[The Fountain] Groans too acute to ignore

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[The Fountain] Groans too acute to ignore

The author is head of the industry news team at the JoongAng Ilbo.

On the night of Jan. 3, I got in a taxi on Apgujeong Rodeo Street in southern Seoul. I was going around, asking small business owners in major commercial areas such as Gangnam District about their businesses. While talking to the 43-year-old taxi driver, I learned that he had been the owner of a pub in Garosu-gil until the first half of last year.

“I’ve been in the neighborhood for 20 years. Starting out as a photographer, I ran a clothing store later. But as people buy clothes online these days, I changed the store into a pub. But I gave up.”

He had to shut down the pub after struggling to survive the three years of Covid-19. “The landlord suddenly asked for 1.5 million won ($1,200) more per month. I was paying 2.5 million for monthly rent. But as the human traffic increased after the pandemic restrictions ended, the landlord decided to raise the rent that much. I could not hold out.”

After closing the pub, he became a taxi driver. “When I took the driving class, many people were new to driving taxis. There was a retired professor and others in their 20s and 30s.” He does not make as much money driving a taxi as he had expected, but he said he would continue to drive because it’s hard to find other jobs.

After that, I visited Garosu-gil. There were many vacant stores with “now leasing” signs. A 58-year-old man said he was trying to sell the coffee shop he ran for six years because the revenue decreased drastically. But he hasn’t found a buyer for five months. A 52-year-old man said that he had been running a clothing and general store for 21 years, but he could not make enough to cover their living expenses for the past two years. Their voices were desperate.

A 39-year-old woman had been in the skin care industry for 12 years and recently got a second job six months ago. She writes for a business blog for six to seven hours a day and receives 400,000 won per month. She says it is better than folding paper packs or sewing doll eyes while her child is sleeping.

Low-interest loans offered by the government for some small businesses is a far cry from the 5.6 million small business owners directly hit by high interest rates and high prices. Is it too much to hope that the government would present more helpful policies so that no more people would lament, “Too late now.” As the small business owners are the “small veins of the economy,” their groans are too acute to ignore.
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