In March, when a new semester starts, students visit bookstores often. Many HUFSans look for various kinds of books from major textbooks to liberal books in “Oedae-seorim” which is the bookstore in front of HUFS. They also go to a large bookstore or visit an online bookshop frequently. However, few people know about humanities and social science bookstores. At one time there was a humanities and social science bookstore called “Jungnim-geulbang” in front of HUFS. This place that has now disappeared was used as a safe house for HUFSans in the 1980s. The Argus looks into the current situation of humanities and social science bookstores in Seoul.
What is a humanities and social science bookstore?
It is a bookstore specializing in dealing with the humanities and social science books. In addition, the main customers are students because many of them are especially around universities. In Korea, a lot of humanities and social science bookstores were established by young intellectuals who resisted the military dictatorship in the early 1980s, and they became a hideout for undergraduates when the internet was not yet developed.
In the 1980s, there were over 20 such bookstores in Seoul including “Jungnim-geulbang” in front of HUFS, “Geunari-omyeon” near Seoul National University and “Jangbaek-seojeom” around Korea University. Throughout the 1990s, most of them closed, and now all of them are closed except “Pulmujil” in front of Sungkyunkwan University and “Geunari-omyeon” near Seoul National University. There are many reasons why humanities and social science bookstores were forced to shut down. The oppression of the military dictatorship in the 1980s, the economic crisis of the 1990s and social flows that pursued practicality all contributed to it.
30 years of persistence: Geunari-omyeon
There is a humanities and social science bookstore which has been around since 1988 in an alley of Sillim-dong near Seoul National University. That is “Geunari-omyeon.” Visitors can feel friendliness and comfort from the old collections when entering the bookstore.
There were Lenin’s books on display for the theme of the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, and also feminism books which were a hot topic recently. If visitors see this, they can realize that this is definitely a specialized bookstore for humanities and social science. The space in the bookstore was not large enough for even a single adult to enter the hall, but the books contained in it were full of traces of those who were struggling for the development of mankind.
“May I help you?” Kim Dong-woon, the owner of the bookstore, asked gently when the reporter was looking at the bookstore. The reporter asked about the story of the bookstore and the owner rather than the books.
The owner said, “When this bookstore was opened, it was the era of military dictatorship. At that time, students continued their resistance through demonstrations or publishing prints classified as seditious writing. The name of this bookstore is from the wish to have “that day” when real freedom would come.” The reporter felt a shudder at the old man’s passion and his glistening eyes.
“Before students went to the demonstration, they took off their bags here and came back to check on each other’s lives. After that, they shared the saga of the day and laughed even in difficult circumstances. At that time, this place seemed to have had a greater impact on students than schools did. But as time went by, universities gradually began to produce students as factory-tailored talents, and fewer people started coming here.”
It was originally a big bookstore located on the side of the street rather than a small one at the corner of the alley. In order to maintain the bookstore, he had to shrink it. It is currently also run by sponsors who love the place and wish to protect it.
A visitor who majored in German Language and Literature in the 2000’s said, “I came here frequently because of my major, but my friends were not familiar with this place. It is a sad thing that this place became smaller.”
Mr. kim said in a resolute voice, “I do not know how much more difficult the situation will be, but I will keep it here as long as my strength remains. Young people should not be buried in the flow of the era but should continue to think and discuss the new age by themselves. I think this space is necessary for people who think about the advanced history of mankind.” The reporter left the bookstore and prayed that the safe house for young people who keep thinking will continue for a long time.
The farewell and a new beginning: Pulmujil
There are a variety of shops around Sungkyunkwan University, which is located in Myeongnyun-dong in Seoul. Among them, there is a noticeable green signboard. It is the last humanities and social science bookstore that remains in front of Sungkyunkwan University. Walking down the stairs to the first basement level, there is a large panel to celebrate the 33rd anniversary of the “Pulmujil.” The panel is full of celebration notes from many visitors. When opening the door next to the panel, an old bookstore full of over 50,000 books appears.
When the reporter stepped into the bookstore, quite a few people were there. A middle-aged bookstore owner with a good smile, a middle-aged woman was grabbing books, and two young men were looking at the bookstore.
The space looked to be over 10 square meters. Lots of books were mixed together following certain rules handed down by the owner. Unusually, there were small tables and chairs in the bookstores. Of course, there are some spaces to read books in large bookstores these days, but it was a strange sight to see the well-equipped tables and chairs in a bookstore a little more than 10 square meters in size. A table was covered with a colorful tablecloth, and the chairs were gathered together to face each other. It seemed good for chatting with someone face to face rather than personally reading books.
At that time, the owner brought together all the people in the bookstore. “I have some eggs here! Let’s eat together.” It was unfamiliar to the reporter that the people who had just met each other gathering and eating something together in a bookstore. However, it seemed very fun. Eun Jong-bok, a 54-year-old owner of the bookstore, greeted the reporter with a big smile.
“Nice to meet you! I also studied at HUFS in the 1980s. It has been 26 years since I settled here. As a person in the middle of the June 1987 Democratic Uprising, I had a regret that I could not change the world at that time. I think that is why I set up a bookstore.” People who met at the bookstore listened carefully to the story of the owner.
“Nevertheless, it is too hard to keep a bookstore now. Even working every day, I had to use the bank’s cash advance services. I am so sorry when I see my family. I am also very sorry to my brother. He studied law in graduate school but is working here with a monthly salary of 1.5 million won (US$1,328) to help me.” The owner said this like a sinner making a confession before his family.
“So now I will hand over this place to someone else and I plan to go down to Jeju Island and run a small bookstore there. I received lots of messages from many people when news got out that I would run the bookstore until this June. One of them was from England. A man who called me was a lawyer currently studying in England. He wanted to take this bookstore. He told me his life was completely changed since he read books that I recommended when he was an undergraduate. However, I have to find others because of the time limit,” he said.
Those who listened to the story complained about the situation in Korea where the small bookstores could not keep up. A middle-aged woman next to the reporter said, “France and Japan are helping a lot at the government level for those who want to continue their family business. Korea seems to lack such support.” The other woman of similar age said, “Right. In France, there are many small bookstores that look very old on every street. I was so envious when I saw that. I wonder why Korea cannot protect such bookstores.”
In response to a question about whether Mr. Eun has a special wish for the new Pulmujil after he leaves, he said, “I do not want to interfere with a new one since I think new wine should be put in the new unit. But there were three conditions that I needed to find in a successor. The first was that the successor should be young. I think that young passion is necessary for the bookstore. The second was to be able to concentrate on bookstore operations, and the third was to be faithful. Fortunately, there was a consignee who satisfied that, and I decided to hand it over.”
It seems that the Pulmujil of Mr. Eun will be missed. At the same time, many are already looking forward to what the new Pulmujil will be. The reporter hopes that the Pulmujil that is preparing to say goodbye and the new beginning will always be in the hearts of people.
Connecting the old to the new: Cheong-maek Salon
Until 2011, there was a humanities and social science bookstore called “Cheong-maek” in front of Chung-ang University. However, as time went by, this place eventually closed. There were young people who missed it. They took over the name of Cheong-maek and opened up a new book cafe by adding the sense of the young. It is “Cheong-maek Salon” which opened last year. Located in the second floor of a building in front of Chung-ang University Hospital, the book cafe shows a youthful vibe through the trendy artworks hanging on the walls.
At the entrance of the book cafe, there are some books and stages that display several books. The books on display are for sale. One thing that is unique is that there are various books besides humanities and social science books. Several essays and recently popular books are on display, so it seemed to be more familiar to the people who visited the book cafe.
On the shelves there was another feature that demanded attention. The books that translated Korean literary works into English were filling the two walls. They ranged from Korean classical literature to modern literature.
Choi Ji-ae, a 39-year-old representative of this place, explained the reason why the books were displayed especially. “There is a small publisher upstairs. I wanted to cooperate with the company that makes such good books. I also wanted to introduce Korea’s great literary works to foreign students as well as Korean students. I thought it would be a good chance to encounter a nice book by visiting a book cafe.”
Ms. Choi graduated from Dept. of Creative Writing at Chung-ang University. She said, “I often visited Cheong-maek when I was an undergraduate. After it closed, I was very upset. I searched for a way to reconnect with Cheong-maek. Finally, I came to think of a book cafe with a young ambiance. I opened it as a book cafe instead of the humanities and social science bookstore because I need to make a living, but I wanted to do my best to make it a cultural hub for students as much as possible.”
There were quite a lot of tables and seats in the spacious area of the book cafe. Some visitors chatted with each other in the background of good music, and others quietly read books. There were outdoor seats on the balcony of the cafe. The balcony, surrounded by small bulbs, was pretty enough to enjoy a sensual mood. It would be better with a book and a glass of beer on a fine day.
A young lady who visited the book cafe alone said, “I visit here often because I can read books and drink delicious coffee. At first, I did not know that it was an homage to the humanities and social science bookstore Cheong-maek. I saw the history of this place written on a wall of this cafe. I am very grateful for them letting me know about the humanities and social science bookstore through this friendly change.”
Some people would think the disappearance of humanities and social science bookstores is a natural phenomenon in terms of social flow. But in the 1980s, students met each other there and had a heated discussion for the development of society. Where do we now discuss society and human beings? As young people who will lead the future, we should think about it. The Argus hopes humanities and social science bookstores that existed in the past will be the driving force for the future.
By Kim Tae-young
Associate Editor of Global&National Section