Pow!!! Kazam!!! Late-Light Laughs

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Pow!!! Kazam!!! Late-Light Laughs

It's 2:30 in the morning, but Yonseirang Comic Store in Sinchon, central Seoul, is filled with customers. The cabinets against the store's walls are so tightly jammed with paperback-shaped comic books, which are about half the size of a Western comic book, that they give a first-time visitor a feeling of claustrophobia.

The people in the room, however, don't seem to be mind the cramped quarters. Some businessmen who live outside Seoul have chosen to spend the night here after missing the last subway train, as they often do to save on the taxi fare home or expensive lodgings in downtown Seoul. Many of them have already fallen asleep where they sit, their legs stretched out on a table and books covering their faces. Others, like Kim Ji-hye, a 28-year-old content advisor at an Internet company, come here after work.

"I started reading comic books when I was 8," says Ms. Kim. "At one point I thought about becoming a cartoonist, but that didn't happen." Instead, she became a faithful comic reader. She comes to the Sinchon store three or four times a week where she reads everything from slapstick comics to teen-romance cartoons.

Another woman in her late 20s enters the store dressed in a conventional office outfit - an ivory blouse and a neatly ironed knee-length black skirt. She hops over stacks of plastic bowls left in disarray on the floor - the remains of someone's Chinese delivery food from the previous evening - and makes her way to an adjoining room. Here, about 30 people sit on faded, peach-colored couches, reading in silence. She pushes aside the sliding door of a cabinet with a sign that reads "Fantasy Comic Books," picks out about 10 and brings them to her seat.

"During the daytime, you'll get lot of couples or students between classes who come in to simply kill time, but most people who come at this time of night are usually hard-core comic buffs," says Kang Yun-seok, 18. He's been working the night shift at the store, which is located in a busy university district, since April. With unkempt shoulder-length hair, Mr. Kang is dressed in a khaki shorts and a T-shirt.

When a middle-aged man comes to the counter, Mr. Kang hands him a small, white tag that details the customer's time of arrival. The man grabs a snack from the white wooden cabinet positioned next to the counter, which contains instant noodles and old-fashioned snacks like gunbaang, dried wheat biscuits that are difficult to find even in a 7-Eleven.

"He comes here three or four times a week," says Mr. Kang. How does he distinguish comic book buffs from passers-by idly killing time? "Well, the most extreme case I've seen was a customer who stayed here for 72 hours straight," he says. "The guy came in the night I was working and left two nights later. He had read almost all the old Chinese chivalry novels in the store. He had to pay about 100,000 won ($77.50) when he left."

The Sinchon store charges either 400 won per book read or a flat hourly rate of 1,000 won. At some stores, when it's raining and customers are in search of shelter, some storeowners will throw in a free cup of coffee or bowl of instant noodles. And because of the cheap admission and friendly atmosphere, manhwa-gagye, or Korean comic book stores, have managed to stay in fashion among Koreans of all generations since the early 1960s, when cartoons became popular in Korea. Stores then charged a 5 won reading fee - per book.

"I think for the older generation, comic stores provoke a sense of nostalgia," Mr. Kang says through mouthfuls of rice, his late-night meal, which, as his shift ends at 7 a.m., he terms "lunch." "For younger ones like me, it's the pure love of comics and a good laugh."

In times gone by, the old-fashioned heating systems in comic stores often failed, and people had to read wearing woolen gloves and winter coats. Stores these days, however, must meet new demands to compete with stylish book cafes and luxurious coffee shops. Often equipped with huge TV monitors and separate rooms for non-smoking guests, comic book stores in central Seoul now also function as resting places. Some stores in Noryangjin even provide free showers for people going to work straight from the store.

"Some people who come to the store don't even read," says Mr. Kang. "They just lie on the sofa and watch a soccer game or eat noodles." Mr. Kang sells an average of 20 packs of instant noodles per night.

But these old-style comic stores, he warns, are gradually getting edged out of the market by new comic-book rental services, which allow customers to take the books home, and modern "book cafes," which boast clean, modern interiors and carry mostly trendy cartoons. Running classic comic stores in Seoul is also not problem-free. As more and more of them are open 24 hours a day and provide somewhere to stay overnight, they attract homeless people or bored youngsters interested in causing trouble. Shoplifting books has risen and some stores now bear signs reading, "300,000 won reward for those who report theft."

by Park Soo-mee

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