Visitors explore Seoul Book Repository, the city's first public secondhand bookstore in Songpa-gu, southeastern Seoul, on its March 27 opening. / Yonhap

Wander around Seoul’s first public secondhand bookstore

An old warehouse, used previously for storing American marketing giant Amway’s products in southeastern Seoul, has been turned into the city’s first public secondhand bookstore. 

The interior is striking. Round openings are built into the rows of iron-frame bookshelves, creating a tunnel. Visitors drift along this passageway, looking for a good read from the shelves stretching out on either side. 

Around 120,000 secondhand books are on sale in this single-story, 1,400-square-meter store, called Seoul Book Repository. The books are supplied by 25 secondhand bookstores scattered around the city, most of which are located at at secondhand book street near Cheonggye Stream. 

The books are grouped by supplier, allowing each bookstore to use its own cataloging system for its books on designated shelves. This allows the repository to wholly transfer a mini version of each bookstore into its space. 

A visitor shops for secondhand books at Seoul Book Repository, March 27. / Yonhap

“For us, it’s like opening a branch store,” Noh Dong-hwan, owner of Hidden Books, a participating bookstore, told The Korea Times last Friday. Established in 1999, Hidden Books, a well-known secondhand bookstore in Sinchon, western Seoul, sent 10,000 books to the repository.

“We had to think what type of customers would come to a space actively promoted by Seoul City when we chose which books to send.”

Cho Myung-jae, a poet and literary critic in his early 70s, was one of the visitors combing through the shelves on April 3 afternoon for good poetry books.

“Only a few of the bookstores here have good collections of poetry. And although some have the poetry books on one shelf, others have them scattered all over,” Cho said, holding out his selection.

“These poetry books from the 1970s and 80s, they come with different designs now, so it’s hard to buy first-edition pieces like this.” 

Poet and literary critic Cho Myung-jae shows secondhand poetry books he selected from the shelves at Seoul Book Repository, April 3. / Korea Times photo by Lee Suh-yoon

A few shelves away, Hong Young-sun, 45, was looking for English books for her elementary school child.

“I’ve gone through half the shelves so far. The children’s books available here are mostly comics but I found what I needed,” she said, holding an armful of beginner-level English learners’ books. 

“They’re cheap, only 2,000 won each. If they had a delivery service available, I would order history book collections too.”

Due to this unique display system, customers cannot make a beeline for their favorite genre. Everyone leisurely skims through the shelves, distracted by the nostalgic titles ― storybooks from their childhood or limited-edition copies of their favorite novel series ― that pop up along the way. Those looking for recent bestsellers or English material, however, might find their choices limited compared to shopping at big secondhand bookstore chains such as Aladdin.

At a retro-themed special exhibition on April 4, the shelves along the wall display independent press books. / Courtesy of Seoul Metropolitan Government

For each purchased book, Seoul Book Repository takes a 10 percent commission from bookstores, although participating stores do not have to shoulder rent or operation costs.

So far, Seoul Book Repository seems to be succeeding in its goal: provide small secondhand bookstores ― struggling against mega bookstore chains and online competition ― with an effective sales platform. 

Business is good, Noh says. His store alone sold 1,000 books in five days.

“With small offline bookstores in a state of decline, Seoul Book Repository provides room to explore a solution to this,” Noh said. 

“Just seeing the large number of visitors with books placed in a spacious and pleasant setting made us (bookstore owners) reflect and plan ahead. Were our PR efforts lacking? How should we manage economies-of-scale problems?” 

Books on display at Seoul Book Repository. Clockwise from top left are: an old elementary school textbook, an indie press book, a book titled “How to raise angora rabbits,” and a phone ad from an old magazine. / Korea Times photo by Lee Suh-yoon

To the right of the main entrance are reading tables and shelves for perusing independent press books. The city plans to expand this section with new purchases every year. A special exhibition, hosting a retro-themed display of old textbooks and magazines, is also worth a look.

Nearby shelves are filled with donated books that can only be read inside. 

“Seoul Book Repository is a cultural complex where old books find new value,” Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said in a press statement. “It will be a space where people can access diverse works, ranging from old secondhand material to recent indie press books.” 

Seoul Book Repository is a three-minute walk from exit 1 of Jamsillaru Station on Line 2. It’s closed on Mondays and online purchasing is not available. Visit seoulbookbogo.kr for more information. 

Article appeared on Korea Times.