BUSAN, South Korea — Bosu-dong Book Street has a misleading name. The 62-year-old row of crammed-together used bookstores isn’t so much a 'street' as it is a four-foot-narrow back alley flooded with paper. Covered by bright yellow and green fabric canopies, most of its shops open at 10 a.m., staffed by one or two ajummas and ajoshis who wile away their hours by just sitting in their literary caves; as the evening sun begins to set they start the slow process of dredging from the alleyway their collective thousands of pounds’ worth of cheap used books, ready to repeat the ritual the following day.
To spend even just five minutes touring the Book Street is an overwhelming experience. The Dae Woo Used Bookstore, for example, looks and feels like the home where the Charlie Brown’s friend Pig-Pen would have grown up, overflowing with cavernous towers of musty yellowed pages one must literally turn sideways in order to pass between. It is charmingly messy—one employee, Jae Seong-kyun, likes to say the place has “color”—but also unavoidably chaotic and a claustrophobic’s nightmare, as it confusingly spans several rooms in several different buildings (yet is still only staffed by Jae, Jae’s 60-year-old boss, and Jae’s 60-year-old boss’s wife). Beyond its expensive tomes of Korean art and history, it plays host to painstakingly arbitrary titles like an inexplicable collection of R.L. Stein’s Goosebumps series or piles of Newsweek magazines with wacky nostalgic headlines like “President George W. Bush?”
In a city where bookstores new and used are visibly outnumbered by PC Bangs or the retailers of any single cell phone company, Busan’s used book market is understandably fragile. This is why, when the successful and formerly online-only Aladdin used book chain opened its first bricks-and-mortar store in Busan (following at least one other location in Seoul), Jae quickly grew worried.
He nervously surveyed the shop on a rainy late January evening, roughly three weeks after its launch in the middle of Seomyeon’s high-traffic, fashion-driven underground Daehyun Primall. Threatened by its affordable prices and contemporary aesthetic, Jae quickly withdrew his Samsung smartphone and began conspicuously photographing everything, from its freshly painted white walls festooned with quotes by famous Korean authors, down to the dark brown benches upon which dozens of customers sat quietly reading.
“Bosu Street has many, many problems,” Jae later conceded in a Nampo-dong restaurant. The most obvious one, he said, is its rampant disorganization. Whereas Aladdin offers easily navigated sections and even a floor plan displayed upon a central wooden bookshelf (below which a bold four-digit number, changing daily but often staying over 2,000, dauntingly boasts the number of new books the Aladdin Communication Corporation received that very day), in Bosu-dong, a sense of universal randomness pervades every square inch. A day’s worth of work in mid-March, for example, involved Jae sorting Dae Woo’s surprising abundance of university-level English-language electronic circuitry textbooks on the third floor of its second building, which one would hardly know is even open to the public unless specifically told.
Greater than the threat of a rival bookstore, too, is the simple fact that many young Koreans don’t like to read. It’s not globally unique, but few other cultures propagate hagwons cramming their children’s brains until 10 p.m. most weeknights, resulting in an entire generation devoid of free time to do anything for pleasure, let alone read. It is a remarkable change for a culture that invented the world’s first metal movable type (long before Gutenberg) and is also home to some of the world’s oldest printed books.
Jae—a 22-year-old who, with thick limbs, a shaggy mane of hair and fingers calloused by months spent working on a fishing boat, is generally unlike most 22-year-old Korean men anyway—is one of only a handful of youths working at Bosu-dong. It is atypical for this anyone in his generation to choose relatively low wages working in a dirty old bookstore rather than vying for a top-floor office at Samsung. At Dae Woo, Jae has no corporate ladder to climb; instead he is often subject to seven 10-hour days in a row, sometimes for up to three consecutive weeks.
These are the hours necessary to keep Bosu Book Street alive, as the street’s number of employees has been kept necessarily small due to its size. It's been this way since its inception in 1950, when a refugee Korean couple began selling old magazines discarded by American soldiers in the small alley between Jungang’s ferry terminal to the east, Jagalchi’s fish market to the south and a mountain park to the north. A used bookstore proved attractive to the multitude of impoverished Busan citizens who gladly sold old books for food money, so as Busan remained relatively safe from North Korea during the war, the district evolved into a public forum for citizens to share ideas, meals and literature.
Today, Bosu-dong’s role has shifted significantly. It mostly caters to dedicated book lovers, tourists, and hobbyists, while bigger shops like Kyobo and Aladdin successfully dominate the mainstream and online markets with sometimes unbeatable prices. Weeks after his rendezvous to Aladdin, Jae realized his concerns may have been unfounded, since he later discovered Aladdin’s physical manifestation to be more of a 'clearance sale' version of the corporation’s popular online store, geared specifically at luring in street traffic. To that end, Bosu-dong’s tourists and hobbyists have so far stayed loyal.
But the problem of drawing in younger crowds remains unanswered; until it’s no longer a problem, “There is no future,” Jae mused in the Nampo-dong restaurant. Too many students candidly prefer spending their spare time dating, gaming and reading, if anything at all, comic books. “His body keep grows,” Jae spoke through his limited English, looking down as he gently prodded at a rice clump in his soup. “But his mind is… like a kid.”
Behind him, as he tried to articulate the issues facing this generation, a comic actor on a popular Korean TV gag show stood dressed in army camouflage, struggling to shove a black rubber mask over his pudgy face. The audience laughed, as did our waiter. But Jae did not even notice.
How to get to Bosu-dong Book Street: walk out of Jagalchi Station Exit 3 and make your first left. Walk straight for roughly 10 minutes, through the Bupyeong Market, until you reach the end. Cross the street at the lights—you’ll see a tall spiral tower of oversized hardcovers in front of the wooden silhouettes of kids holding hands and books. The street itself is the narrow alleyway just beyond.
View Bosu-dong Book Street in a larger map
Photos by Michael Fraiman