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One drawback of living or traveling in Korea is difficulty finding English books. Good bookstores are rare, and if you only know one or two, you are unlikely to find the range of books you like. Many of us also enjoy browsing in used bookstores, which are even harder to find. Luckily, there ARE good “English” bookstores in Korea, you just have to know where, and how, to find them.
Bookstores come in three flavors. First are the chains; relatively easy to find through web searches. Second are mid-sized stores catering primarily to English readers; a bit harder to find, but many expats know where they are. More difficult to find, but fun when you do, are the small used-bookstores that dot traditional markets in Korean cities. These, you find at the expense of shoe-leather.
Let’s take a look at these by category
THE MAJORS In Seoul
Books from the bestsellers lists, books that have been or are about to be turned into major motion pictures, or classic literature, are available at any large chain including Kyobo, YoungPoong, or Bandi and Luni. Look for sections called English, Foreign, or even 외국인. In Seoul there is a cluster of chains in the Jongno-gu area. Kyobo Book Centre, Korea’s largest bookstore, stocks about 2,300,000 books, and on weekends draws over 120,000 customers. For a truly surreal/jam-packed experience, visit Kyobo or YoungPoong the day before Christmas or any other gift-giving occasion. If you frequent chains, get a membership card, which offer various benefits.
Daejeon boasts a Kyobo downtown and a Gyeryeong Books in Eunhaneg-dong. Gwangju has pretty slim pickings; there is only a YounPoong and the ChungJang bookstore. ChungJang, described using a classic Korean direction-giving technique, as “right by the Starbucks,” has some classics, bestsellers from a couple months ago, and books about Korea and the Korean language. Busan has two YoungPoong and one Kyobo, Daegu has two YoungPoong and two Kyobo. Ulsan, Masan, Pohang and Gumi each have one YoungPoong. For more specific directions consult the YoungPoong and Kyobo websites.
Translated Fiction Conclusion: These are a great place to go to find recent and mainstream works of translatied Korean fiction. Most of the bigs have something from the Jimoondang/KLTI series of small novels, as well as recent publications.
Mid-sized stores dedicated to the English reader are rarer. There are two excellent stores in Itaewon, What the Book and the Itaewon Foreign Bookstore. What the Book is in Itaewon, but is happy to ship books to your location in Korea. It has a solid selection of new books, a range of used books, and a stellar magazine section. You can browse What the Book online, using its excellent website and search function. The Itaewon Foreigners Bookstore is an old-fashioned used-book store. It features row upon row of books on shelves, which slide to reveal more shelves behind. In both stores, used-books are expensive. If you are going to buy something currently in publication, it makes more sense to purchase it new.
North of the chain bookstores, across from Gyeongbokgung Palace, is Seoul Selection, a smallish store focused on Korea and Korean culture. It sells new and used books, DVDs, and music CDs as well as hosting literary events. Seoul Selection has wireless Internet, seats and tables, a computer for customer use and publishes Seoul Magazine. As lagniappe, the clerks give away a packet of postcards with book sales. Seoul Selection has an excellent website with a great search function.
In Daegu, the newly opened, Buy the Book is a café that also sells used books. Buy the Book features international lunch, a clean spacious eating/reading space, and two walls covered in bookshelves of used books. Daegu Books is an online purveyor of used books, which has only been in business a short while, but has managed to build a stock of nearly 500 books.
Many smaller bookstores have selections of English books. If you walk in university neighborhoods you find these. Start with large, reputable universities, universities known for art or literature, and then work your way to smaller, less well -known ones. Hongdae University, in Seoul, for instance, is surrounded by a sprinkling of bookstores selling English books.
Translated Fiction Conclusion: The Foreigner’s Bookstore by Naksapyeong Station is THE place to go to find older collections of translated Korean fiction. What the Book, also has a sprinkling of this kind of work, but they seem afraid to purchase “one-off” old collections of fiction.
THE LITTLE ONES
For bibliophiles, part of the fun of buying a book is finding it. For this, you need to be a bit intrepid. Many medium and larger sized public markets have a row of bookshops with books tied together in stacks, by colored ribbons. Most books are Korean, but English books can be found, and if you like the thrill of the chase, this is where to find it. In Seoul, to the right across the Cheonggyecheon from Dongdaemun Gate, is a row of little bookstores, a bit out of place amidst fashion outlets, but many of these bookstores have some books in English, and the Waegook Bookstore is completely dedicated to English books. In the Jung-Ang market in Daejeon, easy walking distance from Daejeon’s KTX station, there are street-side bookstores with vast rooms full of books, stored in the buildings behind them.
These semi-traditional markets are in every major city in Korea, and worth an afternoon’s walk, as they often reveal unexpected treasures. If you find a small store with English books? Make friends
with the owner, because if you are a repeat visitor, they will start squirreling books away for you.
So get out there and get looking!
Translated Fiction Conclusion: Each store is different – get out there!
Top 10 Bookstores in Korea
#1) What The Book – New books, used books, a brilliant ordering system and a helpful staff that speaks good English. Its website is English and extremely easy to use.
(taewon Station Line 6, Exit 3; behind the Itaewon Fire House and up the hill, Seoul.
#2) The Foreign Bookstore –Small, cramped, but stuffed with books, this is the place to go to find an array of used titles spanning science fiction, humor, and psychology. It also carries used magazines and some tapes.
Noksapyeong Station Line 6, Exit 2; across the street, Seoul.
#3) Seoul Selection – If your focus is on Korean literature, or literature about Korea, this is your bookstore.
B1 Korean Publishers Association B/D 105-2, Sagan-dong, Chongro-gu Seoul
#4) Kyobo books (Chain) – So many stores and so many books!
(the Kyobo website is 100% Korean, and can confusing – Galbijim is a better choice for locating stores)
#5) YoungPoong –YoungPoong has stores scattered through Korea and often a more relaxed vibe than Kyobo.
http://www.ypbooks.co.kr/kor_index.yp (store locator is at the bottom of the main page – Korean, but easy to navigate)
#6 and #7) Daegu Books and Buy the Book are new ideas in Korea. Daegu Books will ship anywhere in Korea for a small fee, and has rock-bottom prices on used books.
Buy the Book has space, food and an artsy attitude to share.
Buy the Book: Daegu joong koo samduck 1 ka dong 18-11 4th floor
#8) Waegook Bookstore in Dongdaemun Market. Lots of used books, and other bookstores on both sides.
#9) ChungJang bookstore in Gwangju. Not the biggest or best, but if you live in Cheolla, it isn’t a KTX ride away.
Chungjang Seolim 35 Geumnamno 2ga, Dong-gu (Near the Starbucks!)
#10) YeongChang Bookstore, Jung-Ang Marketplace, Daejeon. Difficult to find at the east side of the marketplace. But it stands for ALL the small bookstores waiting for you to find them!