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[Weekender] Small but strong: Indie bookstores embrace individuality, diversity and community

April 15, 2023 - 16:01 By Hwang Dong-hee
A view of the books store Spain Book Shop, located in Jung-gu, Seoul. (Spain Book Shop)

Although the reading population of Korean adults is less than half the total -- meaning over half of adults do not read a single book in a year -- unique independent bookstores are enjoying growing popularity.

There were 815 independent bookstores nationwide in 2022, according to Dongneseojeom (Bookstores in Neighborhood), an independent bookstore recommendation service. It has been keeping track of the number of bookstores since 2015 in its annual trend report. The number has been steadily increasing, starting at 97 in 2015 and hitting 745 in 2021.

In Seoul alone, there were 225 indie bookstores as of 2022, accounting for about half of the city’s 511 bookstores, including 29 franchise bookstores, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Library.

Last weekend, the 3rd annual Jeju Book Fair kicked off at Halla Gymnasium on Jeju Island with a total of 200 teams related to independent publishing from across the country. Over 8,000 people visited the two-day fair.

Visitors attend the Jeju Book Fair held at Halla Gymnasium on Jeju Island, April 8-9. (Tamna Library)
Visitors attend the Jeju Book Fair held at Halla Gymnasium on Jeju Island, April 8-9. (Tamna Library)

Rise of independent publishing

“Independent publishing allows for one’s content to be expressed in one’s way without having to go through consultations with others,” said an official at Tamna Library on Jeju Island, which hosted the festival.

“This freedom extends to spelling, design, topic and book format, which allows incredible diversity and uniqueness to shine through. It has become natural for independent publications to be republished by established publishers and go on to become bestsellers,” the official said.

Independent publishing is indeed expanding the scope of the publishing market. In recent years, some independently published books have become national bestsellers.

Lee Mi-ye’s fantasy series, “Dollargut Dream Department Store,” (2020) which sold a combined 1 million copies nationwide, was originally published independently through crowdfunding.

Another national bestseller, “I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki,” by Baek Se-hee, which has sold over 500,000 copies since its publication in 2018, also originated as an independent publication. The part-memoir, part-self-help book’s English edition has now sold over 100,000 copies in six months after being translated by Anton Hur and published by Bloomsbury.

Independent bookstores can be largely divided into two types: specialty bookstores and those that mainly sell self-published books. About 69 percent of indie bookstores fall into the specialty bookstore category, according to the Dongneseojeom report.

A view of the books store Spain Book Shop, located in Jung-gu, Seoul. (Spain Book Shop)

A little slice of Spain

Located in an alley in Seoul's Chungmuro, home to an enclave of printers, Spain Book Shop is an iconic specialty bookstore in the indie scene. Opened in 2018, the bookstore stocks all things related to Spanish-speaking countries -- including travel, language, food and culture -- that are difficult to find elsewhere.

“I was in indie publishing at first,” the bookseller, who goes by the name Eva, told The Korea Herald on Monday.

“Then I got interested in opening my own bookstore. I wanted to keep the place running for a long time, so I thought about what I liked the most, and that was Spain. I couldn’t go to live in the country right away, so I made where I live a Spanish haven.”

Celebrating World Book Day and Spain’s St. Jordi's Day on April 23, the bookstore is currently holding “Catalonia Week," featuring discussion panels and lectures on Spanish culture. The bookshop has also been running a weekly podcast since 2020.

“Most people open a bookstore not to make a lot of money, but to do what they love,” said Nam Chang-woo, who runs Dongneseojeom, on Tuesday.

“The trend now is that (bookstores) are actively communicating with people who share similar tastes -- online and offline," he said, adding that self-realization is the reason why small-scale indie bookstores are on the rise. “Many booksellers say they will continue their business if they can just make enough to keep the space.”

Indeed, most indie bookstores are active on social media, introducing new selections and posting information on reading events or workshops.

A view of the bookstore My Own Private Cinema, located in Jung-gu, Seoul. (My Own Private Cinema)

Film geeks unite

Another specialty bookstore called My Own Private Cinema in Jung-gu, Seoul has been operating a monthly subscription service for curated film books and memorabilia since 2022.

The bookstore curates books on movies and related memorabilia such as posters and soundtrack vinyl records. The first My Own Private Cinema opened in Euljiro in 2020 and there are branches in Jeonju and Busan, two cities that host film festivals.

“We have books related to film, such as screenplay scripts, essays, art books, textbooks and magazines,” said the manager at the Euljiro branch. “Visitors also range from movie enthusiasts to those who just happen to visit by chance. So we try to have a selection of steady sellers and new releases, as well as lesser-known films.”

“I first heard of this place about a year ago, and I occasionally stop by to look around,” said a 26-year-old visitor surnamed Lee on Tuesday. Lee is a frequent visitor to the store. “If there is a movie I enjoyed, I come to see if there are related books or goods. It’s good to see that there is a place where you can find things related to your interests.”

A view of the bookstore Boan Books, located in Jongno-gu, Seoul. (Boan Books)
A view of the bookstore Boan Books, located in Jongno-gu, Seoul. (Boan Books)

Unique categories of curated books

Located near Gyeongbokgung, Boan Books is next to Boan Inn, which opened as an inn in 1936 and became and a literary gathering spot for poets and writers such as Seo Jeong-ju and Kim Dong-ni.

The bookstore was built next to the inn in 2017. It has curated books on its second floor, and a lodging facility for a "book stay" on its third and fourth floors.

"Each book we choose has a certain wish or message that we want to convey to our readers. I have a lot of interest in visual arts, so many independent books fall in the (arts) category," said a bookseller at Boan Books.

"I guess the fun is that you can curate what you like to do with other creators and freely run projects. ... We hope (Boan Books) functions as a platform that both shelters and explores the ecology of creative practice and connection to society, the individual, life and art."

The bookstore hosts various book clubs, humanities lectures and collaboration projects with artists, in hopes that visitors spend time reading, watching, walking and sleeping at the cultural complex.