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May 27, 2017

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Bookstores in South Korea struggle for survival

Bookshops are closing amid fierce price competition and declining demand.

The oldest bookstore in Seoul, Jongno Books, was a landmark in terms of numbers of customers and its symbolic significance as the trove and exchange of knowledge.

The five-story bookstore was the only large bookstore in Seoul until Kyobo Book Center opened in the 1980s. It was also a popular meeting spot where people browsed books while waiting.

Since the 1980s, two new large bookstores, Kyobo and Youngpoong, mounted a tough challenge to Jongno Books, taking a large chunk of its customers, and consequently, its profits. In 2002, the 95-year-old bookstore closed its doors.

The demise of Jongno Books more than a decade ago may serve as a mirror to the future of bookstores now.

Like Jongno Books which faced competition with newcomers with fresh concepts, today's bookstores face an unprecedented threat from the new breed of online sellers who offer huge discounts.

"Independent bookstores failed to survive in the price war against giant online retailers. Bookstores play an important role in local communities as a center of cultural activity. If they continue to disappear, readers will also lose the opportunity to find good books as well," said Park Dae-choon, chairman of the Korea Federation of Bookstore Associations, in an email interview.

The number of bookstores dropped 33 percent in a decade from 3,489 in 2003 to 2,331 in 2013, according to the federation. The surveyed bookstores sell books only, doing no other business.

Most of the closures happened in rural areas and small cities. The result is: Four counties in Korea now do not have a single bookstore: Ongjin, Yeongyang, Ulleung and Cheongsong. There are 36 cities and big counties with one bookstore, including Uiwang and Moongyeong cities.

"It could be considered another business closing, but it means a whole neighborhood loses a chance to read books. Having a bookstore in a neighborhood is a huge cultural benefit and blessing," said Park. "It's urgent to take immediate action to this dire situation."

The government revised a publishing industry law in 2002 to give sellers a free rein in marking down old titles — those released more than 18 months ago — while setting a cap of 10 percent on new releases.

Online retailers began to jump in the book market around 2009 and racked up huge profits in their first business year, making a big dent in the sales of small and mid-sized brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Since then, it has become a common practice for bargain-hunting consumers to browse books at neighborhood bookstores, write down titles or take snapshots of book covers and order them online later.

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