Updated with words by Amanda Diaz and 10 Magazine Staff.
One drawback of living or traveling in Korea is the difficulty of finding books in English. Good bookstores are rare, and if you only know one or two, you are unlikely to find the range of books you would like. Many of us also enjoy browsing in used bookstores. Luckily, there ARE good English bookstores in Korea; you just have to know where and how to find them.
Bookstores come in three flavors. First there are the chains, relatively easy to find through web searches. Second are mid-sized stores catering primarily to English readers; these are a bit harder to find, but many expats know where they are. More difficult to find, but fun when you do, are the small used bookstores that dot traditional markets in Korean cities. These, you find at the expense of shoe leather.
This handsome independent bookstore is hidden away on the second floor of a building in Itaewon. The front of the shop features a solid selection of second hand titles, while the shelves beyond are devoted to new books. Fans of Young Adult fiction will be delighted with What the Book’s children’s section, which must surely have the best offering of English language YA in Seoul. It’s not the kind of store that encourages you to sit and make yourself at home, but you’ll find yourself lingering among the shelves for hours anyway. What the Book’s website is in English and extremely easy to use. To find What the Book, check out the What the Book Directory listing.
Foreign Book Store is exactly what a second hand bookshop should be. With its narrow aisles and tightly packed shelves, it invites keen browsers to scour the stacks looking for their next read. You’re bound to find some gems within the cosy clutter. For those looking for a bargain, you’ll find the shop’s collection of Lonely Planet guides particularly pleasing.
This store is a must-see purely for its “Insta-worthy” aesthetic. With its cubby areas and various hidden spaces set up for reading, it’s like the treehouse/library hybrid you never knew you wanted. Although it has only a very limited range of English titles (mainly children’s fiction and art books), swing by to enjoy a beverage from the in-house café and soak up the atmosphere.
Kyobo Book Centre’s flagship store in the basement of the Kyobo Life Insurance Building is reputed to house approximately 2.3 million titles. It has a decent English section – offering new releases and bestsellers alongside a strong selection of classics. There’s also a specific children’s section for those with young bookworms in their life. Not only is the store enormous, it’s also furnished with many little nooks and benches to encourage shoppers to sit down and read – although these spaces are snatched up pretty quickly during busy periods, so you have to be fast!
Tucked into the alleyways in Itaewon, Paper Muse specialises in art and culture magazines. Although there’s no places to sit inside, you can pick up a book and enjoy a Sunday afternoon in one of the many quaint cafes in the area. A neat display of foreign magazines like Vogue, GQ, W greet you as you enter the door and the small room keeps you from becoming overwhelmed.
Books from the bestseller lists, books that have been or are about to be turned into major motion pictures, and classic literature are all available at any large chain including Kyobo, Bandi and Lunis. Look for sections called English, Foreign, or even 외국문 (“waegugmum” foreign books).
In Seoul there is a cluster of chains in the Jongno-gu area. Kyobo Book Centre, Korea’s largest bookstore, stocks about 2,300,000 books and on weekends draws over 120,000 customers. For a truly surreal/jam-packed experience, visit Kyobo or Youngpoong the day before Christmas or any other gift-giving occasion. If you frequent chains, get a membership card, which offers various benefits. Check out our article on how to use points cards in Korea.
If and when you manage to find a small store with English books, be sure to make friends with the owner. If you are a repeat customer, they will start squirreling books away for you.
So get out there and get reading!