Mega-bookstores spread southwardDo you like books? Books have always played a huge role in my life. I don’t remember playing badminton or skipping rope with kids outside, but I do remember being holed up in my bedroom with piles of books when I was little.
My parents didn’t have time to read to me like those all-American parents do in the movies. Thankfully, they did have money to buy me books, and yanked whatever looked good off the shelves. Tomes like “Lives of World’s Great Men” and “Collection of the World’s Finest Literature for Young Kids.”
I just ate it up, not knowing that all of these great men weren’t as perfect as the books made them to be. I read to peer into other people’s lives, hungry for stories beyond my neighborhood confines.
When I was old enough, I became a regular at my neighborhood book nook. I think I spent almost half of my pocket money on books, with the rest going to CDs.
I remember my first visit to a mega-bookstore. It was the Kyobo Book Centre in downtown Seoul. Since I was from Chuncheon, Gangwon province, the store’s vastness greatly impressed me.
It seemed like book heaven, but there was one problem: It was too crowded. Not wanting to sit on the floor like others ― it looked so hard and cold ― I ducked out of there after locating my favorite reads.
This aversion to big bookstores changed after I lived in the United States. Those bookstores had pleasant background music, books from so many genres, aromatic coffee, friendly staff (with a passion for reading) ― and plush, comfy sofas.
I felt like I was getting reacquainted with an old love. Who could believe you could just sit there reading books for hours, just like in your living room? Like many “patrons,” I soon realized that these “stores” could be much more than a place to buy books. They became favorite hangouts, an oasis in a foreign land.
When I returned home, it was time for some big-city living. The adjustment to Seoul was hard at first. You know, dirty air, noise, all these people with cell phones glued to their ears.
The mega-bookstores that had opened while I was away also failed to impress. Talk about lack of progress! People still read books on the floor as they did years earlier. I had a hard time flipping through books I wanted to buy, with all these people in the way.
For a time, I just didn’t go. I booted up the ol’ computer and ordered books on the Internet. However, online stores had their faults as well. To begin with, it often took them ages to get the book I ordered.
Often, the books they said were in stock actually were not. I had to cancel my order of “El Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges because after 20 days it didn’t arrive. This, despite the fact there was no online out-of-print or out-of-stock sign.
And during the holiday crush or sales, forget it. I had to wait 15 days for a copy of “Caves of Steel” by Isaac Asimov, just before the government’s Feb. 27 policy restricting online bookstores’ discount rates went into effect.
Not only the delay, but the attitude of the online shop’s service crew annoyed me. They never mentioned any delivery snags; all they said was it would take a few more days than usual. These experiences stirred a renewed longing for real book shops where I could pick up reading material without a wait.
Then I heard that Kyobo had opened a new branch south of the Han River, in the Gangnam district.
Curious, I hopped on the green subway line to check it out. It turned out, Kyobo wasn’t alone in this corner of town; it was the third mega-bookstore in Gangnam, after Bandi & Luni’s in the bowels of the COEX convention center and Youngpoong in Central City, that sprawling commercial empire beneath the Marriott Hotel.
Since Seoul’s first large bookstore opened in 1907, Jongno had always been Seoul’s epicenter of books. There was Jongno Bookstore (the first one), Kyobo, Yangwoodang and Youngpoong, to name a few. Today, however, Gangnam’s bookstore receipts exceed Jongno’s, so Kyobo’s new branch may represent the shift of Seoul’s retail book industry to south of the Han River. For almost 100 years, the central business district held its grip as a book lover’s haunt. But that era was over.
Over at the new Kyobo, I chatted up one of the “bookmasters” ― that’s the Korean word as well ― asking her why their best-seller list stayed the same for about a year.
“That’s because Koreans don’t read many books, and they feel like at least they have to read the books others are talking about,” she answered. “They don’t want to fall behind others.”
Call me an out-of-date weirdo, but I don’t care a whit what the rest of country is reading.
The new Kyobo does look nicer than the old Gwanghwamun branch, or any other super-sized bookstore in Korea. It’s more spacious, has carpeting on the floor, and at least a few benches where you could paw through a few pages.
I’m pretty sure this place will be the favorite destination for book lovers in Gangnam, but I’m not too sure it will ever be much more than a bookstore.
Despite all the new technology and facilities, this outlet fails to fill that void in my soul. Why do I get the feeling that the Gangnam branch is basically the old Gwanghwamun but with window dressing and some fancy technology?
Why can’t they at least have carpeting in the literature section?
On the plus side, I really do appreciate the bookmasters. Those guys just might make the Gangnam Kyobo more than a bookstore.
by Kay Park