Capturing beautiful shops of the past : Artist’s drawings of corner stores evoke nostalgia of a familiar time and place

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Capturing beautiful shops of the past : Artist’s drawings of corner stores evoke nostalgia of a familiar time and place


Lee Me-kyeoung

“Don’t everybody’s happy memories have something to do with mom-and-pop stores?”

For artist Lee Me-kyeoung, who has documented these old-school shops for 20 years, that certainly was the case.

Today there is an endless amount of entertainment available through various channels, but in the olden days, children would get a coin or two from their parents, dash to these mom-and-pop stores and hang out with one another browsing through the colorful items that decorated the shelves.

That’s why the title of her recent illustration essay is “Happy Memories of Corner Shops in Korea.”

She has drawn about 250 corner shops across South Korea, and of them, 80 are featured in her new book. The illustrations gained traction online, particularly on social media, and were even featured on BBC News. Riding the popularity, the book is now on its sixth print run. Its copyright is about to be sold in France, Japan and Taiwan, among others.

Born in 1970, Lee majored in painting at Hongik University. After graduating in 1994, she moved to Toechon, Gyeonggi in 1997. It was there that she was drawn to mom-and-pop stores.

“It was about three months after I gave birth to my second child,” she recollected. “I was taking a stroll around my neighborhood and suddenly a corner shop looked so beautiful. It was actually [a place] I passed by daily. But the roof made of galvanized steel and the sunset behind it [had a] mystical harmony between the two [that] caught my eye.”

She said the scene reminded her of her childhood, when she, her mother and grandmother would visit a similar store.


Artist Lee Me-kyeoung has been making sketches of Korea’s mom-and-pop shops (above) that are fast giving away to more modern establishments. [JOONGANG ILBO]

Since then, she went out to find these corner shops that are fast disappearing in Korea, giving way to convenience store franchises.

At times when she wasn’t sure where to go, she would refer to blogs or television documentary programs. There were even times when she would travel to the shops only to find that the stores had been closed permanently.

There are common themes in many of Lee’s acrylic ink sketches. A red mailbox, a wide wooden bench, an outdoor lamp below the eaves, an old bicycle and handcart often appear in them.

But above all, in almost all of Lee’s drawings is a tree.

“Often these props are thrown away,” she said. “I wanted to draw the days when they were the prettiest.”

There is also a secret behind Lee’s sketches. They may seem like a real place, somewhere that’s easily in your neighborhood. But the trick is that you would never find them in reality.

“I draw based on a real mom-and-pop shops, but I add other details like items in the vicinity or a tree that’s actually in front of a house nearby,” Lee said. “After all, I’m a painter, not a photographer. I want to preserve the warm scene in people’s memories.”

Asked why there are no humans in her drawings, Lee said that in order for the corner shops to be the main character of the scene, she had to eliminate any elements that could distract people’s attention elsewhere.

As her work became popular, she has received messages with special stories.

“One of the emails that really spoke to my heart was a request that I draw Cheolma Super in Cheolma-dong in Busan,” Lee said. “It was sent by someone who lost his or her parents at a young age and grew up in a corner shop run by an uncle. The person is now an adult and battling cancer, still getting a lot of love and help from the uncle and his children. The person wants to gift the uncle with a drawing of the store.”

The Seoul Metropolitan City also approached Lee. Its history and culture heritage division contacted Lee to find out exact places of Lee’s sketches. The division designates sites with historic and cultural important as “future heritage sites.” Apparently, mayor Park Won-soon saw the book and told the division to contact Lee.

This perhaps explains why Lee’s sketches aren’t just about nostalgia or the things of the past. They remind people that architecture is about people’s lives and why it’s important to preserve it somehow - if not immortalize it the way Lee did.

But Lee says it’s getting harder and harder to find these old-school stores nowadays, even in rural areas.

“It seems Koreans just want to get rid of old things and instead build new establishments,” she said. “But in some countries in Europe, even old cobbled streets are left as something valuable. We will certainly regret it when we lose all [of our heritage.]”


"유년 시절 최고의 기억은 구멍가게에 있다"

“누구에게나 유년 시절 가장 즐거운 기억은 구멍가게와 연관이 있지 않나요?”

지난 3월 그림에세이 『동전 하나로도 행복했던 구멍가게의 날들』(남해의봄날 출판사)을 펴낸 이미경(48) 작가의 말이다. 그는 20여 년 간 전국 곳곳을 직접 찾아다니며 동네마다 보석처럼 박혀 있던 구멍가게 250여 곳을 펜화로 그렸고, 그중 80여 점을 추려 책으로 엮었다. 출간 즉시 SNS를 타고 확산된 이씨의 그림은 영국 BBC 방송에도 소개됐다. 책은 발간 두 달 만에 6쇄를 찍었고, 프랑스와 일본에 판권이 팔렸다.

홍익대학교 미술대학에서 서양화를 전공한 그가 구멍가게에 홀린 건 1997년 이사한 퇴촌 관음리 산책길에서였다. “둘째 아이를 낳고 100일쯤 됐을 때 동네를 산책하는데 구멍가게가 너무 예쁘게 보이는 거예요. 매일 지나던 곳인데 그날따라 석양빛에 빛나는 양철 지붕의 오묘한 빛깔이 눈에 잡혔어요. 왜 이걸 그릴 생각을 못했을까 싶었죠.”

전국의 구멍가게들을 찾아 나섰다. 어디에 뭐가 있는지 몰라 처음엔 남의 블로그 또는 TV 다큐멘터리에서 본 가게를 무작정 찾았다. 지인의 기억에 의존해 찾아갔지만 그새 없어져 허탕을 친 경우도 여러 번. “한 번 집을 나서면 3~4일씩 전국 구석구석을 정처 없이 걸어 다녔죠. 어느새 이력이 쌓이니까 ‘저 모퉁이만 돌면 있을 것 같다’는 통밥도 생기더라고요.”(웃음)

빨간 우체통, 널찍한 평상, 처마 밑 외등, 녹슨 자전거와 리어카 그리고 이 모든 풍경을 든든히 지키고 선 나무. 이씨의 구멍가게 그림에 꼭 등장하는 소품들이다. “소명을 다하고 이젠 잊혀진 소품들의 예뻤던 시절을 그리고 싶었어요.” 사실 이씨의 그림에는 비밀이 있다. 어디엔가 있을 법한데 실제로는 존재하지 않는다. “실제 구멍가게를 뼈대로 그리되 주변 소품이나 집 앞 나무 등 없던 걸 그려 넣기도 해요. 난 사진가가 아니고 화가니까요. 사람들 기억 속의 따뜻한 풍경을 지켜주고 싶어요.”

그림에 왜 사람은 하나도 등장하지 않는가 물었더니 이씨는 “온전히 구멍가게가 그림 속 주인공이 되려면 시선을 잡아끄는 사람은 배제해야 했다”고 답했다.

책이 나오고 이씨는 몇 통의 장문 메일을 받았다. 대부분 어린 시절 구멍가게 사진을 보내줄 테니 그림으로 그려줄 수 있느냐는 부탁이다. “부산 철마동에 있는 철마 슈퍼를 그려달라는 사연이 특히 기억나요. 어려서 부모님을 잃고 작은 아버님이 운영하는 슈퍼에서 자랐대요. 힘들었지만 행복한 어린 시절이었다고, 말기 암을 선고 받은 지금도 작은 아버지와 조카들에게서 여전히 큰 사랑과 도움을 받고 있다며 그림을 선물하고 싶다고 하더라고요.” 서울시 미래유산팀의 전화도 받았다. 박원순 시장이 책을 보고 ‘바로 이런 곳이 미래유산으로 지정돼야 한다’며 어딘지 찾았단다.

이씨의 구멍가게 그림의 가치가 단순히 우리의 기억을 되살리는 데만 있지 않는 것도 같은 이유다. ‘건축은 삶’이라는 소박한 명제를 환기시키고, 그때 그 시절의 희로애락을 소환하고, 오래 두고 간직해야 할 의미와 이유를 담아낸다.

“사실 알고 보면 다 영세한 가게들이었죠. 그날그날 들르는 손님들의 동전으로 하루를 살아야했던 날들, 얼마나 빡빡했을까요. 그래도 욕심 부리지 않고 열심히 살았겠죠. 집안사람들의 복닥거리는 삶을, 그 앞을 지나가던 사람들의 삶의 무게를 다 알고 있는 공간이 구멍가게들인데, 이젠 지방에서도 찾기가 쉽지 않아요. 사람들은 자꾸만 낡은 것을 없애려고 해요. 유럽은 오래된 돌바닥 길까지 가치 있는 것으로 남겨두는데 말이죠. 다 잃어버리면 나중에 분명 후회할 텐데.”

글: 서정민
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