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[Cover Feature] Where Literary Experience Meets the Personal

by Gu Sun-A Translated by Yoonna Cho December 7, 2023

"If books take us to new worlds such as we have never seen before, it is bookstores that provide the passage to those chance meetings,” wrote the author Kim Choyeop. Tucked away in the city’s alleys, small bookstores provide an intimate space for those wishing to embrace the literary experience of reading and writing. At small bookstores, we stumble upon new discoveries and the experiences that go with them. And when we pursue those chance meetings, intentionally or spontaneously, we find ourselves part of a community of readers sharing a range of interests.



Why Small Bookstores Are on the Rise

 

Local bookstores, once a venerable neighborhood fixture, are steadily on the decline. This year alone saw the closure of Chuncheon’s Kwangjang Books, established in 1999, and Suwon’s Kyomoon Books, which opened its doors in 1986, while Daejeon’s best-known local bookstore, Gyeryong Books, founded in 1966, is struggling to pay the rent. On the other hand, oddly enough, new independent bookstores are popping up every week. The proliferation of independent bookstores, however, is unfortunately not due to an influx of readers discovering a newfound love for books and the joy of reading. In practice, the reasons are more varied than that.

       The first is the popularization of social media. Independent bookstores are often located in areas with less foot traffic. You usually find independent bookstores in small, hidden alleys, at basement level or on higher floors, say, second or fifth, rather than on the ground floor. More often than not, these stores bear only the most discreet of signage and hardly advertise. How do readers find these out-of-the-way booksellers, then? The answer is social media. Connected by chance online, the reader seeks out the bookstore offline. Online encounters lead to physical meetings, sometimes developing into loyal followings.

        The second reason can be found in changes in the publishing industry. The boundaries between independent and commercial publishing have been blurred as special editions and zines abound, with authors, illustrators, and content creators from various walks of life selling their own publications. Bypassing the traditional publishing system, they enjoy greater freedom selling their wares through independent bookstores. As independent publications and editions increase, so do independent bookstores, which in turn encourages and feeds this boom in diverse publications.

        Third, running an independent bookstore can be combined with one’s primary job. Not only those who already work in the industry such as writers, publishers, editors, designers, or book bloggers, but pharmacists, lawyers, bartenders, IT developers, and videographers have been known to take up bookselling on the side. These bookstores operate at flexible hours. There are nocturnal bookstores, bookstores open only on the weekend, or bookstores that run as pop-ups. Not that running a bookstore in tandem with one’s day job is easy work, but it is true that, compared to other businesses, it doesn’t require much capital or highly technical expertise to start one.

        Fourth, readers’ needs are expanding and changing. From a bookseller’s point of view, this is the most important reason. We live in an age that treats values as consumable goods. The independent bookseller must appeal to the customer’s heart. It’s the only way to compete with the discount pricing, loyalty points, and same-day delivery offered by chain bookstores, with their slick advertising videos. Which is why, at my bookstore, Yeonhui, the emphasis is on providing the reader with experiences. By this I mean not just the experience of buying books, but of reading, writing, and creating them.



Reading Together In-Store

 

Finding time for oneself can be a challenge in today’s busy world. Going to a brick-and-mortar store in person takes time and effort in an age when, with a few clicks, it’s possible to have books chosen and delivered to one’s doorstep in the same afternoon.

        With that in mind, imagine setting out to a small bookstore. The experience of buying books there starts with leaving the house. At the store, you browse on your own, without searching for adverts or reviews online. The lighting and temperature are just right for the books on display. Sometimes, seasonal music or scents complete the background. You discover a signed copy here, a favorite book there. Then there are the small pleasures of receiving a bookmark or postcard with your purchase, wrapped in that store’s distinctive paper. You might choose to read in-store, or take your books to a nearby park or café.

        Outside of the business of buying and selling books, the most important function of a bookstore is to provide its customers with literary experiences. By literary, I am not referring to the mere act of reading novels, essays, or poetry, but learning how to explore thoughts and emotions, values and meaning, through artistic language or images.

        Book clubs and author events are the most common type of event offering such experiences. Gone is the age of authors only speaking through their books. Authors are no longer mythical creatures, but ordinary people living lives much like those of their readers. This realization makes the reader feel closer to the writer than ever. In some cases, such small meetings have led to authors being discovered by readers or going on to achieve fandoms of their own. At         Yeonhui, we host about two book talks a month for authors introducing their new works. We always take questions in advance and set aside a good portion for Q&A so it doesn’t become a one-sided event.

         Yeonhui also hosts Wolgandokseo, a monthly online book club, sometimes with the editor of said book participating. We also offer workshops devoted to reading various titles in the humanities under a particular theme. Then there are reading challenges held randomly on group chats for readers who crave company but find it difficult to come in-store. One of our most popular events is the annual Year-End Book Adjustment, in which participants share their reading experiences of that year. People swap their reading lists with others and share the books they enjoyed or hated, the ones they recommend or intend to offer as gifts. The participants thoroughly enjoy talking about their reading habits and what they’ve learned through books that year. This is the one event I take part in as a reader and not a leader.

 

Writing, Recording, Creating

 

After reading, the next step is writing. There’s a saying that there are more writers than readers in Korea these days. Or, as some put it, those who read, write. Bypassing the traditional channels of new writers’ contests or similar competitions, today anyone can become a writer. Of course, as Tolstoy said, nothing can be gained in fits and starts, but one must start somewhere. There is a platform for every kind of keyword, from poetry and fiction to webtoons, web novels, essays, business, and self-improvement. Publishers and IT companies make it easy for anyone to publish their work and be discovered by developing writing platforms. Self-publishing physical books, too, is easier than ever. Which might explain why the majority of those frequenting small bookstores express an interest in writing. Not necessarily because they aspire to become a famous author or to write full time, but because they see writing as a means of self-reflection, a healing pastime.

        Which brings me to Yeonhui’s writing workshop, a favorite with our customers. At the workshop, everyone becomes friends. Participants read their work out loud and listen to the works of others. Laughter and tears are shared. Through that person’s writing, it’s possible to catch a closer glimpse of who they are than even their family or friends have ever seen. And so the workshop writers are drawn more tightly together in shared intimacy.

        Along with writing, the experience of recording is equally dear to me. Recording is different from writing. Text is only one way of recording; there is also photography, drawing, painting, and collecting things. For instance, writing a journal is one way of keeping a record, but so is taking a picture of the sky every day, collecting receipts, or recording conversations with one’s children. The records I love best are of neighborhoods and cities. As a reader, I particularly enjoy records of how personal histories tell the history of a city, of a certain page in socio-cultural history.

        From writing and recording, the next logical step is creating one’s own book. More and more people write and draw these days with publication in mind. With side jobs becoming commonplace, books can serve as one’s calling card. Some decry the trend, saying it degrades publishing. However, I agree with Virginia Woolf who said, “Therefore I would ask you to write all kinds of books, hesitating at no subject however trivial or however vast.” Take traveling, for instance. One could write about the journey itself, or record one’s impressions of a new place, make a shopping list of the things one bought there, create a scrapbook of photos or postcards, or a map showing all the shops and stops one enjoyed. Rather than writing a thousand things in a secret journal that never sees the light of day, I believe that there is more to be gained by making ten pieces public if you have written fifty. With that in mind, Yeonhui offers workshops on self-publishing, storyboarding picture books, and creating your own postcard book.



Literary Experiences in Practice

 

Yeonhui’s customers are a varied bunch. From teens to people over sixty, from locals who live minutes from the store to people who drive several hours to make the trip. There are nearly five hundred bookstores in Seoul, including chain bookstores, used bookstores, and independent bookstores, with around seventy in Mapo-gu alone. Out of all of those bookstores, why do people come to mine? Is it the Hongdae location? Is it because it’s run by a writer? The shop’s vibe? The books I stock?

        L explains that coming into the shop and meeting other creators, writers, and readers keeps them on their toes. Making the long trip twice a month gives them the motivation to keep on learning, to keep on living. They particularly enjoy meeting people they might not come across normally, saying that it enriches their settled life.

        P admits to liking the selection of books on offer enough that they wish they could take all of them home. They might not know me personally, but my taste in books is enough to endear me to them. In the end, a bookstore is all about the books. Pretty storefronts are all well and good, but as Arthur Danto says, real beauty comes from stimulating the mind.

        J struggled at first with the idea of paying to attend a book club. They say, however, that the club introduced them to books they might never have read otherwise, inviting them to think about gender and environmental issues, and giving them a fresh perspective on how to deal with their family issues.

        Back when the Gangnam Station femicide dragged feminism into the social discourse, countless bookstores around the country read about feminism together. A young man participating in one such event marveled at the questions brought up in the book we were reading, which had never occurred to him before. He went on to recommend the book to colleagues and friends, quizzing them about it over drinks. Their talks and debates were a direct result of his attending a book club.

        Bookstores not only expand the scope of one’s literary experience, but can aid in self-discovery and personal growth. Which, in turn, leads to new opportunities. K, who participated in a bookmaking workshop at Yeonhui, now gives professional classes of their own on book design. H, who came to Yeonhui as a reader, is now an independent publisher and creator responsible for a host of events. G, a self-published writer, found a partner in illustrator Y, whom they met at the store. B, a frequent customer who amassed a pile of titles on bookstore ownership and completed Yeonhui’s workshop on opening one’s own bookstore, went into business opening a bookstore-cum-bindery in their neighborhood. As for myself, the shop is where I found my co-authors S, a longtime book club member; D, an author who was invited to give a book talk; and M, who came to interview for a job at Yeonhui, with whom I have a new book coming out soon.

        So as you can see, I’m no different. I went to bookstores first as a reader, and through that experience, grew into a writer and then a bookstore owner. Books have turned me into an exceedingly active person. Reading, by definition, requires an actively participating reader. Video and audio clips play on whether I pay attention to them or not, but books remain forever still unless I turn the page, unless I follow each thought. Books have taught me that every step I make takes me that much further. And so when life gets me down, I read. With each line that I read, I prove that I exist.

        As a bookstore owner, reader, and writer, this is my take: people who think books are boring just haven’t found the right book yet. If someone claims not to see the point of reading, it’s because they haven’t really had a proper reading experience. Once the mental switch is made that books are fun, or say, useful, one can begin to repeat and expand that experience. And that literary experience, in turn, lights up hidden pockets of happiness in one’s life. Through language, through images for which there are no words, through that which defies any sort of proof.

        I guarantee that small bookstores will aid you at the beginning of this journey. I, and countless others, have gotten our start and continue to grow that way.

 

Translated by Yoonna Cho

  

Korean Works Mentioned:

Books and Coincidence (Yolimwon Publishing, 2022)

책과 우연들(열림원, 2022)

 

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