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Used book bliss in Seoul

Cheap prices, personal service and the smell of musty pages draw in lovers of literature

Though not fresh and new, used books have their own charm. It could be their faded pages, old fashioned covers, or maybe it’s their price.

While it’s now easy to spot English-language books ― both used and new ― in Seoul’s big chain bookstores, some smaller stores like to keep doing things the old way. The Korea Herald checked out five stores in Seoul where you can both buy and sell used foreign-language books at reasonable prices. Each store has its own little story to tell and history.

Itaewon Foreign Bookstore

No one knows more about the used foreign book business than Choi Ki-woong, the owner of Itaewon Foreign Bookstore in Seoul, the oldest bookstore of its kind.

Located in Seoul’s popular district for foreign residents, tourists and U.S. military personnel, the bookstore has an almost 40-year history.

Choi started in the book business back in the 1960s, at first without his own premises. He simply collected American department stores’ catalogues, as well as novels and magazines from U.S. army base garbage dumps in Seoul, and sold them to bookstores located in Cheonggyecheon and Myeong-dong.

“The bookstores did not buy every book I’d bring,” the 69-year-old told The Korea Herald. “I sold the ones they didn’t want in Jongno, carrying them in a handcart.”

Most of his customers in Jongno were university students learning English.

“I was popular among students from Ewha Womans University,” Choi said, laughing. “I had the looks back then.”

Shoe makers and tailors in Myeong-dong were also crazy about the American catalogues that Choi brought.

“At the time, most Korean products ― clothes, shoes, jewelry, and electronics ― were poorly made and did not have any guidelines to follow,” Choi said. “They would make their products based on the featured goods in the catalogues.”

Choi founded his foreign bookstore in Itaewon in 1973. Since then, he has been serving both local and foreign customers, including Ahn Cheol-soo, the founder of AhnLab Inc., the leading antivirus software company in Korea.

“I recently saw him on TV and thought he looked very familiar,” Choi said. “He would often visit the store when he was a university student. He bought English language books on philosophy, psychology and economics. He was very quiet and sincere.”

The store currently carries over 100,000 titles, and Choi trades used books at 30 to 70 percent of their regular prices. Choi keeps the store open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. For more information on the store located near Noksapyeong Station, call (02) 793-8249.
Itaewon Foreign Bookstore (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
Itaewon Foreign Bookstore (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)

Underground Foreign Bookshop

In central Seoul, this tiny foreign bookstore has been welcoming visitors since the 1980s.

Located in an underground shopping mall near City Hall, the “Underground Foreign Bookshop” both sells and buys used books written in English and other languages.

Lee Ho-ryong, the current owner of the shop, in fact had been a customer of the store for over 17 years before taking it over in 2003.

Lee, who majored in Chinese literature and minored in English at university, worked for a maritime company soon after his graduation.

Back then, he never imagined that he would one day be managing the bookstore he often visited. But in 1999, everything changed.

“I became severely ill and had major surgery,” Lee told The Korea Herald. “After the surgery, I freelanced as a translator at home. Then I decided to manage this store.”

Lee confessed he wasn’t too ambitious with his new job.

“I didn’t want too much from it,” he said. “I’ve always liked books and I like having all these books around. And receiving all kinds of customers ― both local and foreign ― is a pure joy.”

Having worked at a company where many of its workers were required to speak fluent English, Lee, a natural bookworm, knows his English books.

“I liked Ken Follett and Frederick Forsyth back in the day,” Lee said. “But I try not to talk about the books and authors I like too much. It’s better to listen to my customers and suggest what they’d like according to their taste, not mine.”

Because of the store’s location, home to many of the city’s major corporate buildings, banks, and foreign embassies, Lee said he gets visitors from many different cultural backgrounds.

“I think a lot of Americans like science fiction and classics,” he said. “And the Irish easily become regular customers. A lot of European couples who have adopted Korean babies come, too, looking for children’s books about Korea.”

For Koreans who are just starting to read books written in English, Lee suggested reading self-help books rather than novels.

“Most of the beginners read the first 20 pages and give up when they try reading novels,” Lee said. “But most self-help books are thin and written in simple, straight-forward sentences. There are no metaphors and no fancy expressions. So it’s easy to finish them. Once you finish the first book, it’s easier to move on to the next one.”

Though small in size, the store carries diverse range of genres, stocking titles from the Harry Potter series to old issues of National Geographic.

An avid LP record collector, Lee has a small stereo set up in his store. If you pick a record from Lee’s piles on the floor, he’ll happily play it for you.

The store is open from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Most books range from 2,000 won to 3,000 won. Lee also accepts used books by mail for the convenience of people living on the outskirts of Seoul. Located near City Hall Station. For more information, call (02) 776-7940.
Lee Ho-ryong, owner of Underground Foreign Bookstore in central Seoul, plays LPrecords piled up in the store upon request. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)
Lee Ho-ryong, owner of Underground Foreign Bookstore in central Seoul, plays LPrecords piled up in the store upon request. (Claire Lee/The Korea Herald)

Beautiful Store Bookshop, Heonchaekbang

All the books displayed in this homely and cozy bookstore in Daehangno, Seoul, have been donated.

Founded by Beautiful Store, a Korean NGO that serves marginalized people both in Korea and abroad, Heonchaekbang is one of five used bookstores operated by the non-profit organization.

About 3,000 foreign books are currently on sale at this location. The five branches together have a total of 15,000 foreign books on sale.

Before being renovated into a bookstore, the large basement space of this Daehangno building was a restaurant which mainly served “samgyeopsal,” a type of barbecued pork Koreans enjoy.

The restaurant had about four separate rooms, where diners would enjoy the food while sitting on the floor.

“We left those nooks as they were,” said Nam Jae-suk, the head of the bookstore division of Beautiful Store. “They were just perfect for the bookstore we wanted.”

The rooms are now filled with books and tables, where visitors can read the books freely or simply relax.

“Daehangno is filled with a lot of cultural events with so many theater venues,” Nam said.

“But once you buy your ticket for a play in advance, you still have to find a place to sit till the show starts. Most of the time, you have to pay for a cup of coffee at a cafe in order to do that. Anyone can come to our bookstore without having to pay. We don’t pressure our visitors to buy our books.”

One of the rooms is dedicated to a collection of rare and old books. While most of them are Korean, there are some rare copies of foreign books, including an 1807 edition of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Hermann und Dorothea.”

Most of the books in this room are for exhibition only, but some of them are available for sale. The prices range from 400,000 won to 500,000 won.

One of the earliest donors of foreign books was Carolyn La Brash, the spouse of former Canadian ambassador to Korea, Marius Grinius, who served from 2004 to 2007.

“She had connections with many people who would donate foreign books to our store,” Nam said. “Spouses of other Ambassadors donated books through her.”

Beautiful Store is planning on opening another branch which will carry only foreign books in Itaewon in the future.

“We will work with many different embassies of different countries for that particular bookstore,” Nam said. “It will be a new ground for people with different cultural backgrounds to mingle and connect through books. And Itaewon is the place that has such symbolic significance.”

Almost 90 percent of foreign books in Daehangno branch are written in English and Japanese. Books in Chinese and French follow. Most books range from 1,000 won to 2,000 won. The store opens from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday to Saturday. It opens from 1 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. Donations are welcome. Located near Hyehwa Station. For more information, call (02) 765-6004.

What The Book

Founded by a former American English teacher, “What The Book” in Itaewon carries both new and used books with its efficient English language online store.

Sixty percent of its customers are foreigners and 40 percent are locals, especially parents of young children studying English, according to Kim Hae-jin, one of the bookstore staff.

“Books on North Korea have been always popular among foreigners, “said Kim.

“Other popular authors include Haruki Murakami, David Sedaris, and Kim Young-ha. The English-language translation of ‘Your Republic is Calling You’ by Kim has been doing well.”

Kim recommended short teen fiction for those who’d like to get their feet wet with reading English books.

“They are easy to finish, written in simple English and also entertaining,” Kim said.

A total of 20,000 books are available for sale at What The Book. About half of them are used books. One can sell used books at 30 to 70 percent of their regular prices. Located near Itaewon Station. For more information, call (02) 797-2342 or visit

Seoul Selection Bookshop

Located near Gyeongbok Palace, Seoul, Seoul Selection Bookshop is the place to go if you are looking for English-language books on Korea. The cozy store offers English language books on Korea, movie DVDs with English subtitles, traditional Korean music CDs and DVDs, and all kinds of second-hand books in English.

Run by former journalist Hank Kim, the store trades used books at a price range of 1,000 to 2,000 won.

Coffee and other drinks are also available, making it possible for the visitors to “establish relationships” with those who work at the store.

“I want this store to be the place where people can freely interact with one another,” Hank Kim told The Korea Herald.

Surprise discounts may be given to those who get to know the store staff. The store opens from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m, Monday to Saturday. Located near Anguk Station. For more information, call (02) 734-0565.

By Claire Lee (