Yonghee Park is a bookseller in Bucheon. He shares with us about his experience of running Young Books, highlighting the value of a local bookstore and the importance of a sense of community.
The story will be presented in a series, everyweek for the next 3 weeks.
#1 COVID Invades the Neighborhood. (Introduction)
In 2019, Yong Books enjoyed its best year ever alongside the local people.
A writing group was launched in March with only three members, but after a process of evolution this had grown into seven groups with close to 50 members by the end of the year. This was not simply an increase in numbers. The local members included authors, artists and singers, as well as many ordinary people who harbored hidden talents even though they were not professional artists. I never imagined that within the space of a year, Yong Books would become the venue for gatherings between such talented people. People began to congregate as soon as the space opened up, and this quickly led to a number of interesting developments.
People began to connect through the space. When people with a knack for writing met each other, it produced concrete results. One local author introduced an illustrator he knew to the meeting, allowing Yong Books to host exhibitions, book talks from authors and drawing classes for locals. Another customer working on an independent publication was able to commission a cover for his book through someone he met at a group. These visitors also helped Yong Books fill the space with a range of content. One customer who had been secretly drawing on his own held an exhibition to display the pictures he had produced over the past year, while postcards made by another visitor who learned watercolor painting are now sold in the store.
Many visitors started writing for the first time at Yong Books. Some of them had never even properly learned to write before. ‘Grape’ was a 78-year old woman who struggled to write Korean script when she first came to the group. After regularly attending a transcription group over the course of a year, she not only learned to write but is now in the process of writing her own memoirs. Many other visitors were on an elementary writing level when they first came, but are now capable of fluently expressing themselves in writing. They have learned from experience what can happen when a group of people steadily work on something together. Perhaps this is only possible when the neighborhood has a space like this.
An Active Role
The visitors who have grown through Yong Books are no longer simply consumers who purchase goods and use services. A growing number of visitors have also made suggestions and lent a helping hand to Yong Books. In many cases, those in charge of hosting events have grown into leaders who serve as pillars of the store. By the end of 2019, most of the groups had established leaders. Although I created the space on my own, making it come alive and grow was a group effort. As time went by, Yong Books became a space for everyone in the neighborhood. The store laid the foundation for a space that everyone could enjoy to their heart’s content, and this gave people license to experiment with new ideas. That is why everyone was looking forward to 2020.
All this was possible because of the ‘neighborhood’ that Yong Books was located in. Many people who had lived beside each other for a long time without really knowing their neighbors came to discover each other through Yong Books. Hearing the stories of people they might have ordinarily just passed by in the street helped everyone to grow. Those who had experienced growth and improvement in their lives were no longer satisfied with simply being consumers. Unlike in Seoul, where a lot of cultural resources are concentrated, there are fewer cultural resources for locals to enjoy in Bucheon, so there are many places in need of a boost like this from customers.
January 2020. The launch of a new meeting represented a big step forward for Yong Books. After previously hosting simple groups at a low charge (or for free), the store finally launched its first paid class. Contrary to concerns, many locals signed up for writing and drawing classes. This was their way of repaying the trust that had built up over time. Ten members were recruited for each class, and both filled up quickly.
It was at this time that COVID-19 struck Korea.
All groups came to a halt.
Yong Books refunded half of the fees paid for the classes, and all meetings were put on hold indefinitely until the pandemic subsided.
Up until the COVID-19 outbreak, numerous meetings had been popping up across the region. It became a sort of trend, and helped to fill people’s need for casual social connections and relationships. Most small bookstores formed communities based around groups, and used these events as a basis for selling books.
The pandemic sent many of them into despair, and COVID-19 was the final blow that forced a lot of stores to close down. What happened to Yong Books? The store was in the same boat as everyone else. However, I was fortunate enough to have built strong relationships with local people through the community.
The next piece describes how the neighborhood and locals rallied together to lend a helping hand to Yong Books.