|Nho Myung-woo, a sociology professor at Ajou University and owner of Bookshop Nieun, poses at his bookstore in Seoul in this undated photo. / Courtesy of KL Publishing|
Business loss continues, yet manageable says founder
By Park Ji-won
It was just fanciful thinking years ago when Nho Myung-woo, a sociology professor at Ajou University, first considered opening a bookstore. In the digital era, bookstores are a waning business and Nho already had a full-time job. Preparing lectures and teaching students required him to invest a lot of time and energy, and finding the time to devote to an unprofitable business was not on his mind.
One day in April 2018, however, he decided to write on social media, asking if people thought he should open an independent bookstore. Over 700 people liked the post. Boosted by the encouraging reaction from social media users, Nho went ahead with the experiment and opened a bookstore five months later.
Bookshop Nieun is tucked away in Seoul's western district of Eunpyeong-gu. It's a 10-minute walk from Yeonsinnae Subway Station. The small bookstore has around 1,000 books, mostly focused on the humanities, social sciences and the arts, which are hard to find in big commercial bookstores.
"Running a bookstore is an expensive hobby for people like me. It's not profitable at all," Nho said during a recent interview with The Korea Times.
What differentiates Bookshop Nieun from other bookstores is that it only sells a collection of recommended books carefully selected by Nho. The bookstore has what he calls "booktenders" that Nho describes as being similar to book critics helping customers to pick a book. There are five booktenders at Nieun including Nho. From time to time, he and his staff also hold events, such as book talks with authors and book club gatherings.
The idea of running a bookstore didn't come out of nowhere. He set up the bookstore business after his parents passed away, to function as a memorial project for him to remember and pay tribute to them.
"I was looking for something meaningful to dedicate to my parents after my father and mother died in 2015 and 2016. Also, I wanted to have an experimental space where I could share what I am good at, selecting and writing books, and people could easily visit so that I was directly involved in society."
Around the bookstore he has items that remind him of his parents such as teacup sets, spoons, hats and copies of the Bible that they used.
|Nho Myung-woo, third from left, a sociology professor at Ajou University and owner of Bookshop Nieun poses with three booktenders at the bookstore. / Courtesy of KL Publishing|
|Inside Bookshop Nieun / Courtesy of KL Publishing|
He discovered that the type of memorial he settled on was pricey. The bookstore business was not profitable and in the first several months, there were many days when no customers dropped by.
Now things are getting better. His bookstore business still runs a deficit, with an average loss of 1 million won ($873) every month, but Nho said that the amount is manageable as he can cover the losses with income from his full-time job at the university. The average number of visitors to the bookstore is on the rise and nine out of every 10 customers buy books.
"I knew it would not make money by only selling books without selling food and beverages… I just face difficulties like other self-employed business. Rental prices are high, my contract with the landlord is unstable and the book industry is declining. There are more uncertainties… But I didn't begin this business to earn money. So I am not disappointed at all. Luckily, it is still sustainable because I have another regular job."
When asked why he keeps running the unprofitable business, he said he wants to inspire people to read books. By reading books, people can learn about the great achievements of human history, which cannot be found on the Internet, he said.
"People may think that internet has all the information. In fact, this is not true. So if you ask me why we should read. I would say if you are curious about the achievements that people have accomplished, reading is the only way to learn about them."
He pointed out that even though Seoul is a very big city it doesn't have many bookstores specializing in selling specific genre books. He said he wants to fill that gap.
"Large bookstores like Kyobo Book Centre focus on the number of books sold. It's very sales-oriented. That's why they have dozens of identical books on the bookshelves. But we target local customers, who buy dozens of different books a year. We aim to become the bookstore which can provide quality books to those loyal customers."
|'Bookshop Nieun: This May Turn Out Well" is seen in this photo.|
He released a book in September, which can be roughly translated into "Bookshop Nieun: This May Turn Out Well" about episodes in running the bookstore and thoughts about it over the last two years.
He hopes that his bookstore will last at least 10 years and become living evidence that proves that quality bookstores still matter to readers in Korea.
"I cannot plan anything for the bookstore right now, but I would like to run it for at least 10 years. If the bookstore manages to survive, it will imply there are loyal readers who read quality books. Bookshop Nieun is currently exploring the possibility that it could run for 10 more years."