Home to classical music crosses generations
Heimat is not quite a coffee house, not quite a salon, but something in between. Customers sit in parallel seats surrounded by speakers, where they can sip coffee and focus on the works of great composers.
Kim Sun-hui, 59, the current owner, realized her business was in trouble when she started getting phone calls inquiring whether Heimat is the new “electric home appliances store” on the block. Of course, the callers were thinking of “Hi Mart,” which in Korean is a homophone with Heimat, but for Ms. Kim it’s a reminder of how few people recognize the salon’s name anymore.
Meaning “Homeland” in German, Heimat was established by Ms. Kim’s father, who she said had a collection of thousands of LPs. He used that collection when he opened the salon in 1957. Just like her father, who used to stay at Heimat all day and night, Ms. Kim refuses to let go of the place.
Carefully picking up a classic LP, Ms. Kim placed it on a turntable. Soon the empty salon thundered with the chorus of “Hallelujah” from Handel’s Messiah.
Ms. Kim chose the song because it would “best break the silence of the early morning.” She has another reason to pick “Messiah,” however: She thought she vaguely saw her father in a dream the previous night. Her father, Kim Su-eok, died 37 years ago; Messiah was his favorite song.
“When I die, bury me with a picture of you and your mother on my right, and the ‘Messiah’ LP on my left,” he used to say, even when he was in the hospital suffering from complications of diabetes and high blood pressure.
He was buried with the LP like a pharoah entombed with his treasure. The cover of the record and her father’s photo were hung on a wall in Heimat.
She remembered her father asking her whether he should open a bakery or a “music salon.” Being a child, she instantly replied, “bakery,” knowing it would mean she could eat all the fresh red-bean bread she wanted.
Her father gave a playful knock on her head and said, “Bread might fill your stomach, but music fills your soul. A person can’t live only on bread.”
At the time, classical music records were rare and pricey. Whenever he had a bit of pocket money, he would send it to his aunt in America and ask her to buy him a classical record. When the parcel finally arrived from America, he would carefully unwrap the cover and kiss the new LP in joy.
These LPs were one a reason why the family ended up living in Daegu. They fled from Seoul during the Korean War and sought refuge in Daegu. When the war ended, however, Mr. Kim wouldn’t put his thousands of LPs at risk by coming back to Seoul. Packing the records onto a rumbling truck or a train might break them, he said, and so the family decided to settle in Daegu and open Heimat.
He did not allow anyone other than himself and his daughter to enter the windowed room where the electric gramophone and his LPs were stored. At the time, most cafes featured longhaired deejays in blue jeans playing folk songs for girls who would sit outside the music booth, ogling the deejay. But Mr. Kim said he couldn’t let young “punks smoking cigarettes” handle his valuable LPs, so he did the deejaying by himself.
Heimat was soon swarming with customers. People would hand Mr. Kim notes with the names of songs they wanted to hear, and he would jot down the list of songs on a blackboard on the wall. It was Ms. Kim’s job to fetch the LPs and bring them to her father in front of the turntable. The two never had a day off ― as soon as Ms. Kim returned from school, she would have to start hauling around LPs.
The place was small, only about 180 square meters (200 square yards), but it soon needed nine additional employees to serve the overwhelming number of customers. When there were too many people bustling around the salon, police came to organize lines in front of Heimat. Some impatient customers waiting for seats would barge in anyway and sit down on newspapers spread over the floor, listening to the music. Couples considered Heimat the best place for a romantic date in Daegu, and poets such as Kim Chun-su and Shin Dong-jip often gathered here.
In 1969, Mr. Kim fell ill. He spent his last days in the emergency room of a hospital. His wife and daughter came to see him, but he told Ms. Kim to look after Heimat instead. She walked across the town in the rain to her father’s music salon. But as soon as she arrived, she received a phone call from her weeping mother, saying, “Come back to the hospital quick. Your father might say his last words.”
When she arrived, her father was asking her mother if she would “look after Heimat from now on.”
Before she could answer, the young Ms. Kim interrupted them and said, “I’m here, Father. I think I can do this myself now. Don’t worry.”
He hugged her. It was their last conversation.
It was past one in the afternoon, and Heimat of 2006 was still empty. Ms. Kim brewed a fresh pot of coffee, just in case a customer walked in. She changed the LP to Chopin’s Nocturn, Op. 9-2. It was the perfect piece to listen to alone on a warm afternoon like today, she thought.
In the 1980s, the number of customers started to decline. Records and cassette players became common additions to Korean homes. Fewer coffee shops were playing classical music. Customers wanted to listen to Korean and American pop music.
To make matters worse, construction began on the city’s new subway track in front of the shop. The few customers who still came complained about the noise, so Ms. Kim decided that it was time to move. In 1983, the new Heimat opened in Gongpyeong-dong, a new commercialized district in Daegu, but there was still a noticable lack of customers.
Then the phone calls for Hi Mart started coming in.
Her friends recommended that she change the business to a “video room” or a restaurant. Even her husband and her children asked why she keeps running a place that only saps her money.
“When my father was alive, my mother suggested once we raise the admission fee to Heimat when business got harsh,” Ms. Kim said. “But my father thought that was absurd.”
As was her father’s wish, Ms. Kim still lets first-time visitors come inside for free. She also provides free coffee.
Only when customers really come to like the place and become regular visitors does she expect them to pay, she said.
An annual membership to Heimat costs 70,000 won ($73), but few people are willing to pay that amount of money anymore. She makes up for Heimat’s business losses by renting out a house she owns downtown.
Heimat’s fortunes might soon change, however. Earlier this year, a classical music radio program reported on the salon, and Ms. Kim suddenly received calls from her old customers across the country.
One caller was a married woman who met her future husband at Heimat when they were still quite young. “It’s so nice to hear that you’re still there,” she said.
Another caller said he had no idea the place had moved. “Why didn’t you advertise more that you had moved?” he asked.
On one night, an elderly man called in. “Hearing the news, I was overwhelmed with memories from my younger days. I’m so thankful that there’s a place where people know how to appreciate music,” he told her.
Ms. Kim had her early supper alone. On the blackboard, she scribbled down the title of a Beethoven piece. She covered a 20-year-old fabric sofa with a white sheet to give the room a “new atmosphere.” She dusted a small sculpture standing on one side of the room. Soon there would be a meeting of club members who gather to listen to classical music together ― the few customers who still visit Heimat regularly.
“I used to spend all day here with my friends,” said Kim Hyeon-cheol, 55, a physician and member of Daegu Music Friends, the classical music club. He has been a regular customer since first discovering the place in 1967. “I would come here in the morning, go out to have lunch, and come back again, then go out for dinner and a few drinks and then come back again to listen to music late into the night.”
He now has a state-of-the-art sound system at his home. But he said he still prefers to listen to music at Heimat, where he and his old friends can enjoy and discuss it together.
10 p.m. Georg Boehm’s Our Father (Vater unser im Himmelreich)
All the guests had left, and Ms. Kim washed teacups and cleaned up the tables and sofa. Boehm’s piece echoed from the speakers, but it wasn’t one of her father’s LPs. It was a CD her son sent her of his performances. Her son, Park Su-won, 35, is currently studying the piano organ in France.
“Once, I told him he couldn’t study music because we weren’t affluent enough to support his musical studies,” she said. Undeterred, Mr. Park told her he was studying trade in college, and was preparing for a job at a trading company.
But one day, a customer told her, “Your son has quite a talent for the organ.” Surprised, she searched his school bags and found a music book hidden between his textbook on trade. It wasn’t until several days later that she confronted him about it. He replied curtly, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it.”
He retook the college entrance exam to study music, and received a scholarship to study abroad. He recently graduated from the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Lyon in France.
This summer, Mr. Park is coming back to Korea. He married a pianist. They say that when they come back to Korea, they will take over for Ms. Kim and keep Heimat open.
“I never asked my son to run the place after me, though I dearly wished he would,” Ms. Kim said.
Ms. Kim lives in a room above the salon. She knows little about the world outside of Heimat. She has never been to the beach, she said, mainly because she has to stay in the building in case a customer drops by. The only time she leaves the coffee shop for over an hour is to attend dawn Mass at her church.
Ms. Kim sat on the empty sofa her customers had been sitting on hours ago. She stretched her legs and closed her eyes, enjoying the last part of her son’s performance of “Our Father.”
Her son and his family are coming to visit her in August. She smiled. “Then, maybe, I’ll let myself visit the beach.”
by Shin Eun-jin
Heimat is 100 meters toward the Central Library from the Daegu Department Store in Gongpyeong-dong, Daegu.
More in Features
Nothing's fair in love and Covid
Top culture stories of the year
[ZOOM KOREA] The pipe organ master with plans for a uniquely Korean instrument
ENFJ-LMNOPQ what does the MBTI say about you?
A war wages on online over Korea's most-loved heritages