Sandwiched between a Lexus dealership and a loud café stands the Itaewon Book Store, a curiously archaic-looking building.  It’s unique in that it’s the only shop on the road that is neither inundated with fluorescent lighting nor vendors of mediocre products.  The place stands out from an otherwise very modern and very commercial street; it’s a building hasn’t been touched since the seventies. 

From a mile away, it’s clearly a bookstore.  The front is padded with bold red letters that spell out “BOOK.”  The word is flaunted by four shelves that are crammed tightly with hundreds of volumes.  It’s the result of over forty years of collecting books and that’s only a small fraction of what’s beyond the front door.

The place is owned by Choi Ki-Woong, who began his career in the 1960s.  He started out by sorting through garbage dumps in US army bases, culling novels and periodicals from a mishmash of discarded items.  He sold them cheaply to shops in Cheonggyecheon and Myeongdong.  The books that were refused were sold out of a handcart, mostly to college students in Jongno.

In 1973, Choi found enough traction to establish his bookstore.  Today, instead of sifting through trash, he simply buys and trades used books which are added to an ever expanding archive.  The store carries thousands of titles in every genre, all at discounted prices reaching up to seventy percent off.

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A small example of the fully utilized bookshelves.

Choi and his wife run the shop from ten in the morning to nine in the evening each day.  They chatter with each other quietly, always engaged in some kind of stimulating conversation.  Whenever they purchase a book, the two of them finger each page delicately, absorbing its contents quickly and holistically.  The book’s genre is identified before it is placed gently in a particular shelf in a particular region of the store.

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The owner, Mr. Choi, thumbing through a recent purchase before stocking it.

It’s a remarkable place for browsing.  Sliding shelves help to contain as many books as the store can hold, leaving a narrow alleyway with just enough space for the customer to squeeze through.

It might be the dense square footage or the characteristic scent of weathered pages but, the Itaewon Book Store is reminiscent of a cozy home in the suburbs.  It’s not the modern, impersonal bookstore with all the digitized filing system; it’s a variegated collection of novels, biographies, and periodicals all organized simply by genres and authors.  They stock everything on the literary spectrum, from the childhood saga “Captain Underpants” by Dav Pilkey to the sophisticated, Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Shipping News” by Annie Proulx.

If you’re looking for a specific title or author, it might not be the place for you. But if you’ve got some time to spare and you’re hoping to indulge in a good book, just remember that there’s a quirky store in Itaewon, densely packed with all kinds of literature, all waiting for you.

Itaewon Book Store is located near Noksapyeong Station, Exit 3.

Header image courtesy of Seunghoo Ryu
Supplementary images courtesy of Korea Herald