The topic of bookstores always brings me back to a personal story that begins the year before I was born. It was 1980, and my mother’s youngest brother, freshly discharged from military duty, decided to leave his boring old hometown and strike out for Seoul. He had no plans, only some money in his pockets to get him through the next few months. He scoured the big city for areas with cheap rent, and finally settled on a sleepy neighborhood in the Seodaemun District. His new home was a tiny shop with a floor space of about 10 pyeong, to which was attached a tinier room. The shop, he filled with books. The Munye Bookstore. That was the name of my other school—the place where my young self spent countless afternoons, and where—if I may be so bold—I learned even more than at my classroom desk.
The Munye Bookstore was a home where my young uncle ate and slept, where my young self would read until I nodded off into short naps. It was also a place of community, where young locals hung out in little groups and sang along to a strumming guitar, and a sort of pub where, late in the evening (a nationwide curfew was in place in South Korea until January of 1982), the bookstore doors would be shut and those young people would engage in debate and discussion over beer with peanuts and dried cuttlefish.
How did they end up gathering at Uncle’s bookstore? I’m afraid I don’t know. What I do know is that those young people were, to me, just as part of the bookstore as the volumes on the shelves. Not knowing what title to use for these friends? regulars? neighbors?—of my uncle’s, I would call them “uncles” as well (a few women were among these patrons, but I don’t recall calling them “aunties.” I wonder why?) and grow to recognize them. Employment, marriage, and other facts of life would call them away to other neighborhoods, but they were quickly replaced by new faces. The ones who left, too, would drop in when they were in the area, spot me reading on a stool in the corner, and exclaim, “Hey, it’s been a while! You’ve gotten taller, eh?” Some of those people still get together for meals—although they almost never drink—and to travel together. Even now, more than ten years since Uncle retired.
Uncle, why a bookstore, of all things?
The question came to my mind after I’d finished my own military service and prepared to return to school, wondering what I should do with my life. At the time I had vague dreams of authorhood, so perhaps part of me hoped to hear that he’d wanted to be an author too. But Uncle’s answer blew away my expectations.
Because I was broke. The thing about a bookstore, it doesn’t cost much money to start one. All you need are shelves, and the wholesalers were happy to supply you and get paid once the books sold. And if they didn’t sell, I’d just return them. It was the best kind of business for a poor kid like me.
It was coincidence borne of chance, then. But wasn’t that just another word for inevitability? Necessity had driven Uncle to that business, but in the blink of an eye, the bookstore ended up being a perfect fit for him. Uncle’s life revolved around reading books, selling books, and talking about books with patrons. So I can imagine the helplessness he must have felt in early 1998, when the landlord—who’d lost his job in the Asian Financial Crisis at the end of the previous year—decided to run the bookstore himself and refused to extend Uncle’s lease, kicking him out without even paying back the deposit. But I was only a high school student back then, too young and feisty to understand. I didn’t realize back then that Uncle’s youth, my adolescence, and maybe a period in Korean history, too, had ended forever.
Uncle opened up a new business near a local university. The new shop was packed with books on every wall save the door, but did not have a little side room where people discussed their books, or display shelves where interesting reads were proudly exhibited for all. Instead, the center of the floor was taken up by two rows of low shelves. Uncle’s new business was not a bookstore, but a chaekbang (book rental store) where patrons could rent comic books and novels. Unlike the ever-bright Munye Bookstore, the Kkaebi Bookshop (the most popular book rental franchise at the time) was dark, and the books stained by all the hands that had flipped through their pages. Uncle’s chaekbang started off on a downward spiral, which went on and on until the other franchise stores closed and the head office, too, finally closed the curtains in 2010. Munye Bookstore, stolen from Uncle by the landlord, had long since shuttered its doors by then.
If the financial crisis had been the death knell for Uncle’s bookstore, online bookstores would be the nail in the coffin for all the other physical bookstores, big and small. And I was there to see it all. While in the military, I became a Platinum-rank customer with an online bookstore, the credit card payments for which led me to take a logging job for an online store’s book database straight out of the army. In the summer of 2006, only one term away from my undergraduate degree, I became a full-time employee at an online bookstore. I was the merchandiser who oversaw books in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and history sections.
Looking back, I must have learned everything I needed to know about books from Uncle’s shop. In On the Commerce of Thought by Jean-Luc Nancy, subtitled Of Books and Bookstores, Nancy explains, for the bookseller, the act of reading a book is both a lectio (reading) and an electio (choosing): “The bookseller. . . brings [books] and exposes them, giving them the vantage from which to play their role as subjects.”
Over the three years and six months I spent at that workplace, I tried to think of myself as a “book deliverer.” An individual who procures books, displays them, and creates the right environment for them to play leading roles of their own. But reality didn’t quite work that way. Unlike flesh-and-blood customers I could see at a physical bookstore, online readers were faceless statistics. And it was no easy task to deliver anything to faceless statistics. Worse, even the books were formless statistics! Although almost every book in existence was recorded in these online databases, they were utterly devoid of scent and difficult to estimate their thickness. They were completely flat. Although I could look up any book I could think of with the touch of a finger, I could neither turn them over in my hands nor look at the books around them, nor simply stroll through their presence. I was sick of work, I wanted to read only for the pleasure of it, I wanted to write for myself, I said, making up one excuse after another as I quit my job. But looking back, I think I know the real reason: the faceless readers and the formless books.
Long story short, after quitting my job, I became a writer—a book reviewer, to be precise—and continued to maintain my Platinum membership with all my book purchases. All the while, small bookstores around the country continued to shutter their doors. But I was so busy reading and writing that without any awareness of the issues at hand, I considered this phenomenon part of a natural progression, as unavoidable as the disappearance of record stores and video rental shops.
Then, in 2015, I saw the tides of change. I saw the rise of independent publications, and the continued growth of Unlimited Edition, a book fair specializing in independent books. So-called independent bookstores underwent a Renaissance (to exaggerate mildly), with more and more articles covering the “revival of neighborhood bookstores” and the “small bookstore boom.” But—strangely, thinking back—I wasn’t particularly interested. Not interested at all, in fact. Was I just that sick of bookstores? Was I just that steeped in the traditional publishing system? Or maybe I no longer felt the need to be a reader of the book deliverers. My shelves had long since been packed with more volumes than those that had filled the walls of the Munye Bookstore.
Then, in 2016, I received an email from Iro, the owner of first-generation independent bookstore Your Mind and organizer of Unlimited Edition. At the time, the rapid growth of local, or small, or independent bookstores had led to reader concerns that the quality of such establishments might decline. Iro’s proposal was that I join a bookstore exploration project that would examine the differences between these bookstores, learn about the bookstore owners’ outlooks, and the challenges they faced in their work. I accepted and spent one month with novelist Kim Junghyuk meeting the owners of eight wildly different independent bookstores for open interviews. (The transcripts have been published in a book titled Bookstore Exploration and include lectures from two Japanese bookstore owners as well as the transcript of a group conversation between four Korean bookstore owners.)
To confess, even as I started the first interview, I was skeptical. The napkin math just didn’t add up: these businesses didn’t look like they could afford the rent, let alone make a profit. I saw my uncle lose his bookstore. I saw the thieving landlord bungle the business in just a few years. I saw my uncle’s book rental store wither away with the times. To me, independent bookstore owners were naïve romantics, no different from Don Quixote.
Let me begin with the conclusion: I was being conceited and judgmental. These bookstore owners, naturally, were all aware of the potential problems. But they worked away at what they could, where they could. They led the charge of bookstores specializing in independently-published books, LGBT works, theme-rotating publications, artbooks, and travelogues, charging ahead alongside local bookstores big and small, and making all sorts of impacts on their communities. Just like Uncle’s Munye Bookstore all those years ago. Although the variety and quality of perspectives have since skyrocketed, the essence of these spaces remains unchanged: a sanctuary for people with non-mainstream interests.
As an author whose works appeal largely to people with non-mainstream interests—that is to say, as an author with a fandom of minuscule proportions—I empathize wholeheartedly. My bookstore events are attended by anywhere from four or five to no more than thirty to forty people, but those events are comforting. At those events, I see the faces of my readers, breathe the same air as my readers, and share certain emotions with my readers. But in a big meet-and-greet at a cinema, for example, I sometimes break into cold sweat, and not just because of the sheer number of people. And not just because of the small differences between book readers and movie audiences. I attribute it to the setting. A cinema is not a place for communication. When I’m at the front, I see the audiences watch me as though watching a film (one in which they recognize neither the actors nor the director), with arms crossed. A bookstore, on the other hand, is a place of exchange. In a bookstore, the readers and I—because I prefer discussions to lectures wherever possible—speak and respond as though having a conversation.
One experience that opened my eyes to the power of bookstores took place last spring at Goyo Bookshop, an independent establishment in Haebangchon specializing in literature. I led a seven-session workshop titled “A Writing Style Workshop for Those Lost Amidst Sentences.” A serial event like this was a first for the venue, which generally hosted one-off book discussions. Because space was limited, we capped the number of participants, which meant that registrations closed almost instantly.
To confess, I was once again skeptical. I’d only elected to lead a workshop rather than a lecture series because I thought it would be easier for me, but then I realized that lectures might have been easier after all: once I’d prepared a lecture, most of the sessions would have been under my full control. In a workshop, I would never know just how much to prepare or what direction the participants might decide to go. What if no one spoke up? Or what if we went off on tangents? For me, reading had always been a solitary activity, which was the very reason I loved it.
Once more, I was proven a fool. In a book talk, most participants are fans of the author. In this workshop, half the participants didn’t know me, and didn’t particularly care even after I introduced myself (they were diehard fans of Goyo Bookshop). In spite of that, reading and discussing the same book together was supremely fun, occasionally thrilling, and ultimately moving. I finally understood (and not just with my head) that books were not unchanging monoliths. Different readers, places, and contexts gave them entirely new meaning, and at times, different perspectives on the same book would entangle and generate a completely new chemical reaction. How should I put it? Jonas Mekas must have read my mind when he wrote Requiem for a Manual Typewriter, in which he said: “Ah, if you have never experienced it, been with it, no use telling it to you, you’ll never understand it.”
Translated by Slin Jung
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