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The bookstore that talks politics

Powerplant in Hongdae is a bookstore by day, and a melting pot for lively political discussions by night

Entrance of Powerplant (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Entrance of Powerplant (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Occupying a 63-square-meter space on the second floor of a building in Hongdae’s bustling district is Powerplant, a bookstore that welcomes those who wish to read and talk politics.

“How can you not be romantic about politics?” reads a lit pink neon sign at the entrance to the bookstore, a reference to a line from the 2011 film “Moneyball” -- “How can you not be romantic about baseball?”

Resembling a rusty attic, Powerplant is a bookstore that focuses exclusively on the genres of politics and foreign affairs and currently has some 1,000 books on its shelves. Powerplant operates as a regular bookstore during the day, but after 6 p.m., the place is transformed into a lively agora, where poets, politicians, professors, graduate students, social activists and journalists take part in lively debates on controversial political issues of the day.
Book of the month, “Letters from Machiavelli” (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Book of the month, “Letters from Machiavelli” (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Last spring, the bookstore launched a service called “Letters from Machiavelli.” Some 11 political scientists and pundits select and review a book each month. The number of regular subscribers for the service range from 300 to 400.

Powerplant did not start out as a bookstore. Founded in 2013 as a nonprofit social organization under the guidance of Choi Jang-jip, a professor emeritus of political science at Korea University, the aim of Powerplant was to bridge the gap between academia and those out in the field on the issue of political democracy. As a way to meet its goal, the organization also held regular training sessions for a diverse group from senior aides in the National Assembly to lawmakers.

“Visiting libraries and bookstores, craving books that fit my taste, I noticed that major cities such as London and Tokyo had bookstores that specialize in politics,” Cho Seong-ju, head of Powerplant, told The Korea Herald.

He also noticed the lack of space where young and old could discuss politics frankly. Then the idea came to him to open a bookstore where the so-called “1990s generation (referring to the Millennials and Gen Z)” could mingle and have fun. He decided on the Hongdae, Hapjeong area frequented by Seoul’s hipsters.

Space for interaction, exchange
Author Kang Nam-kyu holds a book-live session on Monday evening at Powerplant in Seoul. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Author Kang Nam-kyu holds a book-live session on Monday evening at Powerplant in Seoul. (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
On Monday evening at Powerplant, Kang Nam-kyu, an author from the ‘90s generation, was on a standby for a “book-live session” on his newly released book, “The Civilians not yet Present.” Despite the wet, gloomy weather, six participants showed up in person. Five minutes before the start of the session, 22 online participants were connected.

Cho hosted the 80-minute session during which the participants both online and at the bookstore were invited to join the discussion.

“It seems that democracy switches on and off instantly in Korea. But in reality, democracy continuously changes and evolves over time,” Kang said when Cho asked for the author’s opinions on democracy in Korea. “The citizens protest and claim their rights only after democracy has been completely destroyed. But most do not give it a second thought, when it’s there, even in extremely vulnerable times.” Kang said.

A participant interjected, “In the book, you constantly remind the readers that your social analyses are not based on the perspective of generational clash. But there seems to be a point in your lines, where you feel the divide.”

In response, Kang said that he had never thought of his generation as “being on the radical side or as being distinctively progressive.” But, he believes there are new values and customs that are neither understood nor shared among specific groups in the silent generation and Gen X, those whom he terms, “the lost mentors.”

Some people reached for relevant books on the shelves, while others noted down the author’s comments. After receiving a few more questions from the online audience through the chat room, the session came to an end.
Cho Seong-ju (left), head of Powerplant, and Kang Nam-kyu (right), author of the book “The Civilians not yet Present.” (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Cho Seong-ju (left), head of Powerplant, and Kang Nam-kyu (right), author of the book “The Civilians not yet Present.” (Kim Hae-yeon/ The Korea Herald)
Powerplant’s regular book sessions are held in Korean, but foreign books are often chosen as the main theme, including some books that are considered part of a canon for students majoring in politics.

“Powerplant is open to anyone willing to talk about political matters. These days, we are particularly interested in topics surrounding comparative politics. Participants across borders are more than welcome to discuss the issues in depth.” Cho said.

Cho observed that women in their 20s and 30s often reach for books on gender politics, but men not so much. Cho suggested that social media might be an underlying problem that contributed to an “unbalanced” choice of books and viewpoints amongst different genders and generations.

“The world of social media often attracts extremists and stirs up field with one-sided opinion. Engagement with people, often face-to-face, and sharing of ideas with respect towards others is the value that I cherish at Powerplant bookstore.” Cho said.

Powerplant’s goal for the coming years is to create a place for sound political debates that could stand up to the “chaotic” social media environment.

The weekly book sessions and topic discussions are held both online and offline, while seminars that invite political figures are mostly virtual. Powerplant bookstore is located 600 meters from Hapjeong Subway Station exit 5, next to Mon Cafe Gregory. Information and schedules can be found at Powerplant’s website, www. powerplantkr.com.

By Kim Hae-yeon (hykim@heraldcorp.com)
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