Walking through the front doors of Seoul’s Kyobo Book Center, the best-known bookstore in South Korea, the first thing I see are two 40-foot-long tables, each made of 45,000-year-old Kauri wood from New Zealand. On a rainy Thursday afternoon in November, there are nearly 100 people seated at the tables reading, working on computers, and swiping at cell phones.

With 10 stores across the country, Kyobo is one of the most established bookstore chains in South Korea. The flagship Book Center store, in Seoul’s historic center, is spread across numerous floors of a skyscraper owned by its parent company, the Kyobo insurance company. The Book Center covers more than 100,000 sq. ft. of retail space and stocks some 210,000 titles—of which 14,000 are in English and another 10,000 are in Japanese and other languages. Though the store is teeming with activity on my visit, not all is well.

“Book sales in Korea are steadily in decline, of 3%–4% a year,” said Han Woo Lee, CEO of Kyobo, who blamed the ubiquity of high-speed internet as one reason for the decline.

That theory was echoed by Julie Han, professor of media and publishing at Seoil University. “Koreans have constant access to high-speed internet, and if you go into the subway, for example, you will see people are often on their phones sending messages, playing games, or watching videos. Reading is not their first choice.” The problem has become so pervasive that some bookstores put out signs that read, “Turn on a book, turn off your phone.”

Booksellers across South Korea have suffered slowing sales for nearly a decade, and the fear is that smaller stores will begin to close. Like the U.S., South Korea saw a boom in bookstore chains in the 1980s. In addition to Kyobo, Aladdin, Bandi/Lunis, Yes24, and YP Books have multiple locations across the country. Though fixed book price laws have helped bricks-and-mortar stores compete against online retailers and keep revenue somewhat stable, booksellers complain that there are numerous loopholes that enable rampant discounting. Meanwhile, online shopping has become increasingly popular, and bookstores are investing heavily in technology to hold on to customers. And Aladdin and Yes24 have expanded into sales of used books.

To help shore up booksellers’ morale, the South Korean government began sponsoring a national bookstore day last year; it was held for the second time on November 9. “The idea is to help cheer up booksellers and remind them how important they are to the country,” said Deachoon Park, chairman of the Korea Federation of Bookstore Association (KFBA). This year’s event included an academic conference on the future of bookselling, as well as an award ceremony and lunch, at which more than a dozen booksellers were honored for their contributions to culture and bestowed with the title “proud bookseller.” Writers were also honored, with Eun-Young Choi, author of the bestselling story collection Shoko’s Smile, named author of the year.

As part of the celebration, KFBA’s Park read a multipart declaration outlining the priorities of the organization for the coming year. The top goal, Park said, is to convince politicians to amend the fixed book price law to close the discounting loopholes. Other priorities include working with publishers to establish a consistent discount structure for bookstores that does not favor the chains; modernizing book distribution, which remains fractured and inefficient in many parts of the country; and assisting independent bookstores in their efforts to remodel their stores and make them more competitive.

Though the resolutions were met with enthusiastic applause, KFBA seems to be at a point similar to where the American Booksellers Association was a decade or more ago, when it was losing members. At the preconference academic seminar, in which PW participated, booksellers were looking to the Americans and Europeans on how to revive interest in book buying. Some of the concepts that garnered the best response were the ideas of introducing “buy local” campaigns and pushing bookstores into serving as community hubs.

Speculating on Reunification

One opportunity for growth booksellers foresee is finding new book buyers in North Korea—should reconciliation between the two nations ever happen. German publishing consultant Holger Eling spoke at the seminar and noted that one thing to keep in mind is that the North Koreans won’t have much money. “What the Germans did was take truckloads of remainders from West Germany and sell them in the east once reunification happened,” he said, referring to the reunification of Germany in 1990.

The possibility of reconciliation has also had a positive effect on the publishing industry, but in a way one might not anticipate: it has turned many publishers into real estate barons. In the early 2000s, the South Korean government established Paju Book City, a special economic enclave for publishers, as a way to shield them from Seoul’s rising rents and establish a creative business cluster. Paju is 20 miles north of Seoul, close to the 38th parallel and the border with North Korea, and, at the time Paju Book City was established, there were few amenities. To entice publishers to move there, the government offered them cheap, long-term leases. Today, more than 150 publishing houses are based there, and some 10,000 people work in the district, which has also become popular with young families.

Now, with the potential for reconciliation between the two Koreas, speculators and investors have driven up property prices in Paju, which will serve as the gateway city for trade should the border open. Though the overall complex is owned by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, tenant publishers paying below-market rates are looking into subletting their unused space.

“The rents there are soaring,” said one publisher who requested anonymity. “With the book business the way it is, a lot of publishers are joking that they would be better off being landlords than publishers. They are hoping for reunification not necessarily because they think they can sell more books but because they might be able to get rich off their real estate.”