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[Weekender] Small, unique booksellers survive competition

July 11, 2014 - 21:20 By Chung Joo-won
Generally speaking, price and brand power matter most in the bookstore business. These factors have earned price-competitive chains the lion’s share of the market, while the small, independent bookstores continue to wither.

In reality, the mom-and-pop shops are more embattled than what we see in rom-com films like “You’ve Got Mail” and “Notting Hill.”

But not all of the neighborhood bookshops are losing out. Some are staving off the competition through differentiation strategies.

Your Mind

Your Mind feeds the readers’ fantasy of “the mysterious little bookstore” on a street in Hongdae, Seoul.

This store is on the roof of a five-story building. When night falls, it beams like a lighthouse in the sea of low-story buildings in Hongdae.

Your Mind specializes in art- and design-related books, music and all sorts of artistic gizmos that are hard to find in the large bookstore chains. The independent bookshop also deals heavily with self-published books, limited editions, photo books and compiled illustrations. 
Your Mind shines in the silent night of Hongdae, Seoul. (Your Mind)

Seo Seung-hyup, who runs the business with his wife, puts great effort into updating its social networking service pages, including Twitter, Facebook, RSS, Instagram and YouTube. Its Twitter page, for instance, is frequently updated with pictures of attractive new books and art posters, tempting trendy Korean Twitter users. The picture descriptions are casual and colloquial, unlike the informative promotional emails and ads of giant bookstore chains.

These SNS platforms provide an instant and stylish communication channel between the vendor and the readers. The bookstore also posts notifications on various events, such as special meals, book readings and in-store movie nights. The annual book market event “Unlimited Edition” is another signature event of the bookstore, open to all young artists and readers.

“The readers want more than just an introduction to the books and their authors. ... They have a thirst for exchange and communication,” Seo said.

The couple began Your Mind as an online bookstore in 2009. Two years later, they launched the physical shop, their lifelong dream, in Hongdae. Online sales comprise about 40 percent of the sales volume, Seo said.

The store is open between 2 p.m and 9:30 p.m. every day except Monday.

Thanks Books

Thanks Books, founded by two designers, started as a neighborhood bookstore with artistic interior decorations. “Comfy” and “stylish” are the two keywords for this small bookstore.

Graphic designers Lee Ki-seob and Kim Wook launched this independent bookstore in 2011 in Hongdae, Seoul, where they spent their college life. The neighborhood is still a cradle for countless artists and trendy consumers.

They are passionate hosts of various art-related exhibitions, meet-the-author events, seminars and workshops that “encourage the participation of the neighborhood people.” 
Thanks Books flaunts a stylish interior design and book displays. (Thanks Books)

“A bookstore should never make people feel uncomfortable,” said Lee, introducing his store as “a place where people like to casually stop by.” He wanted the place to be a pleasant spot for his neighbors to hang out.

Besides the art- and design-related books, Thanks Books also deals with essays, travel essays, fairy tales and illustrated books. Some of them are from overseas.

The books are displayed with carefully selected decorative objects, which make the titles stand out just by being there. “Books become more tempting when they are with connected objects,” the graphic designer said.

The bookstore also contains a small cafe selling beverages and cookies. Thanks Chocolate Banana is one of its signature beverages.

The store is open between noon and 9:30 p.m., and closes on the last Monday of the month.


Gagarin is named after the first man in space, Yurii Alekseevich Gagarin of Russia.

Gagarin first launched in 2008 in Tongi-dong, Seoul, as a tiny, nonprofit library for young artists. The place was transformed into a unique “used book market” where people sell or buy books, with a small commission that helps cover the operating costs. 
Gagarin displays books, CDs and handcrafted products for sale. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

“Gagarin is not for creating profit, and it will always stay in the same area,” said Cha Seung-hyun, one of the managers of the book market. “We are not eager to become successful in terms of business, and that is probably why people find this place ever so relaxing and comfortable.”

In Gagarin, individuals can register themselves to sell books, CDs and handcrafted products. Some products are new, some are secondhand. The registration requires either an annual membership fee of 20,000 won or a lifelong membership fee of 50,000 won. Entrusted with the sales, Gagarin takes a 30 percent commission.

The book market is open every day from 12:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

By Chung Joo-won (