When moving across the globe I figured I would read a lot of e-books on my Nook. But then it stopped letting me download books outside of the states so I had to rethink how I’d read.
The school that I worked at had a library and there were books and movies I could check out but when it came to English books there were only really basic kids books that were re-tellings of classic children stories and fairy tales for the elementary. But because the middle school was attached there was also Harry Potter and Narnia. That was it.
At my new school my students have a much higher English level and the books in the elementary library reflect that. They have a decent couple of shelves of chapter books and classics. But again not a huge selection. But I always will suggest checking out your local library first if you move to Korea, whether it’s your nearby school or the public library. Depending on where you are there might be some English books, in bigger cities there’s more of a chance.
The Seoul Public library for example has a foreign language room with several book cases of English books, as well as smaller selections of Spanish, Italian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, and so much more. Busan even has an English Library near Buam station.
Most areas also have indie English bookstores, however since I’ve moved to Korea I’ve noticed a lot of them closing down. The one my friend loved in Daegu is gone. She introduced it to me in time for their going out of business sale one of the last times I visited. This year What the book? closed, which is a huge shock since it was arguably one of the nicest and easiest to navigate English Bookstores around. It was probably also the first bookstore in Korea I got super excited to and would try to go whenever I needed a book. They even had a website where you could order and have your books shipped to you in Korea. I really wish there’d been an indie store near me. They tend to create wonderful communities just like they do back home.
Several Korean bookstore chains have English sections. But something I’ve learned very quickly is that not all locations or shops are created equally. In my old town there was no bookstore, in the nearest city there was only a textbook store and a library. Nowhere for me to buy books. In the city I live in now there are a couple bookstores, two chains and some indie Korean bookstores. None of them have a good English section. The only one with actual English novels is Aladdin.
Aladdin is a used bookstore chain in Korea. They are almost always underground, as if you are climbing down into the Cave of Wonders. They sell a little bit of every type of media, all used. Used books, used DVDs, used CD’s and new bookish items like book themed tote bags, trash cans, pins, pillows, socks and yellow dust masks. The only one where I’ve had to climb up to get to is the one I went to in Goyang which is beautiful, absolutely stunning, but I didn’t find any books I wanted in their store. It was better than my local location but selection wise, only just. It was however a location with a cafe in it.
Usually what is available in an area is due to the area. While where I live has high level English students and is a richer area, which would make one think the English section would be full, it has a smaller amount of actual English teachers. Richer areas with more English teachers or at least more people (i.e bigger cities) tend to have higher chances of English books, like the Aladdin in Gangnam, or the one in Garosugil tend to have many rows of English books. Or the one in Gwangju which I’ve been to twice is just absolutely a gem. The first one I went to was really nice and it was located in Daejeon. (My friends know me well to take me to their favorite bookstores when I visit.)
However Aladdin’s almost always require stairs to get up or down them and it’s usually a one way situation. If you see someone coming up there’s never enough space to squeeze past them and head down. You have to take turns. They’re not the most accessible places. But I find them easy to spot. While the store name tends to be in Korean 알라딘 they also usually have the magic lamp symbol outside of them. They’re a great space if you want to save some money and aren’t looking for a shiny new copy of the book you want. (One sadly could hypothesize that places like Aladdin which are selling used English novels for a couple thousand won (a couple bucks) are putting places like those Indie bookstores out of business)
Aladdin’s tend to have two English sections. One for kids that are full of kid and YA novels (and sometimes mis-shelved adult novels) and then an adult section. If I ever see an Aladdin I go in. I’ve been to them all over the country and have usually left with books even though half the time I shouldn’t have. But it’s hard to talk myself out of it when they’re so cheap. And different copies of the same book have different prices, so I’ll grab the book I want and then price compare it to the other ones they have.
There is also no organization to the English section in Aladdins. So for me it’s a time consuming process of trying to find anything of interest, especially since things get put on the wrong shelves. I’ll find kids books mixed in the adult section and adult books mixed in with the kids so I always check both. My local shop is much quicker since they’re English selection tends to have much less and each time I go I never find anything I want. But it’s an outlier.
The bigger chain bookstore I have near me is a Bandi & Luni’s which says it has an English section but what it really is is textbooks for Korean’s to prep for the English portions of their college entrance exam. There are no English novels. And that’s sometimes the only English books regular Korean bookstores have. It will say it’s a foreign language section but again it’s study guides and SAT prep.
The other big chains tends to be Kyobo books and Youngpoong books. The location doesn’t always mean a good selection, but things change. The first time I went to Coex’s bookstore they didn’t have any English books. Coex is a huge mall with a really cool library in it worth checking out. But recently I went back to their Youngpoong bookstore. They now have some. Just they’re not with all the other books. They’re for some reason in the middle of stationary in section A.
Also sometimes when you see Kyobo it doesn’t always mean it’s a bookstore, sometimes it’s insurance or a corporate building and not a bookstore. It’s disappointing. They usually have English books, especially at their bigger stores. But because I never can tell which is a bookstore and which is a insurance or corporate building means I usually don’t go to Kyobo as often.
Sometimes areas also have bookswaps and book clubs. In Bundang I know there is a bookswap group on Facebook that gets out and trades books. I went once and that’s how I found out about the bookshelf at Lagniappe. Which is where I did pick up a couple books and sometimes I leave some as well. I just don’t live close to there so I don’t go that often. Sometimes clothing swaps will expand what they allow to include books as well.
Finding books is sometimes a guessing game in Korea. You have to go into stores and look around and see whether they:
- Have a foreign language section.
- Do they have English books that aren’t just study books for the college entrance exam?
- Do they have any books you’re interested in?
Getting all of those requires a lot of exploring and looking through the bookcases. It takes a lot of time, especially at chains. It’s one of the reasons why places like What the Book? are (were) so nice. They had English speaking staff who you could just ask and most if not all of the books are in English so you can just wander into the right section and look for yourself. There are still a couple left but because I’m never lucky enough to live near them I tend to frequent Aladdin’s any time I see one.