Jongro Books: Little shop of rare finds

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When your clientele doesn’t speak language of the land, how do you sell a book?


The first time I came across Jongro Books, I had been febrile for a Korean Hip-Hop album, a pink cardboard pocket splashed with a pale-blue decalcomanie that houses an acoustic EP. HMV had failed me; Sonic Boom (before Dollarama overtook its location) had failed me. I figured I was left with the e-solution and its long-winded laggard cousin—the international delivery. The Korean e-market offered the album for a quite reasonable price till I had to add the shipping cost; whereupon I found myself caught between a rock and a hard place. Rock being my impatience and hard place being their price.

The hunger for Korean music, I figured, is best served with Korean food. And it was a stroke of luck that my logic-centre was on one-track mind that day, because on my trek back from K-Town, I stumbled upon Jongro books and its blue awnings with the inscription, “Jongro Korean Books & Music” (italics mine). The store front was narrow, although not as hole in the wall as Sam James’ Coffee Pocket, a coffee bar a couple of streets down from the book store. I entered and what opened up in front of me was the surprising depth and increasing width as the store receded into the back of the building, challenging my perspective.

To the left of me was a wall of albums neatly shelved in wooden cubicles that showed a column after column of the latest and some dated K-pop. White metal brackets were studded against the neon-orange pillars that made up part of the structure and were holding more albums. Over the course of my perusal, after which I did find the pink cardboard square that now sits on my modest CD rack, I noticed a sense of arbitrariness.

The albums were not necessarily divided along its genres, nor did there seem to be logic of presentation that I’ve come to expect from any other books/CD stores. The biggest distinction in its display seemed to be the binary relation between K-pop and non-K-pop. The books in the store, though, were organized along a much more conventional line of genre-specifications. There were philosophy, general literature, classics, etc. So this seemingly arbitrary display of the albums I could only dub “an anomaly.” But it took me a second trip to the store to resolve the niggling sense of ambivalence and put a name to the experience that I had with the first visit.

Two years after my happenstance purchase at Jongro Books, I heard the news that there were more stores that sold Korean books. Full of anticipation I went on the trek but what I found out was less than exciting. The Bookafe, a faith-based, non-for-profit coffee shop, turned out to furnish only a couple of books that were written in Korean, and Doug Miller Books had on display half a dozen Korean titles fished out of Toronto Public Library system’s used-book sales.



I spoke recently with Sungbin Lee, Jongro store manager, to find out more about Jongro Books:

Q: How did the store begin?

A: This store has been open for almost 20 years…And talking strictly about the (Korean) books, I can say that Jongro books is the biggest bookstore in Canada. And we are diverse (in our catalogue).

We offer all the bestsellers, of course, as one would expect of a bookstore. But going beyond that, we also offer Korean lit, general literature, philosophy, religion, the classics—the genre literature.

Q: I personally have an interest in science fiction.
A: Of course. We have those as well. And fantasy.

Q: What kind of clientele do you see?

A:  It’s really the regulars that comprise the mainstay of our clientele…Stores, like ours, that is not a chain, [are] not an immense affair like Indigo… Regular [customers] would come in to talk about what’s been happening in their lives; I would recommend them a title that they would find interesting.

We remember what each customer had purchased previously, and whenever there’s a new release that comes along our way we earmark and put [it] aside.

Q: The clientele must be like a family…

A: The student clients, who were in middle school when they started visiting, are now university students! It’s been about two, three years since I started working as a manager, and I’ve come to know faces, [we’ve talked] about different things whenever they walk in.

Q: Do walk-in clients have different interests than regulars?

A: Walk-bys usually look for bestsellers. Korean students usually ask about 학습지 (self-study materials), for studying English.

Q: Do a lot of non-Korean customers visit, seeking study-aid for learning Korean?

A: Ever since the K-pop boom there has been a lot of people coming in to look for study materials. And these are people who speak Korean exceptionally well already—on par with a native speaker.

Some people come in to practise verbal Korean. And in the middle of the conversation, I try to point out certain antiquated idioms or awkward phrases that they would use; I would tell them, “We don’t use that phrase,” or “We usually put that in this way.” There are several books for the purpose of learning Korean, which are printed in English. They do buy a lot of books like that.

Q: Do you deal with used books as well?

A: We strictly deal in new books. We do guarantee that all our books are imported from Korea new. Neither do we rent out the books. Rental does ruin books, and we would have to stock less than pristine books, if that were the case.

Q: Do people come in with a specific title in mind and ask you to put in an order for it?

A. Yes. We see a lot of those order requests. It’s hard to say, but it takes anytime between two weeks to a month. Since we put in the individual requests along with our bulk-orders.

Q: How do you choose which books to purchase?

A:  There aren’t that many bestsellers that come out every month. There would be about a dozen or so bestsellers. To bring them over isn’t all that difficult. The real challenge are the humanities and the philosophy books; finding the ones that the clients would be interested in and find enjoyable is the difficult part. And the selection of those books usually fall [on] the owner of the store.

Q: KCCA (Korean Canadian Cultural Association) and TPL (Toronto Public Library) system also stock Korean literature. What niche do you seek to carve out for yourself?

A:  Truth be told, the circulation volume of the two is not enough to quench the needs of the Korean community. If we say there [are] a hundred people living in a region, the library systems would only stock one or two of the same title. That means the other 98 will have to wait. And it’s those people who can’t wait or have a difficult time with the library system that come here to buy the books.

Q: What are you reading right now?
A: I have to read a substantial volume because when a customer comes in and asks, “What interesting books [have] come out recently?” I have to have a ready answer. Or I have to be able to ask, “What are you interested in?” and be able to give a recommendation.

I have just finished 28 (by Stephanie Nolen). Now I am currently reading… should I give you an English author or a Korean author?

Q: Both
A:  just wrapped up Crossway, by William Cole Young; and 정글말리, by 조정래 (Cho Jungrae). It’s a trilogy.


What I took away from this is that perhaps non-English bookstores in Toronto have to operate on a slightly different business model than the “Stock-and-Display” model demonstrated by such stores as BMV and Indigo. Unlike big-chains, the in-store stock of Jongro books does not fully reflect what the store can offer. The mono-crop of English already offers franchises a ready-made daily audience in the thousands. But for stores that supply non-mainstream language literature, the survival strategy has to be different. These stores have to work more ostensibly as a connecting port between two transnational interests (in the case of Jongro Books, between Korea and Toronto).

When the main business is heavily reliant on regulars and not daily walk-ins, it is in the store’s best interest to keep a dynamic and personally-tailored stock that may oftentimes not fully translate to a comprehensive display. Moving beyond its role as a place of commerce, Jongro Books seems to be working as a place of communal conversation, a heuristic for what the Korean-Torontonian community may be interested in and is looking for in a publishing industry.

Lee says that a ravenous appetite for these niche markets exists and there is an audience for Korean book imports. But it is just not big enough to warrant these stores to operate like conventionally stocked stores. The fight between chains and independent stores has come to occupy a significant part of contemporary reading habit and discourse surrounding it. But to ignore the aspect of non-English readership and the unique way they acquire books would be to do disservice to the city-wide love of independent bookstores, the hole-in-the-wall-rotisserie of literature.

I talked to Lee about Nell, a modern rock band from Korea, and the intense and surprising fan-base that exists in Toronto. He says that they’ve sold out Nell’s discography several times and – they’re once again out of stock. For Jongro Books, what is on display is not what the store offers or is capable of offering at any time of the day. And this I think is a mark of great potential for a store that constantly challenges perspective.


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