds of visitors each day.
At some of the smaller unique bookstores around Seoul, each owner’s love of books and what makes them special will not be lost on its guests.
Storage Book & Film
Located in Haebangchon in Yongsan, central Seoul, the independent bookstore Storage Book & Film isn’t easy to find as it is off the main street dotted with popular restaurants. Having opened in 2012, it is unique in that it only sells books printed by independent publishers.
While larger bookstores often place bestsellers in eye-catching places, this bookstore doesn’t divide books by genre due to limited space. With various books piled up next to each other, people spend a lot of time in the bookstore and leaf through the books one by one.
“In a way, books by big publishers are planned and made in a very standardized way,” said Mike Kang, CEO of Storage Book & Film. “Books by independent publishers are all unique, so there is much freedom on the outside. Each of us looks and thinks differently, why should books be the same?”
His interest in independently published books led him to leave his job in finance and set up shop selling books. While running a small bookstore isn’t financially easy, the revenue from selling books, independent books that the store publishes on its own and workshops keep the bookstore running.
“Many independently published books aren’t made with commercial interest so they are relatively freer in context and form and the authors are allowed to do whatever,” Kang said. “I want customers to approach books in a more flexible manner. Some people might wonder why a certain book was published, but the author has a reason for writing the book. Just because a certain customer can’t figure out the intention doesn’t mean the book is wrong. It’s just different.”
“We sell books that can show diverse aspects of independently published books. We don’t really focus on whether it will sell well or not and try to select books that we want to sell or introduce. It’s hard to have a criterion,” he said.
Two of the most memorable independent books in recent years for Kang have been “I’ll Cry If I Write a Little More. I’ll Write Again Tomorrow” that compiles love letters a husband wrote to his wife from 1985 to 1988 when they were dating, and “Oppa Diary,” a compilation of diary entries and pictures of the author‘s deceased older brother, to commemorate his death.
“I hope to have a positive influence on people through the independently published books. I also want them to feel the joy independent books have to offer,” Kang said.
For those who enjoy mystery novels and are looking to find the next thriller to read, Mystery Union is the place to go to.
Hidden in an alley in Sinchon, western Seoul is the bookstore Mystery Union, its name befitting the books that it sells. Mystery books from authors from around the world adorn the shelves.
Organized by country and author, customers can find a myriad of mystery books and get suggestions from the owner. On one side is a themed section that highlights different categories, such as sci-fi mystery and historical mystery, that rotates each month.
“I started the bookstore purely because I like mystery books,” said the owner Yoo Soo-young. “No other reason.”
An avid reader herself, Yoo is happy to make recommendations to patrons looking for a gripping read.
Although majority of its customers are women as it is located in front of Ewha Womans University, Yoo thought her shop had more male customers than other bookstores because of the genre. She also thinks readers of mystery novels tend to ask more questions about the books compared to readers of other genres, such as those about the book‘s setting or literary devices used.
Sometimes parents would come with children who usually start reading mystery novels with well-known novels like the Sherlock Holmes series.
“Korean mystery novels are being published more than before. Japanese and English mystery novels are still the most popular among the customers,” Yoo said.
Salon De Book
A few minutes’ walk from Seoul National University Station in Seoul is a unique bookstore bar Salon De Book where customers can enjoy drinks while reading books.
On an early Monday evening, some college students were sitting in the bar eating snacks and drinking, while others were immersed in their books with a drink on the side.
“I like having a drink while reading a book, so I often went to a local bar and read. After a while, I felt uncomfortable that people kept on staring and thought of creating a place where people can read a book and drink comfortably,” said Kang Myung-ji, owner of Salon De Book. “Although many book places where you can read and have a drink have appeared in recent years, when I opened in 2016 I remember the official at the tax office asking me if such a place was possible.”
While it is not easy running a bookstore with no fixed income, the desire to have a place that fulfils both enjoyments at the same time keeps Kang going.
One book and drink pairing that she recommends is an Old-Fashioned cocktail and “Do you like Brahms?” by Francoise Sagan because the topic of love is like a classic cocktail that doesn’t change despite the passing of time.
As the place is registered as a restaurant, COVID-19 regulations require the store to close earlier than before. However, as it also acts as a cultural space in addition to being a place to read books, Kang had no desire to shut down and continues to plan online events and programs combining drinks and books.
“I want Salon De Books to be a place where all the customers can feel like they are the owners. A bookstore where people want to preserve it as if it were their own and read books, drink and share stories,” Kang said.
Across from the popular tourist attraction Gyeongbokgung, on the basement floor of the building that houses the Korean Publishers Association is Seoul Selection that sells only English-language books on Korea.
From books on traditional Korean religions, culture and history to books on K-pop and BTS, the bookstore prides itself as having one of the largest collection of English-language Korean Studies books. It also serves as an independent publisher and translates and publishes popular Korean literature.
The unique emphasis on English-language books on Korea is hard to find anywhere else. The bookstore aims to raise awareness among foreigners about Korea.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, tourists visiting the palace would stop by and foreigners and professors living in Korea would visit. Now, the bookstore mostly runs on selling books that it publishes and translates, as well as regularly shipping books to universities around the world.
With Korea now better known around the world, there is less demand for introductory books on Korea and a higher interest for fictions by notable authors like Han Kang in English, compilations of Korean traditional stories and books about K-pop, among others.
For those interested in finding and reading Korean literature in English, the best odds of finding them lies here.
By Lim Jang-won (email@example.com)
Articles by Lim Jang-won
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