COVID Invades the Neighborhood #3 (Suggestions)
Seven months after COVID first began spreading across Korea in January, it still roams around us like a ghost in August. People let their guard down when the number of new cases hit zero in May, but these hopes were dashed when the virus soon began spreading again. Perhaps this is why people remain anxious even though the pandemic has begun to ease off. Many locals are still wary about going outside. However, no one can be happy living like this. It will only lead to small neighborhood stores struggling and ultimately closing down. Local libraries recently tentatively resumed operations, allowing books to be borrowed and the use of reading rooms. It seems that we will now have to think about how to live alongside the virus. In a situation where we don’t know how long COVID will persist, shutting everything down can’t be the solution. We need to think of something better.
Even if COVID completely disappears, the world will never go back to how it was before. Some things will permanently change as a result of the pandemic. One of these is how people meet. As the word ‘untact’ becomes more prominent, a number of methods have been developed to replace the offline meetings that people used to take for granted. We now have tools such as KakaoTalk, YouTube and Zoom to meet with others, even if it is not in person. Several local bookstores have already taken advantage of this ‘opportunity’ to launch meetings for readers around the country that they were previously unable to reach due to distance. Even overseas readers are getting involved. The physical restrictions of a neighborhood disappear online. This is not about erasing local communities. It’s about enlisting the help of readers outside the region so that neighborhoods can survive. In this sense, COVID has created an unexpected opportunity. It has given us a chance to use previously untested channels outside local neighborhoods.
COVID has placed restrictions on the movement of people. With crowds of strangers, the city center has become a dangerous place. Places frequented by unknown people have the potential to cause the next mass outbreak. This has allowed familiar spaces to really shine. Cultural activities that bring together a dozen or so locals are an irreplaceable part of neighborhood bookstores. Yong Books used to host many local meetings including a film club, wine club and LP appreciation group, and this will not change. This is another unexpected gift that COVID has given us. If it weren’t for this opportunity, people who used to go into Seoul for cultural activities wouldn’t choose to come to local events instead. Even better, many of them are new visitors who never used to frequent bookstores. These cultural activities have served as a channel for bringing in new customers. The more time they spend in bookstores, the higher the chance they will become readers. Many regions are also seeing former customers make an unexpected return.
Offline meetings at Yong Books resumed a short time ago. With the chance to see each other again, members came back more passionate than ever. It is a very different mindset than when holding a meeting was nothing special. People confess that they have realized the true value of these groups. COVID may have ushered in a new ‘untact’ era, but this has paradoxically also elevated the value of in-person meetings. In August, Yong Books began tentatively posting open announcements for meetings, and at present there are about 100 locals taking part in a variety of meetings. Just because COVID has opened up new channels does not mean we need to abandon the old ones.
The Value of Local Bookstores & Yong Books
Books and bookstores are not simply about making money.
Since opening Yong Books in the small neighborhood of Yeokgok, I have often been thanked by readers. But if the store was opened as a commercial space to make money by selling goods, why would people thank me for creating the space? I think it’s because people are instinctively looking for something beyond mere survival. Bookstores have a clear role to play in enabling people to live culturally enriched lives that go beyond the animal instinct of just trying to survive. As the number of small local bookstores continues to grow in Korea, there are now reportedly more than 500 spread across the country. This may seem like a large number, but there are still many ‘desert’ neighborhoods that don’t have a local bookstore. I hope that these neighborhoods will soon be filled by a lot of small but meaningful ‘oases.’