I’m a writer, so it kind of goes without saying that I’m also a big reader. When I first moved to Korea back in 2010 I had this naïve idea in my head that I would be giving up reading for a whole year and that I would just have to do without my books since there probably wouldn’t be any here. Boy, was I wrong! My friend took me to my first used bookstore in Seoul and I was hooked on books again. Of course, electronic readers have made it easier than ever to get our hand on the latest reads, but sometimes there’s no better feeling than thumbing through the shelves of a used bookstore. Here are some of my favourite places to get your book on, from Seoul to Daejeon, Daegu and Busan!
What the Book?
I remember back when What the Book? was no more than a basement with some crowded bookshelves and an awesome website. Now the store is housed in a glorious, expansive, and well-lit store on the second floor overlooking the multicultural hustle and bustle of Itaewon. The shop has thousands of new and used books, and new magazines and educational materials such as flashcards for your perusal. Take a seat on the sofa or use the computer to place an order. They have a generous trade-in policy that brings me and my books back again and again. The website allows you to order books from around the world, available for pick-up or shipped directly to your home! Although the selection is primarily in English, you can find language guides and teaching materials in other languages. You can also check out book readings, signings, and other events. This shop is a must-visit for your inner bookworm!
Directions: Walk for 3 minutes straight out of Exit 1 of Itaewon Station on the brown line (Line 6). What the Book? is on the second floor on your right, just after Burger King. Look for the large blue sign.
Hours: 7 days a week, 10:00 am – 9:00 pm. Closed only on Christmas Day!
Itaewon Foreign Bookstore
This one is for true book-lovers and those with a lot of patience. This little store is crammed to the hilt with English-language titles, but you’ve gotta have some perseverance to find what you’re looking for. The store is divided by genre, but from there the categorization breaks down somewhat. Come here if you’re looking for used magazines (mostly American) and foreign language titles other than English.
Directions: Walk out of Exit 2 at Noksapeyong station on the brown line (Line 6). Walk downhill until you reach a pedestrian underpass. Take the underpass, crossing under the road and exiting on the right. Walk 3-5 minutes up the road. The bookstore will be on your left, past the post office and before the road curves into Itaewon. Alternately, take Exit 1 from Itaewon station and walk 15 minutes straight through the Itaewon gate, round the corner downhill, keeping right. The store will be on your right, just past the large brick wall, before the small cafés and restaurants.
Hours: 7 days a week, 10 am to 9 pm. Closed for Chuseok and Seollal.
Gagarin, Hank’s Bookshop, and The Underground Foreign Bookshop
While writing this article, I stumbled across a few gems online that I didn’t know about! Although I’ve carted home plenty of books from What the Book? and the Itaewon Foreign Bookstore, you may also wish to check out Gagarin (near Gyeongbokgung), Hank’s Bookshop (between Gyeongbokging and Anguk, specializing in English-language books about Korea), and The Underground Foreign Bookshop (near City Hall). More info can be found in this article from Seoul Magazine.
Seoul Metropolitan Library
If you’re in a borrowing mood and can’t commit, try Seoul Metropolitan Library. Foreign language materials are offered on the fourth floor of this stunning building, which also has a garden and sells books at the second floor café.
Directions: Walk straight out Exit 5 of Lines 1 or 2 at City Hall Station.
Buy the Book Café
This self-identified “healthy global foods and used English bookstore” is a haven for book-lovers and vegetarians alike. Go for the books, and stay for the food! The menu is made up of rotating international organic fare, and you can even buy some of your favourite organic snacks and natural sodas to take home. They also host a variety of events, from theatre and improve, to yard sales, language meet-ups, and readings.
Directions: Start at “Coffee Street”. With Angel in Us Café on your left, leave from 2.28 Park, walking straight through the intersection, passing the Holly’s Coffee and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafés. When you reach the 2F Starbucks at the next intersection, turn left. Buy The Book is on the left on the fourth floor, above Mr. Pizza.
Hours: Friday, 5 to 9 pm, and Sat-Sun, 12 to 9 pm. Open late for events.
Let me introduce you to my favourite place ever. Fully Booked is stuffed with good used books and the selection rotates frequently thanks to multiple trade-ins. If the books weren’t enough to keep me there, the paninis, wine, coffee, and beer do a fine job too. Be sure to pick up a stamp card to earn a free snack or drink of your choice! The flat-screen TV is perfect for watching the latest sports match and the music is always top-notch. Fully Booked hosts board game days on Sunday afternoons and a writers’ club on Sunday evenings.
Directions: Take Exit 1 from Kyungsungdae/Pukyungdae subway (경성대·부경대, Line 2, Green, Stop 212). Walk straight for 2 blocks and turn right at the Black Yak. It is kitty-corner to the Top-Mart, above the yellow 부동산 (budong-san, or ‘real estate agency’) on the 2nd floor. Look for the neon green doors and head up the stairs.
Hours: Closed Mondays. Trade-ins on Friday and Saturday night only.
Tues: 7pm – 12am
Thurs: 7pm – 12am
Fri: 7pm – 1am
Sat: 2pm – 2am
Sun: 2pm – 12pm
Busan Book Swap
Not so much a store as an event, the Busan Book Swap takes place on the first Sunday of each month at Beached Bar on Gwanganli Beach. Meet like-minded book-lovers and swap tomes at this expat bar. This is a major event with lots of regulars, which also makes it a great place to meet people. Look for the events on facebook, but they are usually held between 4 and 7 pm.
Directions: Take Exit 1 or 3 of Geumnyeonsan station. Walk straight downhill and turn at the beach left. Keeping left, walk past A Twosome Place. Beached Bar is on the second floor above the One by One convenience store.
Busan English Library
Korea’s only English-language library does not disappoint. This is a great place for all ages, with spacious, well-lit working areas. The BEL offers fiction, non-fiction, and ESL and reference materials in English and is supported by a bilingual staff. To borrow materials, simply bring a piece of a ID and your Korean address (foreign residents please use your ARC). Kids will enjoy English language readings, and middle schoolers can enjoy Saturday club activities so check the website for more details.
Directions: Directly outside of Exit 1 at Buam Metro Station.
Hours: Open 7 days a week, 9 am to 9 pm. Cyber facilities and Kids’ Zone closes at 6 pm. Closed on all public holidays.
Okay, so you won’t find any used books at these shops, but maybe you’re desperate. I find the used bookstore have far more selection and clearly offer a better price, but for Korean-language learning or for small cities, new is the way to go. Look for signs that say 영어 (yeong-ah, meaning ‘English’) or 외국인 (waegukin, meaning ‘foreign’ or ‘foreigner’).
Kyobo Bookstore (교보문고) – Seoul, Daejeon, Daegu, Busan
Web: http://www.kyobobook.co.kr/index.laf (Korean only)
Youngpoong (영풍문고) (Daegu, Busan, Gumi, Gwangju, Masan, Pohang, Ulsan)
Web: http://www.ypbooks.co.kr/kor_index.yp (Korean only)
I think that wraps it up. If you’re a book-lover like me, grab your backpack and your bus pass and go stock up! Do you have a favourite bookstore that I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!