Treasured texts reside in Insa-dong bookstoreThere is an odd tension in the air of the Tongmungwan bookstore.
It may be the scent of decaying paper, which hits your nostrils like pungent pickles as you squeeze between the tight bookshelves on both sides of the store. Or it may be the dim lighting in the room, which gives a medieval feel to the stacks of old, antique books, or the disposition of the bookstore, which sits on the busy street of Insa-dong like a tiny island immune to time.
After 70 years in business, Tongmungwan is the nation’s oldest surviving bookstore.
It contains vast collections of antique books, newspapers, political leaflets and rare documents signed at some of the most critical moments in Korean history.
Hidden deep within a cabinet, there is a typewritten manuscript of a leaflet signed by John Hodge, commanding general of the U.S. force, in 1945; a few remaining copies of the Independent Daily newspaper published by the provisional government of Korea in 1919; a writer’s note by Hong Myeong-hee, a famous author of Korean folktales; and some of the earliest remnants of metal prints from the Joseon dynasty, which rival national collections owned by the state.
Some of these prints are easily worth a few million won (thousands of dollars) , but finding them is far from easy.
“You develop a hunter’s instinct as a collector,” says Lee Jong-un, the current owner of Tongmungwan, who shops for his pieces all over the world, from European flea markets for old postcards sent to their homes by European missionaries during the early 19th century to royal documents in antique bookshops in China and Japan. “Often when you find the most coveted treasures, it’s almost like an accident.”
Tongmungwan was founded in 1934 by Mr. Lee’s grandfather, Lee Gyeom-no (who used the pen name “Sangi”), and who was a recognized master of Korean antique books.
Until he died recently at the age of 97, his role as a publisher, archivist, historian and ardent collector of antique books earned him unparallelled respect within Korea’s academic circles.
During a reunion of separated family members from North and South Korea in 2000, there was a historic meeting of two elder academics. Mr. Lee, then 93, went to the meeting in Seoul to deliver an unpaid author’s fee of 500,000 won to Ryu Ryeol, a North Korean scholar who published “A Farmer’s Prose” through Tongmungwan before the Korean War began. The dry handshakes of the two grey-haired academics, who met after being apart for 50 years, showed the hidden tragedy the war had inflicted on Koreans.
The store has come a long way in the past decades.
At 17, the elder Mr. Lee, straight out of middle school, left his home in what is now North Korea, intending to study in Japan. But, after a strong earthquake hit Japan, preventing his entry, he settled in an antique bookstore in Insa-dong instead. He once said that he began working in the store “not because I loved books, but because I was hungry.” But he developed a passion for books over time. When war broke out in 1950, he saved an 80-volume set of books that chronicled Joseon’s military history, valuing them over all his other belongings.
In 1934, at the age of 25, Mr. Lee took over the shop and renamed it Tongmungwan. Since then, the bookstore has been a witness of Korean history for scholars and collectors from Korea, Japan and China. When the late owner retired, the store was passed to his son, Lee Dong-ho, then to a grandson, the current owner.
During the peak of Korea’s academic culture in the 1970s and ‘80s, Insa-dong was the center of stores offering rare and antique books for students of the humanities and liberal arts. Many of those stores were been replaced with commercial galleries and other shops as the neighborhood turned into a tourist attraction.
A few managed to survive but, as rents soared, many closed down or moved to cheaper antique alleys such as around Dongdaemun. The ones that still exist in Insa-dong mostly sell a mix of art, maps, calligraphy and books. Tongmungwan, which holds as many as 20,000 rare, antique books, is about the only store left in the vicinity that specializes in antique books and rare documents.
There is more to Tongmungwan’s history. The store has “found,” acquired and returned countless historical documents and manuscripts, the existence of which the nation’s scholars had barely suspected.
In 1961, the elder Mr. Lee found a national treasure, a book named “Wolinseokbo” that chronicled the life of Sakyamuni, who became Buddha. It was published in 1459, and experts believe it was given to Ogura Shimpei, a Japanese linguist and scholar of Korean studies, shortly after Korea was liberated from Japan. The book was later donated to Yonsei University’s library.
He also found extensive copies of royal documents that were stolen from the main library of the Academy of Korean Studies (one had been sold to a printer in Jeonju for recycling) and acquired the original volume of “Samguk Yusa” (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) from a private collector, and donated them to university libraries.
The culture of book collecting in Korea is not popular but considered a discreet habit of a privileged few.
An old proverb tells readers to return with a bottle of wine as a sign of thanks when they borrow a book from someone.
Some, however, see their collections of antique books as investments.
“The best way to tease a person you absolutely don’t want to sell your works to is to show them the most precious copies you’ve got, and tell them you are not interested in selling,” Mr. Lee said, explaining the power games played by many collectors.
“It’s all about finding that hidden book, and how much you understand what you have discovered,” he said. “Ceramics are there to look at. But print is mostly to own. The value of the collection is different.”
Ardent collectors still use the expression “marrying off the bride” when they sell a valuable book. “That’s the value we give them,” Mr. Lee said.
by Park Soo-mee