Discovering books

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Discovering books

“Wow, this is amazing!” a Japanese tourist said as he took photos on his mobile phone Monday evening at Kyobo Bookstore in Gwanghwamun. A few weeks ago, two 11.5-meter (37.7-foot) tables were set up in a corner of the bookstore. “Made with 50,000-year-old kauri pine trees from New Zealand,” the reading tables are long enough to seat more than 100 people. Readers of all ages, from children to seniors, gather around the table. Some have stacks of books to browse through, while others study for exams. This is a scene that cannot be found anywhere else in Seoul, impressive enough to inspire the tourist to take photographs.

The tables have rough edges, keeping the natural shape of the trees. You can see tree rings inside the cracks. The kauri pine trees grow for several thousands of years in the Kauri Forests on the North Island of New Zealand. The trees had been buried in swamps 50,000 years ago in a natural disaster and were preserved. It cost more than 400 million won ($344,000) to buy, process and move the tree. “Do the tables have to be made of such valuable and expensive trees?” I asked the store manager. “We wanted to provide the readers a special experience of reading books with wisdom that survived through history on a table made of trees that endured a long time,” he said. It made sense as I caressed the rough edges of the table.

Some have complaints about Kyobo’s transformation to offer places to read books at the bookstore. They argue that bookstores are not libraries. They ask why the bookstore lets customers not buy books but read for free, and what the bookstore would do with the books that show signs of use. They also question whether the publishers would suffer. But when I asked the publishers, they were actually concerned about reduced display space, not the customers who read their books for free. “We even considered secretly putting our books on the table so that customers can try them out.”

The key concern in the publishing industry today is how to make their books “discovered.” When there is abundant content and entertainment to enjoy, readers mostly buy books online, and the publishers are struggling to find ways to promote their books. Making the bookstore a place to visit and stay longer is a great way to make the books discoverable.

Japanese bookstore chain Tsutaya is full of people reading books while enjoying coffee. Muneaki Masuda, the owner of Culture Convenience Club, which operates Tsutaya, wrote in his book “The Intellectual Capital” that bookstores don’t sell books themselves but sell the worldview, experience and lifestyle that the books contain. If the bookstore wants to sell what’s in the book, there is no reason to be wary of the customers who sit down and read books there. The physical bookstores need to present customers with a “comfortable time and place” to enjoy books. The 50,000-year-old kauri pine tree presented a comfortable and special experience for reading books.

*The author is a culture and sports news writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 2, Page 34

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