“Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop” by Hwang Bo-Reum

Hwang Bo-reum (photo: Seong Ji Min) Hwang Bo-reum (photo: Seong Ji Min)

When Lee Yeongju burns out at work and leaves her husband, she finds solace in pursuing her childhood dream of opening a bookshop. Her goal is to bring joy to other readers in Seoul and to get back into reading, a pastime she enjoyed back in middle school before she got caught up in the competitiveness of high school, university, and the corporate world. Yeongju and her new friends learn to slow down, enjoy life outside the rat race, and allow themselves not to conform to societal expectations. Hwang Bo-Reum’s debut novel, Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop, a charming story of these great messages, puts the bookshop as a main character, not unlike Days at the Morisaki Bookshop.

The title comes from Hyunam-dong, a (presumably) fictional neighborhood in Seoul that’s caught between the old and new. One of the Korean characters in the name Hyunam-dong means “rest”. And it’s rest that Yeongju is after once she leaves behind the corporate world and her marriage. She views this as a good sign.

 

She’d never been here before, but it felt like a place where there were many people she’d known for a long time. Originally, her plan was to take things slow. But once she had a goal, it was like stepping on the accelerator. She diligently visited property agents to look for available properties to look for available properties and it took her only a few days to find her current location. She was told that it was a single-floor residential unit, but the previous owner had opened a café there, which later went bust.

 

Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop:, Hwang Bo-reum, Shanna Tan (trans) , (Bloomsbury, October 2024)
Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop, Hwang Bo-reum, Shanna Tan (trans), (Bloomsbury, October 2024)

Going bust, however, is a big worry of Yeongju and for a while it seems like she may not be able to keep her bookshop going beyond the couple of years that her savings will last. Soon after opening day, passersby see a dejected Yeongju at the cashier’s desk. When a neighbor points this out to Yeongju, she starts to make changes. The first is to hire a barista, a young man named Minjun who also went through rigorous years at university and was unable to find a corporate job.

 

He thought he could understand Yeongju’s childhood dream of wanting to be surrounded by books all the time. He, too, was enveloped by a sense of peace each time he stepped into his workplace. Yeongju was a good employer, although she felt so much like a next-door noona that sometimes he forgot he was at work.

 

An exemplary barista, Minjun goes out of his way to learn more about the coffee he serves. The coffee supplier Jimi enters the picture and soon Jimi learns to navigate her troubled marriage thanks to her friends at the bookshop. Other characters also face difficult truths about themselves while they’re at the bookshop, whether it’s the teenage Mincheol who rebels against cram school or Jungsuh who has left her own corporate career behind for a life centered on meditation and knitting.

Book clubs and lecture series draw in more patrons and writers. The Hyunam-Dong Bookshop truly becomes a neighborhood center for everyone from children to senior citizens. Yeongju even travels around Seoul and abroad to visit other independent bookstores so she can get more ideas for hers.

By the end of the book, Yeongju feels as if she is in control over what she can sell and still be a viable bookshop. One of these choices, ironic given Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop’s own commercial success, is to stop selling bestsellers.

 

Bestsellers had always been a point of contention for her. Looking at the titles that rose through the ranks of the top sellers, she was often frustrated. Not because the books themselves had any issues. Once a book made the bestseller list, it would continue to stay there for a long time. Gradually, she became convinced that bestsellers were the reason the publishing industry had lost its diversity.

Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.