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Starbucks aficionados flock to Seoul’s Gyeongdong Market

Abandoned theater turned into a retro-themed cafe draws young hipsters to traditional marketplace

By Choi Jae-hee

Published : Dec. 25, 2022 - 15:27

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The new Starbucks Kyungdong 1960 located in Seoul’s Gyeongdong Market (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald) The new Starbucks Kyungdong 1960 located in Seoul’s Gyeongdong Market (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald)

A Starbucks neon sign hanging on the wall of an old building emits a soft green glow in the midst of street vendors offering seasonal greens and traditional herbal medicines.

Young couples and office workers walk past the food stalls surrounded mostly by elderly shoppers looking for a bargain as they head toward a hidden gem in the marketplace -- a new Starbucks store within Seoul’s Gyeongdong Market that just opened last week.

Dubbed “Kyungdong 1960,” the new coffee shop is a remodeled version of the Gyeongdong Theater which opened in 1962 and was shut down about 30 years later. The new hangout draws coffee geeks and passersby with its nostalgic 1960s ambiance.

A view of the old Gyeongdong Theater, built in 1962, before it was redeveloped into a cafe (Courtesy of Starbucks Korea) A view of the old Gyeongdong Theater, built in 1962, before it was redeveloped into a cafe (Courtesy of Starbucks Korea)

A spot previously occupied by the old theater’s projection screen has been transformed into a counter furnished with kitchen worktops, refrigerated deli cases and cash registers.

Behind the counter are more than 140 wooden coffee tables and chairs on large steps with ochroleucous light bulbs dangling from the ceiling, creating a cozy atmosphere. The 805- square-meter store has some 200 seats on the third and fourth floors of the old theater.

A beam projector shoots customers’ purchase order numbers and the nicknames they used on the Starbucks mobile order system high up on a wall, in resemblance of an old film’s ending credits.

Customers’ purchase order numbers and nicknames used for placing an order through Starbucks' mobile app are projected on a wall. (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald) Customers’ purchase order numbers and nicknames used for placing an order through Starbucks' mobile app are projected on a wall. (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald)

On Thursday afternoon, a number of young visitors armed with selfie sticks were filming vlogs introducing the unique coffee shop, while some couples were roaming the place to find Instagrammable photo spots.

Yoon Jeong-hye, a 23-year-old student at Kyung Hee University, who has lived for two years in Dongdaemun-gu where Gyeongdong Market is located, said the store seems like a cultural platform that connects young people to the area’s cultural heritage.

“This is my first visit to Gyeongdong Market. I had no idea that it was this big and sells all kinds of medical herbs. The new Starbucks store embraces both traditional and modern culture, making me become more interested in the neighborhood I’m living in,” she said.

The entrance to Starbucks Kyungdong 1960 (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald) The entrance to Starbucks Kyungdong 1960 (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald)

With more than a century of history, Gyeongdong Market is mostly known for being the No. 1 source of traditional herbal medicines.

As part of its corporate social responsibility, Starbucks Korea decided to open a new branch by refurbishing the once-abandoned cinema through cooperation with the Gyeongdong Market Merchants Association and the Korean Commissions for Corporate Partnership.

“Starbucks’ Kyungdong 1960 branch is a place that all generations can enjoy. We will offer services to promote mutually beneficial relations between new businesses and local communities,” a Starbucks official said.

To revitalize the traditional market, 300 won ($0.23) for every item sold at the new store will be used to run cultural programs such as coffee classes and small music concerts, which could draw more young people to the traditional market.

A A "special experience" zone near the entrance of Starbucks Kyungdong 1960 exhibits old electric appliances produced by LG Electronics' predecessor, GoldStar, in the 1960s. (Choi Jae-hee / The Korea Herald)

Meanwhile, what catches visitors’ eyes on their way to the store is an experience zone set up in collaboration with LG Electronics. On display are old black-and-white television models, washing machines, refrigerators and other electric appliances produced by GoldStar, the predecessor of LG Electronics, during the 1960s.

One side of the wall is equipped with a large LED screen with images and videos showing the past and present, while four separate rooms offer different entertainment activities, from retro video games to upcycling crafts.

How to get to Starbucks Kyungdong 1960?

1. Take the Seoul subway to Cheongnyangni Station on Line No. 1, and take Exit No. 1.

2. Enter Gate 4 of Gyeongdong Market. A green Starbucks neon sign hanging on the wall of an old building is to your right.

3. Walk up the stairs to the third floor of the building where Starbucks Kyungdong 1960 is located.