By Kwak Yeon-soo
On May 10, independent bookstore Hangang Moongo closed after 13 years in business. "Due to a change in market conditions and a declining number of in person readers, we've decided to shut the store," a poster read on the front of the bookstore.
This is just one example of how the coronavirus pandemic has taken a heavy toll on small cultural outlets including independent bookstores, music labels and art house cinemas.
In a survey of 61 independent bookstores, the Korea Bookshop Network (KBN) said 19 respondents reported that sales fell 40 percent to 60 percent in the January to March period from a year earlier, and that another 24 bookstores reported a fall in sales of more than 60 percent.
"It's difficult for small, independent bookstores to receive coronavirus rescue loans. The Publication Industry Promotion Agency of Korea (KPIPA) is offering relief funds, but only a few actually receive help," a KBN official said.
"There are fewer than 2,000 independent bookstores nationwide, and if we cannot overcome this crisis, we will go out of business within a few months due to mounting financial losses," the official added.
Independent bookstores were already operating on slim profit margins as they competed against large bookstore chains, such as Kyobo, Youngpoong and Aladin.
According to KPIPA data, the number of independent bookstores nationwide declined from 2,846 in 2009 to 1,968 in 2019.
You Hee-kyoung, a poet who runs the bookstore Wit N Cynical in Seoul, fears that the pandemic could widen the market divide between independent stores and large chains as consumer habits have shifted toward online buying amid the lockdown, which benefits bigger retailers.
According to Kyobo Bookstore, online sales increased 16 percent in the February to March period from the same period last year. This increase was also apparent at Aladin, which saw a 15 percent rise, and Youngpoong, 10 percent.
"It's hard to provide customers with the same prices, inventory and quick delivery speed as large bookstore chains," You said. "Now we are unable to hold events, like author meet-and-greets and book clubs, which used to draw fans and readers to independent stores. If the lockdown continues, the outlook will continue to be uncertain."
Independent filmmakers and cinema operators are also struggling to stay afloat. On April 22, a group of filmmakers and their related support organizations called on the government to provide financial aid to offset losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. It disclosed survey results that showed more than 40 percent of 52 respondents had no income in the three months following the virus outbreak.
Indie Space, an art house cinema that opened in 2007, saw the number of moviegoers drop nearly 90 percent in April from a year ago. "Indie and art house cinemas may be able to survive until the end of the year with relief funds, but the amount is too small to cover losses caused by the pandemic," an Indie Space official said.
Small music labels and indie bands could disappear since the cancelation of concerts is putting pressure on their already marginal finances. According to the Record Label Industry Association of Korea, 44 members have lost more than 6.2 billion won due to the cancelation or postponement of events between February and April. A total of 211 concerts were canceled, resulting in losses of almost 63.3 billion won.
The association conducted a survey of small labels and individual bands active in Seoul's Hongdae District, which is home to urban music and independent artists, and discovered 82 concerts had been delayed or canceled between February and April, resulting in losses of about 800 million won.
"Most of the small labels have 10 or fewer staff, and some of them have adopted emergency management, either laying off staff members or placing them on unpaid leave," an association official said.