Choi Ki-woong, left, and his wife, Kim Young-ja, work at their Foreign Book Store, which was recently designated as a Future Heritage by the Seoul Metropolitan Government, Monday. / Korea Times photo by Kim Se-jeong
This is the first in a series of articles featuring Seoul City-designated Future Heritages, modern-time assets that have not been designated as state cultural properties but have enough value to be handed down to future generations. ― ED.
By Kim Se-jeong
"Foreign Book Store" is the name of Choi Ki-woong's 43-year-old shop selling used English books.
Recently, the Seoul Metropolitan Government has chosen it as one of its "Future Heritages" in an effort to preserve valuable tangible or intangible heritages within the city.
Sitting across from the U.S. Army base near Noksapyeong Station, the tiny bookstore in a two-story building has almost 200,000 books, 20,000 of which are on sale.
Books vary in genre, from the Lonely Planet series to Harry Potter, National Geographic magazines and a copy of Webster's English dictionary printed in 1990.
"I am excited about the Future Heritage designation as it was a surprise," Choi said. "Some people came to me asking some questions last year, but I didn't think much about it until December when a guy from the city government asked if I would like to accept the heritage title."
He is now waiting for a bronze plaque to show his store is a Future Heritage.
Choi, 74, opened the shop in 1973. It was a way of making money. Most of the books came from the military bases. He traveled across the country where there were U.S. bases and outside Korea looking for books. His most recent trip was to Hawaii in December.
He's got a long list of regulars, some of whom are popular.
Scholar Kim Yong-ok, known as Do-ol, is one. Actress Chae Si-ra also dropped by. Former Labor Minister Nam Jae-hee also came often. "He bought books for his son-in-law and daughter. When he found what he was looking for, he yelled ‘I've got a jewel,'" Choi's wife, Kim Young-ja, 69, said.
Non-Koreans were among the customers as well. Many foreigners who live in Seoul drop by the bookstore, and it has become popular among travelers after it was mentioned in Lonely Planet.
The couple has a special customer services for regulars.
They have a list of frequent visitors, exceeding 1,000. With their addresses and phone numbers, the couple sends out a gift from time to time.
Selling books wasn't his dream job, Choi said. He did not have special interest in language, either. "I did it to make money. I had a whole family to feed from a young age."
He has learned English over the years. He said his English is not fluent enough to read all the books he sells, but enough to deal with customers.
Their children's English fluency is something the couple is proud of.
They and their three daughters used to live on the second floor of the building. "All the girls came down here all the time," the wife said.
The couple is particularly proud of the third daughter, who speaks fluent English. "She is a designer. Because of her English fluency, she took many business trips and was promoted fast. She married an American last year, and is now working in New York."
The second daughter is also living in New York, and the eldest, in Seoul.
The business was not lucrative but it was enough to support the family. "We managed to marry my daughter off," Choi said.
The family no longer lives in the building. They live in an apartment near the bookshop and rented the space on the second floor to a tenant.
Choi almost closed the business twice. He had an offer for real estate business, but he eventually didn't take it. Another was when the family was planning to immigrate to Hawaii, but they finally decided to stay.
The couple said the eldest daughter is interested in succeeding her parents. "When we are out for trips, she takes care of the bookstore," he said. "Recently, she said she'd like to take it over from us."