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[Weekender] Indie bookstores thrive in reading-reluctant Korea

Smaller bookshops increasingly cater to self-published writers rather than readers; some face criticism as mere photogenic backdrops

Oct. 21, 2023 - 16:00 By Moon Joon-hyun
Artistic posters and an array of books seen through the window of the indie bookstore Storage Book & Film in the Haebangchon neighborhood of Yongsan-gu, Seoul. ((Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald)

Despite consistently falling reader engagement, independent bookstores are surviving -- and even thriving -- in South Korea.

"Over the last decade, we've seen a pretty sharp drop in the number of people picking up at least one book a year – down from 72.2 percent in 2013 to just 46.9 percent in 2021. But when you consider all the different ways people can get their info these days, maybe that's not quite the disaster it seems," said Baek Won-geun, the brain behind 15 of Korea's biannual National Reading Surveys since 1993 conducted under the oversight of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.

After his tenure at the Korean Publishing Research Institute, he founded the Center for Societal and Literary Ecosystem Research in 2015. However, he won't oversee the 2023 report due later this year.

"But books have kind of morphed into this symbol of community, haven't they? It's not just about soaking up knowledge from the pages, but also connecting with authors and even sharing your own stories within your community. That's all part of the modern reading scene, I would say," he added.

One only needs to meander through Seoul's bustling streets to witness this paradigm shift, epitomized by the burgeoning indie bookstore scene. These charming brick-and-mortar stores, often sandwiched between imposing commercial buildings, offer curated literary experiences.

Particularly in storied neighborhoods like Haebangchon in Seoul’s Yongsan district, one finds these repositories of unique titles. From a mere 97 in 2015, the number of indie bookstores across Korea rose to 815 by 2022 -- an 8.4-fold rise in just seven years, as recorded by Dongneseojeom, a data analytics firm specializing in this niche sector.

Catering to creators

Unlike mega bookstore chains stocked with mainstream titles, these shops curate selections from indie presses, serving both as havens for authors and vital distribution channels. Initially, the indie publishing scene was mostly comprised of young innovators producing visually centric content like posters and postcards. Today, a diverse array of creators contributes novels, essays and travelogues, increasingly blurring the line between indie and mainstream.

A selection of indie publications sits poised, with personal notes from authors at the indie bookstore Byeolcheck in Haebangchon, (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald)

Dr. Koo Sun-ah, an urban humanities scholar from the University of Seoul, has championed the indie bookstore scene since 2016 with her establishment, Chaegbangyeonhui. Her expertise lies in understanding the world of indie bookstores and their influence on urban and societal dynamics.

"We've seen this big increase in indie bookstores since the 2010s, and it's not just because there are more readers. It's because there are more creators, from those just starting out to the seasoned pros, who are seeing the value in indie publishing. They're finding these bookstores provide them with greater opportunities to get their personal works out there without being tied down by mainstream publishers and the financial burdens that can come with that," said Koo.

She is an essayist herself, having published works like “Writing in the Modern Age with Insights from Today's Writers,” and “The Perfumed Pages of Jeju”.

A prime illustration of a successful self-writer is Baek Se-hee's "I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki."

After a decadelong struggle with mental health, Baek turned six months of therapeutic insights into this book. Eager to share her journey, she successfully crowdfunded 15 million won on the platform “tumblbug” to self-publish.

Soon after, a boutique publisher spotted the book's potential. By mid-2018, it had seen 11 reprints and consistently ranked high on bestseller lists. Last year, Bloomsbury, the British publisher behind Harry Potter, released an English edition and sold an impressive 100,000 copies by year-end.

At the same time, Pyo Jeong-hoon, a publishing industry commentator known for his incisive evaluations of books, authors and publishing trends, regards the success of titles like “I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki” as an outlier. While he appreciates the indie bookstore movement, he remains an advocate for reading as a contemplative exercise and questions its overall influence on Korea's reading landscape.

"I'm all for the indie bookstore scene and what it brings to the table. But do I think it's pulled in people who wouldn't normally pick up a book? I'm not so sure. To me, it feels like it's more of a club for book lovers who've been in the game for a while," said Pyo.

Tenuous future

Koo also acknowledges the inherent limitations of the indie bookstore model. The cozy and personalized ambiance of these shops, coupled with their typically smaller size, can restrict their audience reach and overall profitability, despite their increasing numbers.

Koo explains that the relatively low 15 percent closure rate of indie bookstores, as reported by data firm Dongneseojeom, isn't necessarily indicative of their financial robustness. She highlights that many indie bookstore owners either have alternative income sources or venture into the business driven by motives other than financial gain.

“But it's still a misconception to think that only dedicated book enthusiasts sustain the indie bookstore economy,” she said, rebutting its insular nature.

Books are displayed at Storage Book & Film, an indie bookstore located in the Haebangchon neighborhood. (Moon Joon-hyun/The Korea Herald)

Jeong Sora, an employee at Storage Book & Film located near Haebangchon, observes varied customer behaviors. “Many folks wander in, sometimes drawn by an Instagram post, and take their time leafing through various titles before settling on one. From my experience chatting with some, it's clear some aren't your everyday readers. It just goes to show the intimate pull indie bookstores and authors have,” she said.

But Jeong was candid enough to admit that some customers were more preoccupied with snapping photos than engaging with the literature.

Independent bookstores have long faced criticism for being more like photogenic backdrops than centers for reading. Koo Sun-ah sees this as a natural shift in usage.

"Spaces, including bookstores, will either become expansive, theme park-like entities, or remain as intimate individualized spots.”

However, the future of these cherished venues is tenuous. The 2021 industry report by the Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea highlighted that while the birth of new independent bookstores is steady, many can't sustain their leases past two years. The same data from Dongneseojeom revealed that from 2015 to 2022, out of 1,031 new indie bookstores, 216 closed, leaving 815 in operation.

“Considering how difficult it is to maintain any type of bookstore, it's remarkable that over 800 of these indie models persist, and some thrive, even with assorted merchandise and in-person events," said Director Baek Won-geun of the Center for Societal and Literary Ecosystem Research.