Friday, June 01, 2007

Modern Bookstores, Jongro, and the 1890s

Visitors to the Blog and those who know my work!

This article covers a number of subjects I see as interesting Books, Korea in the 1890s in the Jongro area, and modern popular culture

Korea Herald notes...
Maurice Courant, interpreter for the French mission in Seoul in the late 19th century, noticed that major bookstores in Seoul were mostly located in the Jongno area, especially near Gwanggyo Bridge.[ Newly re-build as part of the Cheongye cheon project.]

His observation remains valid. Four big bookstores -- Kyobo, Youngpoong, Bandi & Luni's, Libro -- are clustered around the Gwanggyo, which was widely known as the Chohung Bank headquarters site (now, Shinhan Bank's branch office has replaced it due to a merger).

But there is another historic site that is not drawing much attention from passers-by. About 30 meters away from the Gwanggyo's stone miniature stands a small monument for Hoedong Seogwan, Korea's first modern bookstore.

The neglected historic site, in fact, once hosted Korea's major bookstore operator and publisher. Back in 1897, Ko Jae-hong set up a small book trader company called "Ko Jae-hong Seosa" at the very place where the monument now stands. His son, Ko Yu-sang, took over the family business in 1907 and renamed it "Hoedong Seogwan" (seogwan means bookstore in Korean). Ko Yu-sang expanded the enterprise into a publication business, putting out major novels. One of his biggest sellers was "Jajeon seokyo" in 1909, a modern Chinese dictionary that earned the company about 80,000 won, or 2 billion won in today's currency -- an astounding success.

Drawing strength from its strong business position, Hoedong continued to expand, opening up new branch offices in the Jongno area. The bookstore and its competitors represented the crucial gateway of new information and culture from foreign countries in the early 20th century. In 1931, Jongno Bookstore settled into the heart of the cultural and publishing center, offering a key meeting place for Korean intellectuals in the following decades, especially the 1960s and 1970s. But Jongno Bookstore, renowned for its cozy atmosphere and refined inventory of book titles, was forced to close down in 2002, failing to adapt to new trends initiated by so-called "superstores," or bookstore chains that emulate Borders Book & Music in the United States.

In the 1980s, Kyobo Bookstore entered the market and changed the landscape dramatically. Its highly visible location (though underground) at the center of Gwanghwamun led to a rapid rise in standing in terms of book sales, and now Kyobo is expanding at a rapid pace, establishing branch stores across the nation.

While Kyobo continued to develop as a cultural center for intellectuals and mainstream readers in Seoul, other big chains jumped into the fray. Youngpoong, which is now near the Gwanggyo Bridge across the Cheonggye Stream, was one of such new entrants, though it is now an established and influential business in the Jongno area.

In the 1990s, Kyobo and Youngpoong led book-reading culture in Jongno and its surrounding areas. Now, Bandi & Luni's, another big bookstore chain, has joined the competition, boasting a distinctive atmosphere, specifically a relatively generous interior design that allows book buyers to read titles at their leisure.

This bookstore district has another main store -- Libro, which is about a five-minute walk from the Gwanggyo Bridge toward Myeongdong. During lunch time, the bookstore attracts mostly business people curious about the latest trends and issues.

With the emergence of superstores like Kyobo and Bandi & Luni's, a number of smaller bookstores were forced out of business in many parts of Seoul and elsewhere. But the trend took a digital turn when the industry faced disruption when a slew of online bookstores converged on the market, undercutting the position of existing players.

In the past couple of years, a wave of consolidation hit the publishing and bookstore industries. Starbucks and other chain coffee shops have bombarded the area as well. But the fundamental status of Jongno's bookstore district remains the same. Writers, teachers, students, business people and book lovers still prefer meeting with their friends inside the bookstores -- the only place where the pleasure of reading a book eliminates the anxiety of waiting for somebody.

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