Despite consistently falling reader engagement, independent bookstores are surviving -- and even thriving -- in South Korea.
"In the past decade, the percentage of people reading at least one book a year plummeted from 72.2 percent in 2013 to 46.9 percent in 2021. Yet, with today's diverse avenues for accessing information, the decline of traditional book reading might not be as significant as we think," said Baek Won-geun, the brain behind 15 of Korea's biannual National Reading Surveys since 1993 conducted under the oversight of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
After his tenure at the Korean Publishing Research Institute, he founded the Center for Societal and Literary Ecosystem Research in 2015. However, he won't oversee the 2023 report due later this year.
"Books have evolved to represent community more than just knowledge. Engaging with authors and even creating and publishing one's work to share within specific communities can be considered a form of 'reading'-related activity," he added.
One only needs to meander through Seoul's bustling streets to witness this paradigm shift, epitomized by the burgeoning indie bookstore scene. These charming brick-and-mortar stores, often sandwiched between imposing commercial buildings, offer curated literary experiences.
Particularly in storied neighborhoods like Haebangchon in Seoul’s Yongsan district, one finds these repositories of unique titles. From a mere 97 in 2015, the number of indie bookstores across Korea rose to 815 by 2022 -- an 8.4-fold rise in just seven years, as recorded by Dongneseojeom, a data analytics firm specializing in this niche sector.
Catering to creators
Unlike mega bookstore chains stocked with mainstream titles, these shops curate selections from indie presses, serving both as havens for authors and vital distribution channels. Initially, the indie publishing scene was mostly comprised of young innovators producing visually centric content like posters and postcards. Today, a diverse array of creators contributes novels, essays and travelogues, increasingly blurring the line between indie and mainstream.
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