Bookstores hang onto nostalgia of turning real pages
In his essay "Bookshop Memories," George Orwell describes bookstores as "one of the few places where you can hang about for a long time without spending any money."
That would be awkward on Seoul's "Used Book Street," a procession of cavernous stores along the Cheongye stream that flows through downtown Seoul. The once busy street is lined with narrow shops that are overflowing with passed-on books and have barely enough room to stand comfortably in. Nowadays not many people hang around here for long, and even fewer spend money.
The area was once a popular spot for students looking for discount textbooks. But with the rise of large bookstores and online retailers, it now attracts very few customers. At its peak, the street had well over a 100 stores. Today, fewer than 30 remain. Many stores closed around the time of the Cheonggye stream's reconstruction in 2007 when rent in the area went up. The merchants who remain still spend each day among stacks of books in a variety of languages, some of which will never be read again.
Jin Hye-sook, 76, sits smiling and neatly made up in a bright, thin shop filled with glossy magazines. Books are a family business for Jin -- her husband inherited a bookshop from his father in Busan, a large port city south of the country. They moved the operation next to the Cheonggye stream 13 years ago.
Many merchants in the area stay afloat by filling niches left by major retailers: Jin specializes in fashion magazines that are bought by design students for their photos. Other retailers focus on religious books or books for children.
"Nothing sells particularly well anymore," Jin said.
Jin's only customer for the day was a young fashion design student who said she came to the store to buy magazines with photos of the latest runway fashion shows in Europe.
In explaining their decline, the area's used booksellers all pointed to the Internet, a culprit familiar to anyone in the intellectual property industries. The availability of books and information online has led to a general drop in demand for the printed word. Online booksellers operate with low overhead costs and can sell books cheaper than independent sellers like Jin and her contemporaries along the Cheonggye.
Besides, reading is at a low in South Korea where the demands of employment and education leave little time for reading. A Statistics Korea report on household expenditures showed the average household spent 20,570 won (approximately US$17) on books in 2011.
The number had been 26,346 won in 2003 and 21,325 in 2004. These numbers include self-help and language-learning books, so spending on books for recreational reading is even lower.
To pass the time on days with little customer traffic, Jin reads an illustrated oriental guide to healthy living. With the predominance of western medicine in Korea, books on eastern methods no longer have a large audience and Jin's book had been dropped off by another reader who no longer had any use for it. "I read this because I want to learn how to live a long time," she said.
Up the street from Jin's shop is an unkempt assemblage of English books. The spines of some books are worn from repeated reading, others are still pristine, appearing to have never been opened. The shop's owner says they are delivered by a firm that specializes in gathering and distributing books.
In most bookstores, titles are arranged according to genre or theme, but this shop's titles don't have any apparent order. "A Man's Guide to a Civilized Divorce" sits in the same short pile as the "Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie.
Lee Won-sup, the next shop's owner in the row, said he doesn't have a particular affinity for books and doesn't read much, despite books being his business. Like other local merchants, the book trade was in his family, having inherited his store from his uncle.
"I worry that people don't read much these days," he said. "Our business has been interrupted by technological developments. I haven't thought about what I will do if I have to find another business."
One sector of South Korea's book market is booming, but it is a long way off from the dusty piles of this street. Korea's e-book market went from an estimated 10 billion won in 2010 to 50 billion won in 2011, according to industry reports.
Lee Eung-min, 49, specializes in rare and out-of-print books on Korean history and culture, the type of tomes that usually can't be found online or in mainstream stores. His small shop glows with yellow tungsten light that reflects off the hardwood walls and floor.
He spends this quiet and rainy afternoon shining the spines of his books using a damp cloth.
Most of his customers are scholars doing academic research. In the far corners of his store one can find classical texts written vertically in Chinese characters. On shelves are titles like "Our History" and "Art of the Silla Nobility."
Lee left his job as the manager of a large supermarket to take over this shop from his father whose ailing health forced him to stop working. Since he began running the shop, his father's health has improved.
"I enjoy my work here even though the business is struggling because nowadays people don't read much," Lee said. "The internet and smartphones are good for getting information but nothing can replace reading,"
At the end of "Bookshop Memories", Orwell laments how his time as a bookstore clerk eroded his love of books. Having once been a bibliophile enamored with the feel and smell of books, after spending all day immersed in their commerce, he never found the same affection for books again.
For Lee, it is love for the written word that gets him through in an otherwise unrewarding line of work. He hopes the unique appeal of books will eventually draw back customers and revitalize the business.
He pulls a book from a nearby shelf. The volume is called "Salmons always return even if you don't wave to them."
"I'm waiting for customers to return like salmon," he said. "My only hope is those people who can't forget what it feels like to turn real pages." (Yonhap)