|A screen capture of a small bookshop with a map of its location, from the Dongneseojeom website.|
Bookshops in transition from place to buy books to cultural venue for likeminded people
By Park Ji-won
Book sales continue to fall. Feeling the pinch, bookshop owners closed down their businesses one after another.
Amid the bleak news about the publishing industry, the latest data shows a six-fold increase in the number of small bookshops across the country over the past five years. There were 97 small bookstores in 2015, but the number surged to around 600, according to Dongneseojeom (www.bookshopmap.com), an online platform service provider offering a map and related information on 647 indie bookstores in Korea.
|Dongneseojeom CEO Nam Chang-woo. Courtesy of Dongneseojeom|
Nam Chang-woo, CEO of Dongneseojeom, said that the notion of bookshops has been changing.
In the past, he said, bookshops were only places to buy and sell books. But nowadays, bookstores have evolved into places where likeminded people gather to share ideas about common interests and deepen their ties by exploring books about these mutual interests.
"Nowadays, small bookstores are the only place where people in the neighborhood can meet and mingle with each other face to face," he said during a recent Korea Times interview. "The pandemic also played a definite role in cementing the notion that bookshops are more than just places to sell or purchase books. As buzzwords about the joy of small things show, I think people are interested in meaningful things that can give us happiness or satisfaction."
He said that falling book sales ironically played a part in increasing the number of small indie bookstores.
"I think there is no future for physical books because people don't buy them," he said. The reason why indie bookstores flourish in terms of numbers, he said, is because they serve various purposes. We can buy books about our interests there, but also meet people with shared interests, according to Nam. Bookshop owners' motives also vary. Designers open bookshops to sell books about design and design products. Some people even open a travel bookstore while running a travel agency, he said.
Other shop owners also organize book clubs on a regular basis with their customers.
As a result, Nam, who has been working as an online content manager and gathering data on indie books, saw the possibilities of bookstores as a space for people to gather. He launched a website in 2015 offering information on indie bookstores, cultural spaces, and public libraries, using an online map. The website offers other information on bookstores, such as their characteristics, Internet homepage and operating hours.
The website provides detailed information on some 1,200 small bookstores in Korea. Surfing the website, people can find what kinds of bookshops are near their homes. Their opening hours and phone numbers are offered, along with brief descriptions of the bookstores, and their locations on Google Maps.
"I thought I, an online content manager, would be able to contribute to the ecosystem of indie bookstores by connecting the bookstores in online space, which could help both owners, who don't have enough knowledge of technology, and readers, who are looking for more information on bookstores."
When the website opened, it simply provided a map. But over the last five years, it gradually grew, adding more services, such as newsletters and themed maps with, for example, the best spots to date, while publishing actual books and maps on indie bookstores.
But it wasn't easy for Nam to gather enough information from the owners of indie bookstores in the beginning, because many of them were hesitant to share their thoughts, since they were attached to analog styles of running their businesses.
"I am obsessed with making things effective through online platforms, for example. But the owners of bookstores were the opposite. They decided to run one of the most traditional businesses to share their knowledge and values at this time when the book market is dying."
He actively asked the owners about what to add to the website, as well as helpful ideas for finding bookstores. So more owners started to cooperate and open their minds, sharing their know-how. The website only provides maps and basic information about bookstores, but is poised to expand its services. It is planning to open a platform to make reservations for book club meetings or community gatherings, so that people can find meetings according to their preferences.
"I have been tracking data about terms related to 'indie bookstores.' More people are searching for bookstores or owners according to their tastes. I hope that bookstores will serve an important role as spaces to help find neighborhoods of their tastes and share culture, as people gather and communicate on Instagram and Clubhouse."