In countries of similar size to Korea the publishing industry is heavily centralized. As Bucheon is only 30 minutes away from the capital, Seoul, conditions are not favorable for development of a publishing industry independent of the capital. What's more, most publishing businesses are now accommodated in the big publishing complexes constructed under support policies from the central government. Despite these circumstances, about 529 publishing businesses are registered in Bucheon, and thanks to the cultural milieu and the city's support for local publishers their combined annual sales reach approximately 10.3 million USD. Due to the emergence of online bookstores, however, the number of bookstores in the city has fallen from a high of 30 to 11 at present, prompting the municipal government and local community to work together to keep local bookstores in business. To promote growth of Bucheon's literature related industry, the city is also carrying out projects to revitalize libraries.
The revival of bookstores in the region and development of the publishing industry are major policy objectives designed to foster Bucheon's cultural industry focused on literature. Thus the city has signed an MoU with the Bucheon Bookstore Association to carry out mutually beneficial projects. In 2015, Bucheon City Library and Bucheon Small Library spent 1.3 million USD on the purchase of new books through local bookstores. Under policies to promote development of the local publishing industry, the city also purchases books and digital contents from local bookstores and provides subsidies for local publishers. The Bucheon Bookstore Association was organized to facilitate bookstores' cooperation with local libraries. It organizes "Meet the Author" events and other varied book-related events such as fairy tale readings and mini-bookstores in the park to promote reading. Residents actively participate in the Book Sharing Bank Project by donating book purchase receipts, of which one percent of the total amount is donated for the purchase of books for libraries.
Independent bookstore: 5Km Books “The Heart of My Life, 5Km Books” CEO KIM Byeong-cheol of 5Km Books, an independent bookstore
[NEXT Gyeonggi People] A series of interviews with residents of Gyeonggi Province who have memorable experiences or unique histories. I spoke with KIM Byeong-cheol who is the CEO of 5Km Books, an independent bookstore in Bucheon that is working hard to spread the world about independent publishing.
Something interesting pops up if you search for ‘Bucheon’ while browsing the internet - the Simgok-dong branch of ‘Korea Cheeseburger,’ a chain famous for handmade burgers. Called the In-N-Out Burger of Korea, it is listed on internal portal sites as one of the premium restaurants in Bucheon. Another store that stands out is 5Km Books (often abbreviated to 5Km), an independent bookstore located close to Korea Cheeseburger.
I went to the store in Simgok-dong to meet with KIM Byeong-cheol, the CEO of 5Km Books.
A space created through the memories of regular customers
“When I create a space, I make it because I like it. 5Km Books is a space designed to inspire people to do things.”
This is how KIM (38, male) introduced his store. 5Km Books opened in 2013 in Simgok-dong, Bucheon (541-11 Beonji, 2-3F). The store specializes in independent publications and is also a publisher. KIM says that he chose the name ‘5KM’ because that is the average speed of an elephant (4-6 km), and it is eye-catching and looks good as a design. The bookstore is called 5Km Bookstore, while the publisher is 5Km Books.
The store also runs a number of reading, writing, book design and music programs and is a gathering place for locals.
5Km Books has now been open for five years.
The store has had many visitors during that period, and has become the most well-known independent publisher from Bucheon. What inspired KIM’s decision to open a bookstore?
“I used to run a blog. That was from 2010 to 2011, and I first learned about publishing when I received an offer from a publisher to produce a book based on the site’s content. I thought that it would take a lot of effort, and the royalties were too small, but an elder friend of mine gave me some advice while I was thinking it over. He said ‘The people who would buy the book are already in your blog, so just publish it independently.’”
KIM went on to say “I ended up independently publishing a book called, which was a story about the animals that live on the Serengeti plains. Now that we live in the age of personal media, publications also seem to be following in the same direction.”
He was inspired to open his own store by the wide desks installed in a cafe he used to visit. KIM enjoyed sitting around those large desks while he worked, and 5Km Books has a similar desk inside the store.
”I thought that if I could find some space, I wanted to put a large desk there, and the desk made me think of books, so that led to the decision to open a bookstore.” KIM lives in Jamwon-dong in Seoul, and it was the cheaper rent that caused him to set up shop in Bucheon, despite the long commute. I asked him about the five year he has been in business, the advent of the store and whether he had any plans to grow the business.
“As I built and managed this space, I always felt as if it was actually created by the people that visit,” he said. “After five years, I feel that the space has reached its final form thanks to the customers coming in and their memories. That creates a kind of positive energy.”
According to KIM, some of his regular customers are men who have completed their military service and gotten married. Some couples continue to visit the store after getting married.
“The number of customers I meet here is even greater than my friends,” KIM added. “It feels like meeting up with good friends.”
“During the first three years, I didn’t have any customers. Most of the time I was alone when I closed for the day. Especially during the first year, there were times when I wanted to close down, but people around me told me to stick it out for at least two years. Then before I knew it, I had already been open for three years. That’s how I got here.”
“Things are pretty stable now,” he added.
The gender ratio among customers is about 9:1 in favor of women. Most are in their 20s or 30s, but the number of customers in their 40s has been on the rise recently.
“Women are the largest consumers of books. I think that’s just because men and women are different, so the majority of cultural content is consumed by women.”
I asked him what 5Km Books means to him.
“It’s like my heart,” he replied. “If it disappeared then I would be very sad. If it were gone, I would do something else, but it would feel as if I had lost everyone I have met here as well. I have a lot of memories here too, but if the bookstore disappeared then it would be like snatching away everyone else’s memories of this place, and that would be really sad.”
What kind of independent publishing does KIM recommend?
Interest in independent publishing has been growing over the past few years. A lot of books with creative ideas that differ from traditional publications are now being produced, and the popularity of some books on social media (especially Instagram) has given more people hope of publishing independently. The main attraction of independent publishing is discovering content that isn’t published through traditional channels. Social media has clearly played an important part in this phenomenon.
Although the number of bookstores that sell independent publications is growing around Korea, they are still outnumbered by traditional bookstores and publishers.
On this point, KIM said “Books are a part of culture, but the number of bookstore is smaller than say PC rooms, and I think a lot of that is due to the fixed price system for books.
Local bookstores are usually run by people who love books. The owner of the store can curate their books to cater to the taste of their customers. I think local bookstores are shifting more towards the concept of a community. Most people use online bookstores these days, but they still visit brick and mortar stores because they can meet people through the medium of books, and it feels like a community. So I think things are changing a lot, but gradually. The same applies to the store owners. I think they enjoy being around people.”
The increasing number of bookstores that sell independent publications speaks to the growing number of individuals who are publishing their own works. In line with this trend, KIM holds lectures on producing independent publications.
“Independent publishing is about having something you want to express, so I want to tell people to leave the essence of that intact. Don’t try to copy traditional publishers or you’ll just end up with a generic version of what they produce.
What’s important is expressing what you have to say. For example, it’s not a good idea to publish independently just because you think it’s difficult to take the traditional publishing route and it’s your only option. That will only lead to failure,” he stressed.
In particular, “Publishing independently allows you to fully capture the message you want to send, so don’t try to copy traditional publications.”
KIM went on to discuss a book he is planning that will soon be published. It’s a four-frame comic book called .
“I am the publisher. It’s the diary of a writer who was hurt by someone he loved, and describes how the world looks depressing after being hurt. The author is a man in his 30s. I contacted him through Instagram and suggested working together, and we ended up publishing this book.”
The book was funded through tumblebug (https://tumblbug.com), a crowdfunding platform, and will soon be on the shelves.
“This book is actually more mainstream than some of the other books I have published, it doesn’t have a strong independent publishing feel,” KIM said. “I just wanted to work with this author because I like him.”
KIM has been involved in the production of many works including <Residents of the Serengeti> (an illustrated book about animals), <The Moment of Farewell> (a collaboration of essays from 25 writers), <Na Bitna’s Diary> (a picture diary written by designer Na Bitna) and <Book of Fried Eggs> (a book that contains nothing but 16 images of fried eggs). All of these were published by 5Km Books.
On November 4, 5Km Books held an event called ‘Share Your Writing Problems With Author Eun Yoo’ that involved interaction with customers.
At the end of the interview, KIM talked about another space he is planning to open in Bucheon.
“At first, I thought it had to be in Seoul, but now I changed my mind and I’m planning to create another space in Bucheon,” he said. “Since I spend so much time here, I became fond of the city. People say that 5Km Books comes to mind when they think of Bucheon. Even people who live in Seoul remember it, so I want to stay in Bucheon. Bucheon used to be known for Korea Cheeseburger, so I feel good when people associate the city with 5Km Books.”