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[Cover Feature] From Bookshop Enthusiast to Bookshop Owner

by Han Min-jeong Translated by Sean Lin Halbert December 7, 2023

I want to start with a confession: I didn’t always like reading. Even into my twenties, I only ever read books for school. But in navigating life and society as an adult, I became overwhelmed with pointless doubt and anxietyalthough, as a young adult, it didn’t seem so pointless. I developed insomnia. And then one day, I started going to bookstores to read books. I became a regular at my local bookshop. I even sought out bookstores to visit while on vacation. There was something therapeutic about opening a book and feeling the paper beneath my fingers. It brought me comfort. Sometimes I even imagined that books were letters sent to me from a faraway friend. Before I knew it, I had become a bookshop enthusiast.

        It’s common for one hobby to lead to another. I attended every event held at my local bookstore, no matter what the occasion. I met authors and fellow bookworms. And through those experiences, I learned to read with greater depth and purpose. Then, a few years ago, I quit my job, escaped to Jeju Island, and started working at a bookshop in Hamdeok-ri. Through interacting every day with other people who loved books, the world of reading became even richer and more tangible. Just a few months back, I left my job and opened my own bookshop in a neighborhood filled with tangerine groves. I named the shop Goyo Letter. All this I did simply because I liked books, because I wanted to be closer to them.

 

Connecting Literature and Music

 

Some say that physically going to a bookstore to buy your books is inefficient, especially when nowadays you can buy anything with the click of a mouse. So why do some people still visit bookshops? As a store owner, it’s my job to attract customers. But I can’t do that by haphazardly displaying books on shelves. I eventually realized that people come to bookshops for a diversity of stories, and not just those you can find on a page.

        These days, if someone wants to read a book of poetry, where do they go? I bet for many of us, the last poem we read was one assigned in our high school literature class. Many readers think that poems are too hard to understand. They try to read poems not to appreciate them, but to analyze them. Most people’s first contact with books happens through reading text on a page. But poetry originated from song and, for many centuries, was passed down orally. And yet, few people rack their brains trying to understand the hidden meaning of song lyrics. We just listen to the melody and enjoy ourselves. What if that was how we first came into contact with poetry? It is from this very question that Midsummer Night’s Poetry Reading and Music Concert, a program I started at Goyo Letter, was born.

        Adults and the elderly far outnumber youth in the neighborhood of Hahyo-dong, Jeju Island, where Goyo Letter is located. Young people here hardly have the time to experience the arts, and even if they wanted to, this region doesn’t have the infrastructure to support it. Thus, Be Locally Lab, located just a stone’s throw from Hanhyo-dong in Harye-ri, was started with the goal to help young people in the countryside experience arts and literature. Last summer, Goyo Letter and Be Locally Lab teamed up to put on Midsummer Night’s Poetry Reading and Music Concert where poets and readers came together to read poetry. We organized the event with the goal of reading Hur Eunsil’s Stories of Recovery to participants, whom we presupposed are “youth living in a time when romance is disappearing.”

        Stories of Recovery, as its name suggests, is a book of poetry that tells stories of recovery from various points of view. The poems in this collection contain messages of recovery about social and historical issues, including everything from deep personal and interpersonal wounds to major historical events like the Jeju April 3 Uprising to global problems such as the climate crisis. We also read and discussed Hur Eunsil’s other essays and poems on the topic of recovery.

        It’s not uncommon for bookstores to host poetry reading events. But Midsummer Night’s Poetry Reading and Music Concert distinguishes itself with music. Inspired by the way people make streaming playlists, we made a playlist of music and poetry. Hur picked the music herself. Each song either inspired her to write one of the poems or was what she listened to while writing them. Participants listened to the poet read her poems out loud, after which they listened to its accompanying song. This allowed for the simultaneous creation of two types of experiences: poetic and musical. We also made a separate YouTube playlist under the title “Midsummer Night’s Poetry Reading and Music Concert.” This playlist was comprised of songs that the readers chose after reading Stories of Recovery. We made a QR code and distributed it to participants so they could experience it again on YouTube after the program ended. Singer and songwriter Yang Hyung-uk also performed a song he composed beforehand based on one of the poems read aloud by the author.







 Scenes from Midsummer Night’s Poetry Reading and Music Concert


        [. . .]

 

        I think I can forgive you

        I think I can almost write it

        Why are these two feelings the same?

 

        From where the flower has fallen

        Medicine sprouts

 

        At long last I think I can write

        The name of tender things

 

       Hur Eun-sil, “Story of Recovery 1”





Yang Hyung-uk performs at Midsummer Night’s Poetry Reading and Music Concert

 

        At first, the listeners, who weren’t familiar with this collection of work, looked as though they had trouble understanding what the poems were about. But as the program went on, they volunteered to read poems out loud and eagerly shared their opinions. One participant, a writer, confessed that they were experiencing writer’s block because they couldn’t forgive someone. But as the program drew to an end, they had a transformative experience. They said, “I think I’m ready to forgive them. I think I’m ready to write again,” echoing one of the poems we had read together. Another participant even said they’d become a fan of Hur’s after the poetry reading.

        I don’t want people who visit my bookshop just to read poems; I want them to experience poems in various ways, through poetry readings and music, for example. I think that such dynamic, artistic experiences can expand the scope of what it means to experience literature. When you go beyond merely reading a book, you become closer to that work and become interested in reading other works. I wanted to give readers a memory that would remain for a long time after the program. Would such a thing be possible had they read the book of poetry by themselves? Perhaps, but I think I’ve increased the probability of a lasting memory. That day, by gathering in one place to read poetry, listen to music, and share stories, we were able to connect on a deeper level, to each other and to the poetry.



Connecting Literature with Photography

 

I want to introduce another program that provides different ways to experience literature. The program was created in collaboration with Still Negative Club. At Still Negative Club, people can buy film camera equipment, develop their own film, and share stories about photography. Our collaboration began with a simple question: What would it be like if people could experience literature and photography together? The goal of this program, which we named Reading Photos, was to allow people to transform the way they experienced their photography from “seeing” to “reading.” And then, if possible, we wanted to go one step further and transform that experience again, going from “reading” photography to “writing” photography from their own perspective. The experience of moving visual experiences to reading and writing takes a great deal of literary imagination. My hope was that through this program, readers would discover the points of overlap between photography and literature on their own. In photography, the same scene will look different when photographed from a different angle. Likewise, in literature, individuals living in the same world will express that world through their own unique perspective.

        Participants were asked to bring a “scene from their life” in the form of a digital file. We developed and printed the photos on site, giving them a physical form, and then linked each photo to a scene from a book we had read. After going around and sharing our impressions, we wrote one sentence about our photo and read them out loud. In this way, a single photo gave birth to an entire story.



 

Scenes from Reading Photography



Expanding literary experiences and sharing warmth

 

Bookstores aren’t simply places to purchase books. We come to bookstores to enjoy and experience books in various ways. The traditional way to appreciate books has been to read them silently. This is still the preferred method for most people. But because of the spread of digital media, we have become used to watching videos and are unable to focus while reading text. Sometimes, books feel like a difficult homework assignment, a chore. And there are many people who feel pressured to read books, not because they want to enjoy experiencing literature, but because they think that’s the only way to become “cultured.”

        For these people, bookstores can be a stepping stone that connects and brings them closer to literature. And we at Goyo Letter are helping them do that, one step at a time. I want to help people feel close to literature through programs that connect books with more familiar forms of art, like music and photography, and I want to let people know that reading texts isn’t the only way to experience literature.

        In Jinwoo Hwon Lee’s Don’t Think Us So Desperate, which was introduced to participants at Reading Poetry, there is a picture of a large truck driving along a road at night. The title of the photograph is “The Sight of One Person’s Night Passing By.” By introducing this work, a poem comprised of only a title and a picture, I wanted to show participants that, just like how there is no rule that states a picture can’t become a poem, people have the freedom to express their thoughts in ways unique to them. We embodied the literary experience by connecting pictures with books and unraveling their stories. The experience of crossing genres shows that literary experiences are closer to everyday life than we think, allowing people to look at their daily lives through a literary perspective. In the end, expanding our literary experiences is the same as pushing the frontiers of our own world.

        “Connecting people through books” and “Sharing each other’s tranquility”these are Goyo Letter’s mottos. In an age where humans are being replaced and virtualized by AI, it’s possible that we might lose entirely the need to meet other people. But the further the world is digitalized, the greater the need for analogue forms of art and life, for standing across from real people, making eye contact, and exchanging warmth. When we read physical books, we experience sensations in our hands. I hope that readers who turn the pages of a real book will feel the need to come to Goyo Letter to meet the person behind the pages. At Goyo Letter, I call the books I’ve read companions. They are here to help. Every day, I come here to look after my companions, to take care of the bookstore, and to maintain the tranquility, the Goyo, that resides here. If you visit this place, I hope you discover your wholeness in this tranquility. I want you to feel your whole self, just as it is, without the need to prove yourself to anyone. And with that feeling of wholeness, I hope you find a book that will become a friend. I hope this book stays with you for a long time, that it lets you know you aren’t alone, that we’re always by your side.

 

Translated by Sean Lin Halbert

 

 

 

Korean Works Mentioned:

“The Sight of One Person’s Night Passing By,” Don’t Think Us So Desperate (Siindongne, 2018)

한 사람의 밤이 지나가는 광경, 우리 너무 절박해지지 말아요(시인동네, 2018)

“Story of Recovery 1,” Stories of Recovery (Munhakdongne, 2022)

회복기 1, 회복기(문학동네, 2022)

 


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