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The “Local” Bookstore Boom [Korea Herald]

(Published: 2024-01-26 05:13)

For much of January, I had the privilege of being invited to give talks on two books that I wrote in Korean. “Why Do Cities Preserve History” is a new book, while “How to Read Cities” is a revised edition of a 2019 book. As I met readers and signed books, I thought about the meaning of bookstores in South Korea in 2024.

Bookstores have a prominent place in the history of South Korea. For decades after the Korean War, bookstores, both new and used, were an important center of neighborhood life where students could buy books to help them get ahead in an increasingly competitive educational system. Admission to a university, particularly a prestigious university, was a ticket to social success.

Meanwhile, investment in libraries lagged during the boom years, which made bookstores all the more important to students. Used bookstores helped circulate books to students from families of limited means, and books often changed hands many times before they became unusable.

By the 1980s, the middle class was beginning to grow. Changes in the university entrance system increased the number of university students, which gave a boost to the publishing industry. As the decade wore on political activism on university campuses spread, creating new demand for books.

Democratization in 1987 also brought an end to censorship and created new demand for books on topics that had previously been taboo. Publishers that had suffered under censorship prospered as the reading public grew. This was the decade of big bookstores, crowded with young people, in main shopping areas in cities big and small. In Seoul, Kyobo Book Centre and Jongno Seojeok ruled the once thriving student area of Jongno.

As with so much else, things began to change in the 1990s as the internet began to plant deep roots in daily life. Online booksellers began to appear, gradually causing neighborhood bookstores to go under. Jongno Seojeok, which was founded in 1907, eventually succumbed and closed its doors in 2002.

Other social changes began to hurt bookstores. As the shift of wealth to Gangnam, southern Seoul, accelerated, mainstream retail expanded there and in other areas with large concentrations of apartments. Older areas north of the Han River began to shift toward food and drink. Reading habits changed as the energy of the student movement faded and rising incomes gave people more leisure options.

By the mid-2010s, most neighborhood bookstores had gone under, and online bookstores had taken an ever-larger share of the market. Amid the gloom, however, a revival started as brave entrepreneurs began opening small “local” bookstores. Unlike their neighborhood counterparts of the past, the new bookstores focus on book selection and activities, such as book talks and book clubs, in an attractive space. Most of my talks in January were at this type of bookstore.

Most bookstores specialize in a few themes. Travel, food, music, art, design and literature are common themes. Many bookstores, particularly those near apartment complexes, have attractive children’s sections, whereas those in commercial areas tend to have a more defined specialty. Design elements, such as posters and paraphernalia, reinforce the theme. Within literature, some bookstores focus only on South Korean writers whereas others focus on poetry.

What does this trend say about Korean society today? First, it reflects a growing interest in “lifestyle,” a buzzword that became popular in South Korea in the late 2010s. Unlike the past where choices were limited, South Koreans now have a wider range of choices, which encourages people to express their individuality through consumption. Younger people, in particular, value differentiation from others. In this way, South Korea resembles the US in the 1950s and 1960s when a growing middle class became interested in lifestyle consumption.

Second, it reflects the high level of educational achievement in South Korea. The generation of university students in the 1980s is now entering its 60s and beginning to retire, leaving them more time for reading. Each subsequent generation has a higher level of education, and educated people are now found in major cities around the country. Bookstore activities appeal to this large swath of middle-aged and older-middle-aged people who value a sense of community and camaraderie.

The new local bookstores may be popular, but they are not always profitable. For many owners, it is a labor of love driven by a mixture of love for books and the community of customers. Despite the difficulties, the trend will continue because South Korea now has a large population of educated people who value local bookstores as a lifestyle choice.

Published inWriting