Rows of bookshelves stocked to the brim. The smell of books perfume the interior, with the occasional whiff of freshly brewed coffee. Gentle air conditioning, pushing away the warmth of the afternoon sun. From a corner, an almost imperceptible flap of a page being flipped. As you sit in a corner, you relax and become one with the ambience. The past, the future, and the world outside no longer exist.
Rarely does a book about a small neighbourhood bookstore evoke the sensation of being in the real thing. But from the first chapter of Hwang Bo-reum's Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop, one is sucked in – and is reluctant to leave.
Beating heart of a neighbourhood
This is the story of the titular bookshop told in a mellow, slow-flowing slice-of-life manner. Each chapter is an episode in the lives of the characters related to the bookshop, depicting flashes of their pasts and their thoughts. Piecing together a chronological account of how the bookshop came to be is difficult, but what may be expected of the reader is to just sit back and go with the flow.
Lady boss Yeongju is the protagonist of this novel. Burned out and divorced, she started looking around for a place to set up a bookshop and finally picked a spot in the quaint little neighbourhood of Hyunam-dong outside of Seoul.
Yeongju would spend the early days as a bookshop owner sitting in a chair, weeping occasionally and confounding the patrons with her demeanour. After an auntie, one of these patrons, admonishes her for this, she rediscovers her love of books and reading, and she starts putting effort into making the bookshop a success, despite doubts she can keep it going for more than a year or two.
Her strategies for the bookshop could have come out of a masterclass for bookshop owners. She gets to know her stock. She leverages on social media to promote her shop and books. She starts hosting meet-the-author sessions, book clubs, and seminars while cultivating a clientele. At the back of her mind, she knows the business is tough, hence the two-year window she visualises for her business.
Vivid vignettes of urban Korean life
Soon, other characters enter the picture. The aimless Minjun is hired as a barista in the bookshop and becomes part of the place's beating heart along with Yeongju. Mincheol, the apathetic son of the auntie who helps Yeongju to buck up, starts dropping by at his mother's insistence and learns to be less of a recluse.
Jimi, the unhappily married proprietor of the coffee roaster from whom Minjun sources his coffee, grows close to Yeongju and meets with her after hours for beer and conversation. As does Jungsuh, another burnt-out-from-work woman who frequents the shop to knit. After chairing a book talk at the bookshop, former programmer turned blogger and author Seungwoo starts growing fond of its lady boss.
From their conversations and related episodes, we are afforded windows into their lives and by extension, glimpses into certain strata of South Korean society. Their thoughts, plus musings on love, family, work culture, books and more, shed light on life in the country and some of the issues its denizens face in a way that's comfy and doesn't feel didactic.
Plenty to ruminate on, even as we observe the goings-on at the bookshop and Yeongju's evolution from someone chasing a dream – while escaping an old life – to a serious bookshop owner with a unique bookselling philosophy. As the galaxy of characters and their relationships develop, the Hyunam-dong Bookshop soon becomes their nexus, a favourite haunt and refuge from the rigours of daily life.
A bookshop for everyone
Hwang Bo-reum's aim in writing this novel was to create a safe space: an escape, a refuge, a shelter, and a spot to curl up comfortably in. Even before the Hyunam-dong Bookshop starts to boom, we've sunk deep into this snug space like we're in a giant bean bag. Our woes slip away and we live vicariously through these characters, feeling heartened as we witness them strive to better themselves and be content with small triumphs.
How can we not? These are people who, like some of us, adopted a bookshop as a mecca or safe harbour, found common ground and camaraderie with its owners and patrons, and learnt new things about themselves and others as they browsed the shelves and took part in its programmes. Even non-bookworms can relate to this sentiment.
But unlike most bookshops, Hwang's cosy literary safe space is always open.
This review is based on an advanced reading copy from the publisher. Get Hwang Bo-reum's Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop here.