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Vintage book store in Noksapyeong

Bibliophile Choi Ki-woong poses in front of his 48-year-old book store in Noksapyeong / Courtesy of Richard Pennington
Bibliophile Choi Ki-woong poses in front of his 48-year-old book store in Noksapyeong / Courtesy of Richard Pennington

By Richard Pennington

I have an on-and-off jocular dispute with my friend Gary Scoggins in Dallas, Texas. The subject is reading. He prefers the modern means of using a Kindle or some other electronic device. Better yet, Gary likes to listen to "audio books" while riding his bicycle around White Rock Lake, mowing the lawn or commuting to his job at an engineering firm.

He scoffs at my affinity for the traditional and admittedly old-fashioned approach of having an actual book in hand. Books take up space, they are more expensive, and they necessitate cutting down precious trees. I concede to each of those points, but I remind Gary that I underline, annotate and retain more than he does with his high-tech methods. Scientific studies have been conducted that show that my way is the best way to enhance understanding and retention.

A book allows a person to pause and reflect, further enriching the whole process. And then there is the ineffable pleasure of owning a library. I have one (99 percent nonfiction) in my officetel in Gangnam, and I can tell you it gives me enormous satisfaction. Surrounded by my library, I feel grounded.

This background may help explain why it seemed that I had come upon an oasis when I found the Foreign Book Store in Noksapyeong, located just south of Mount Nam. Its creation and sustenance for almost half a century can be traced to one man, Choi Ki-woong. Almost 80 years old, he is a Seoul native but his family fled to Daejeon during the Korean War. Choi returned when the fighting concluded in 1953. Despite attending one of the city's high schools, he did not graduate.

Poor ― was that not the norm for the large majority of Koreans after the war? ― and scrambling to make a living, Choi gravitated to Yongsan, where so many American soldiers were stationed. He picked up a little English and was soon operating a pushcart. He gathered cast-off novels, magazines such as "Look," "Life," "The Saturday Evening Post" and the Sears & Roebuck catalogue, and peddled them.

He visited junk shops to buy books during the day and sold them at night under gaslight in an alley behind the old Hwashin Department Store in Jongno. Choi made enough money to stay alive and provide for his wife and three daughters. But he had to watch out for police who held such people in low regard; crackdowns took place periodically.

By 1973, he had saved enough money to rent this building at 208 Noksapyeong-daero. Choi was its owner within two years. Always willing to sell, buy or exchange English-language books, he has amassed an estimated 20,000 of them in his shop. You have to walk sideways in the aisles, and they are truly everywhere, from floor to ceiling ― even in the bathroom.

Aided by a bilingual Korean woman named Claire Park, I asked Choi to tell me more about his life, his unique store and his plans for the future.

"I have been in business at this spot for 48 years," he said. "I sometimes have valuable books, but they don't last long. I think books should not be kept at home or in libraries. Instead, they should be sold and re-sold, read and re-read. In my opinion, a book has no value unless someone is reading it. Occasionally, people bring me a big stack of books they just want to get rid of. I tell them to bring me books they like, books other people would like too."

When I characterized the Foreign Book Store as unique, almost like something out of a Charles Dickens novel (I saw "Oliver Twist," "Great Expectations," "Bleak House" and "David Copperfield" on his crowded shelves), Choi smiled.

"I have a close feeling for the people who visit my store, buy books and read them," he said. "We have something very important and deep in common. I guess that is why I have so many repeat customers. My clientele is about 80 percent foreigners and 20 percent Koreans, and it includes professors, experts in various fields and general readers like yourself."

Since this place exudes authenticity, I figured it would have been used as the setting of a few Korean movies and TV dramas. Choi said no, although a famous actress named Chae Shi-ra paid a visit about 15 years ago. Her autographed photo is on display behind the counter.

His age notwithstanding, Choi has no immediate plans to retire. When he does, though, one of his daughters ― oddly enough, a University of Texas grad like me ― has stated her willingness to take over.

I bought six books during my time at the store. Via Ms. Park, I asked Choi for some parting words. "There is one piece of advice I always give to students: 'Read the classics.' All the wise words that will serve as a compass in life are found in the classics."


Richard Pennington (raput76@gmail.com), a native of Texas in the U.S., works as an editor at a law firm in southern Seoul. He is the author of 23 nonfiction books. The most recent is, "Travels of an American-Korean, 2014-2020," published by JisikGonggam.




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