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What do Korean bookstores do to attract customers?


Who says that bookstores can only function as a place to read and buy books?Increasingly, they have become a magnet to bring together people with similar interests.

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Until a few years ago, there was a trend of bookstores opening with books under one specific theme, rather than being positioned as a place where all kinds of books are sold. Some only display art books and some others only sell prints from small publishers, depending on the taste and interests of the bookstore owner. That trend has evolved as bookstores function more as a community center instead of a space only for buying books. These bookstores do more than just hosting book clubs, they also offer live musical performances, movie screenings and even flea markets.

According to research by Seoul Metropolitan Library, the number of bookstores in the capital, excluding large chain stores, is over 530. Jongno District in central Seoul and Mapo District in western Seoul are where a large number of the small bookstores are found. Mapo District has especially seen rapid growth – going from 34 in 2016 to 56 this year.

“The new generation express themselves and their tastes actively, so places where they can meet people with similar interests have been receiving more attention,” said Gu Sun-a, writer of the book “Travelers’s Bookstore” and contents director of Chaegbangyeonhui. The book introduces routes one can take to visit different small bookstores across Seoul.

Liner Note in Mapo District is located on the second floor of a two-story house and sells all kinds of music-related books and records. The store’s interior looks like someone’s home, and visitors are encouraged to read books on a sofa next to a piano in the living room. Every week there is a live jazz performance and classes where people can learn how to compose or how to play the guitar.

Translator’s Book Shop Seoul, also in Mapo District, is home to many translated books on design and humanities, as well as novels. Since it is located in a residential area, it has become a gathering spot for neighbors on the weekdays. Most of the neighbors participate in a biweekly book club and others take Japanese language classes at the bookstore as well. They sometimes just come to drink tea and talk with one another. They even held a flea market.

“Small bookstores are considered charming because the vibe from each bookstore is very different depending on the taste of the owner. On top of curated contents, now bookstores offer a variety of programs to make them the center of community in each neighborhood,” said CEO Lee Young-joo of Manchun Book Store located in Jeju Island, explaining that the selected books and goods differ from store to store.

The Jeju bookstore even worked with singer-songwriters and released an album called “Our Manchun,” filled with songs inspired by books that they read.

Usually the new and small bookstores do not match the image one might have of a bookstore, with walls covered in floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with books. Many of the stores are decorated to look more like a gallery or an art studio so that people will come in to experience a new space and meet people with similar tastes and hobbies.

Therefore, developing programs to cater to the tastes of visitors is key these days. Illustrators who run bookstores specialized in art books offer painting classes, while others provide book binding classes to show people how to put a book together.

The Seoul Metropolitan Government and Seoul Metropolitan Library have been supporting this new trend of developing classes in bookstores. They selected 50 small bookstores across Seoul in June and provided them with some monetary support or promotion on social media.

With many people seeking out these spots for new experiences, the untold rule that bookstores need to be on the first floor to attract customers has been broken. B Platform, a bookstore that sells art books that also functions as a cultural studio and gallery, is located in the third floor, but the owner does not worry about attracting people upstairs. There are about 100 books in the store, which is not many, but women in their 20s and 30s, who are interested in participating in workshops about binding books and printing as well as browsing handmade art books, are frequent customers.

“All the visitors coming to the store come to be [in this bookstore]. When we first opened in 2016, we chose the space on the third floor due to the high price of renting the first floor, but now we think being on the third floor was a good decision,” said curator Kim Myung-soo.

Some other bookstores, like The Book Society in Jongno District, central Seoul, and DoDoBongBong in Dobong District, northern Seoul, are on the second floor.

The popularity of small bookstores is not only seen in the Seoul metropolitan area. Small bookstores can be found in major cities across Korea, including Paju, where many publishing companies are located, as well as Jeju Island, where the number of small bookstores is rapidly increasing. Many of the spots in Jeju usually have one theme, such as books made by small independent publishing companies, and many have started to offer overnight stays in the store.

Last year alone, Jeju welcomed 34 new small bookstores, said Nam Chang-woo, CEO of Funnyplan, which runs Bookshopmap, a mobile platform that provides information about small bookstores.

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“It is highly influenced by the artists and publishing experts who moved to Jeju Island over the past couple of years,” Nam said.

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