Bound to be read

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Bound to be read

Haruki Murakami, the celebrated Japanese novelist, firmly refused to let his 1987 opus "Norwegian Wood" be turned into a motion picture. The book sold more than 5 million copies, was translated into five languages and certainly was a reasonable candidate for a screenplay.

"The story will remain in book form only," argued the author. "There is something about books that simply cannot be found on movie screens or Internet sites."

Reading books offline may not make you look avant-garde as the latest cell phone does, but somehow most of us cannot live without turning pages. The questions a reader who does not speak Korean needs the answers to are: "Where are those pages, and where are the books in my language?"

The Kyobo Book Center in downtown Seoul serves as a magnet for the printed word in languages besides Korean. But other stores that carry foreign books dot the capital's landscape.

Bookstores dealing with other-language materials, both new and used, exist in Seoul. Locating those stores, however, can be as difficult as reading Sanskrit. A good reader must be patient. The road to wisdom, after all, is long and winding.


Itaewon Foreign Bookstore

In the 1950s, Choi Ki-woong was the last person on the peninsula people thought might one day run an English-language bookstore. A rudderless teen in those days, he was a member of the lost generation that followed the Korean War. In 2002, however, Mr. Choi is the right person to ask about used books in English.

He has managed the oldest bookstore of its kind in Korea since August 1973. His bookstore is now sort of a tourist attraction and indeed a tour guide brochure describes it that way. Earlier this year, an elderly married couple from Australia flew to Seoul to seek Mr. Choi's advice on how to run a used bookstore.

Dressed this recent day in a pink shirt with a black leather vest, Mr. Choi, 60, was waiting on customers while playing a tape of pop songs of the 1970s that featured golden oldies by the likes of Tom Jones. "I started from scratch by gathering books from garbage dumps of a U.S. Army base in 1967," he says. Discharged from the Korean Army that year, he lived by selling all kinds of used things found on the trash heaps around Yongsan Garrison. He started his first book business on Myeong-dong street -- from a pushcart. What drew many customers was his collection of Life Magazines, with their graphic photographs in color, rarities back then in Korea. Mr. Choi would cut out a page of a magazine, scribble on it poems by Pushkin or Wordsworth and sell the pieces of paper from his cart. As time went by, Mr. Choi expanded his territory from army garbage dumps to embassies scattered around Itaewon. He found out diplomats and attaches often owned large collections of books, which they had to throw out when moving. That's how he came to move into a shop at Noksapyeong subway station near Itaewon.

About 95 percent of his customers are expatriates. But Mr. Choi says some Korean patrons who have frequented his store later became college professors or lawmakers in the National Assembly.

Over the years, his business has grown, and his store features groaning stacks of magazines and novels, more than 100,000 books in all. Mr. Choi trades used books at 30 to 70 percent of their regular prices.

The first thing he does with a book that enters his shop is to clean it up and recolor faded covers and illustrations.

"I find Americans have a tendency to take good care of books, plus they don't hesitate to splurge on buying books," he says. "Both of which make it easier for me to run the bookstore." Another strategy he uses to entice customers is offer free candy and health drinks to those who buy his books.

What does he recommend? "Everything or nothing," he says. He has too many customers with an eye for good books. "If it's good, it won't last a moment on my shelves."

Itaewon Foreign Bookstore is open every day from 10 a.m. until the last customer leaves, usually around 9 p.m. Take subway line No. 6 to Noksapyeong Station, exit No. 6. For information, call 02-793-8249.


Abby's Book Nook

When Peter McNevin first came to Korea in 1995 to teach English, he had no idea that he would open a bookstore in Itaewon five years later. He liked to read and collect books, as does his wife, Kim Eun-hee, formerly an interior designer. No wonder the first thing the couple's 6-year-old daughter, Abigail, looks for in any new place is a bookshelf. The store is named for the couple's daughter.

This small haven for new and used books sits in an alley near the Islamic mosque on a hill in Itaewon. It's small and not so easy to find.

Along with antiques such as a skeleton and exotic sculptures, the bookstore creates a vintage atmosphere. These days, Mr. McNevin lectures at Seoul National University of Technology in Gongneung-dong, northeastern Seoul, so it's mainly Ms. Kim's job to take care of the store.

Muslim customers occasionally mistake the place for a stationery store, but most of the time the couple has patrons hiking up the hill in Itaewon to buy, sell and trade books. Abby's holds about 20,000 books, about 80 percent of which come from Mr. McNevin's personal collection. Mr. McNevin, from Nevada originally, grew up in a home of readers and bookshelves. After getting married in 1998, the couple moved to Nevada, but Ms. Kim wanted to go back to her homeland two years later. Upon returning to Seoul, the couple yearned to run a business, and fell into the idea of a bookstore.

"The books at Kyobo are high-priced with less variety," Ms. Kim says, "so we eventually came up with the idea of running a bookstore ourselves." Abby's is well organized -- each shelf is labeled with books ranging from military history to erotica. There is even a Persian-Korean dictionary in one corner.

"We have the largest variety -- almost 20 divisions altogether," Ms. Kim says. Ms. Kim put the erotica section in a high, hard-to-reach shelf. "Just in case under-age people might want to look," she says.

The most sought-after book these days, she says, is J. R. R Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Her target customers vary from English teachers to Korean Christians looking for religious books. One regular is an elderly Korean man in search of rare classics. Ms. Kim had expected American GIs to be her major customers, but was completely wrong. "Most GIs do not buy books," she says. "Not because they don't like them, but because they have access to a good library on their base."

In pricing a book that comes in, the couple pays most attention to a book's condition. Next on their priority list is the date of publication and edition number of the book. For instance, for a set of two volumes of a British literary work published in 1810, the first edition went straight to the discount section and was sold for 2,000 won ($1.60), because one of the volumes didn't have a cover.

To those who want to sell a book, the couple offers at least one-third of the regular price. If the customer wants to buy that same book, he can do so for normally half of the price, Ms. Kim says.

The weekends are the busiest times at the store, for the couple often has customers arriving from outside of Seoul, ready to fill big suitcases only with used books.

Abby's Book Nook is open from noon to 10 p.m., closed Mondays. You can reach it by taking exit No. 3, Itaewon station on subway No. 6 line. For more information, call 02-795-4253.


Other shelves

Kyobo and Youngpoong bookstores

Books in foreign languages other than English have a puny market on the peninsula, which makes it hard for booksellers to do much stocking in one specific language. The best place to get a book with little effort may be these large bookstores, both in or near Gwanghwamun, central Seoul.

Kyobo (02-397-3642) sells English, French, German and Japanese books. Lee Geun-yeong, a staffer in the foreign book section, says if a book isn't available, you can have it ordered.

Youngpoong Bookstore also stocks English, French, German and Japanese books. If the book you are looking for is not available, you can order it via the bookstore's Web site, or by calling at 02-399-5664.

Sophia Boostore

The only place in Korea whose specialty is German books has survived for decades, and not long ago moved to Gwanghwamun. Baek Hwan-gyu, 82, and Jang Ui-sun, 80, have run the place since 1957 and they are often taken for a married couple. Mr. Baek majored in German literature in Japan, at Sophia University in Tokyo. Back in Seoul in the 1940s, he taught German at a high school, but left there for the Korean War. After the war, Mr. Baek decided to open a bookstore dedicated to German classics only. Ms. Jang joined him to help with the financing.

Sophia Bookstore opened near the Savoy Hotel, in downtown Myeong-dong, but later moved to Chungjeongno, central Seoul. Now the bookstore sits on the 13th floor of a skyscraper, which makes it harder to let people know of its existence.

Mr. Baek doesn't care much for the latest best-sellers, believing that quality is tested best over time.

The store instead has perhaps 10,000 books whose subjects range from religion to literature. When they decide to retire, Mr. Baek and Ms. Jang say they will donate their collection to libraries in case a qualified successor does not show up. Until that last day comes, though, they say that their bookstore will maintain its reputation of being the one-and-only heaven on the peninsula for German books.

Sophia Bookstore is open from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and closed Sundays. To get there, get off at Chungjeongno station on the subway No. 2 line and find the Golden Tower building. Sophia Bookstore is on the 13th floor. For more information, call 02-362-2036.

J&C Media

The only French bookstore recommended by the French Cultural Center is a study on how hard it is for a foreign bookstore to survive.

The store's Kim Han-jin says J&C Media almost closed for a lack of steady customers. Now the company, also dealing with local French art exhibitions, uses the place as an office. You can order a book by calling the company at (02) 325-3823, but Mr. Kim said it might take longer than you expect, around three months. From the Hongik University subway station, exit No. 1, it's a 15-minute-walk toward the Cheonggiwa Gas Station.

Dongnam Books Trading

This is the place to find hard-to-get Japanese books. Like J&C Media, Dongnam is a business. It failed as a bookstore only and these days concentrates in trading. Dongnam is right next to the Embassy of Algeria near the Hyatt Hotel, Itaewon. Further information is available at (02) 752-3567. The closest subway station is Noksapyeong station on the No. 6 line.

Seoul Selection

Run by a former journalist, Kim Hyung-geun, this place in central Seoul has a selection of English books, along with a few French, Italian and German books. It is located in the basement of the Korean Publishers Association building, near Gyeongbok Palace. Get off at Anguk station, subway No. 3 line, and use exit No. 1. For more information, call 02-734-9565.

by Chun Su-jin

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