중앙데일리

Past textbook haven specializes to survive

[Glimpse of Business in Seoul 16th in the series: Cheonggye Used Book Street]

Sept 22,2008
Books spill out onto the sidewalk from Cheonggye-6-ga’s used bookstores last Thursday. As Korea becomes more affluent, the stores face the dilemma of lower demand. By Jeon Min-kyu

Clashing images of Seoul’s past and present couldn’t be any more striking than Cheonggye-6-ga. Tiny stores selling dusty old books crowd the street and the newly renovated Cheonggye Stream runs below, serene and well tended.

Cheonggye-6-ga is Seoul’s biggest and last standing “used bookstore street.” In the 1960s and 70s, it was hard to meet a college student who didn’t buy at least one or two text books in this area. President Lee Myung-bak himself once said that he often visited Cheonggye-6-ga to buy used books when he was a poor student.

A customer opens a book inside Yangjiseolim, a used bookstore in Cheonggye-6-ga, last Thursday. By Jeon Min-kyu
Although its popularity has worn off with the passing decades, the street still has its enthusiasts. “I come here two or three times a month with my son to browse around and buy unusual books that you wouldn’t find at Kyobo Book Centre,” said Lee Hyang-sook, 37, holding her son’s hand. “Last week, we found a children’s book series from Gyemyeongsa [a publishing company] from the 1970s. It had all these unabridged versions of fairy tales, which my son found fascinating.”

The Cheonggye used bookstore street took shape in the early 1960s, when vendors who sold books on the streets set up shops on the first floor of the Pyounghwa Market building. The bookstores are still there. From the late ’60s through the ’70s, around 250 used bookstores operated, each only six to nine square meters in size.

Today, only 40 stores remain, stretching around 200 meters along Cheonggye-6-ga, across from the Dongdaemun Shopping Complex. All shops have a “specialty” and half of the stores sell children’s books only. Others specialize in Bibles and hymnals; fashion, magazines and art; architecture and design; or dictionaries and encyclopedias.

Compared to nearby shopping malls, such as Doota and Migliore, the older Pyonghwa Market resembles a rural flea market. The bookstores sit next to small shops selling accessories including hats, uniforms and badges.

“In its [the street’s] early days, the stores didn’t have a specialty and sold all kinds of books just like regular bookstores,” said Seong Se-jae, who has been selling used books on Cheonggye-6-ga for over 40 years. In his 6 square meter store, Yangjiseolim, there are over 10,000 children’s books. The oldest books he owns are from the 1960s.

“There is a series of Hans Christian Anderson stories translated into Korean from the 1960s which I adore, because there are many versions of the stories in this series,” he said, pointing to books on the very top shelf with a long wooden stick.

The books in highest demand from the ’60s through the ’80s were textbooks, according to Seong. “During those days, everyone was poor and buying new books each semester was only for the privileged,” he said. “Nowadays, there aren’t many mothers coming up to me and asking for used textbooks for their kids.”

The Cheonggye used bookstore street is not in the best financial condition these days. “This year alone, five bookstores along this street have closed down. Among them, two closed this month,” said Kim Jang-mun, owner of Jangwon Bookstore and the head of the Cheonggye division in the Korean Bookstores Association.

Cheonggye-6-ga is the only remaining used book street of this scale in Seoul. Although there were many used bookstores near the Sinchon area, they have died down as well.

The used books are priced at around 20 to 30 percent of the original cost. For most books, with the exception of dictionaries, Bibles and such, the price ranges from 1,000 won ($0.88) to 3,000 won per book.

Besides a preference for new books, used bookstores have been sharing the market with Internet bookstores. “There are so many outlets to buy books from these days. It’s a bother for many people to actually come to a bookstore, let alone a used bookstore,” said Kim, adding that the popularity of Internet bookstores has been apparent since 2000. “Customers have gotten more savvy about price by comparing them on various book sites.”

Another burden is high rental fees. “Rent has gone up ever since the 1990s, making it more difficult for us to survive,” said Kim.

The stores’ competitive edge now is selling rare books that can’t be found anywhere else.

“Last year, I bought a vintage American Vogue magazine from the 1970s here for 10,000 won,” said Lim Ji-hee, 22, a fashion design student. “There are lots of old design and architecture books which are now out of print.”

Min Ho-il, 21, a liberal arts student, said that he comes to Cheonggye-6-ga every other weekend to find first edition novels from Korean authors.

“It’s easy to find out of print English language novels by just going on Amazon or such sites. However, Korean novels from the past are much harder to find, which is why I come here to find hidden gems,” said Min.

The store owners say that as customers dwindle, the number and quality of used books they sell have gone down a bit as well. “It is sad to say but there is generally no interest in selling or buying used books anymore. So fewer people come to sell their used books, which makes for a smaller variety of books being sold here now,” said Kim gwang-seup, owner of Daegwangseolim, another used bookstore on Cheonggye-6-ga.

Nowadays, much of Kim’s stock at Daegwangseolim, comes from professional “used book collectors.”

He pointed to a white truck unloading several stacks of books tied with rope. “That’s the collection truck. The man visits garbage dumps and apartments where people are moving and collects books they throw away,” said Kim.

Store owners said that some who have been selling used books for a long time ventured into online shops but without much avail. “I think the age for used books is nearing an end,” said one owner, who sighed and declined to be named.


By Cho Jae-eun Staff Reporter [jainnie@joongang.co.kr]



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