Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop

Hwang Bo-Reum (trans. Shanna Tan)

February 23, 2024 
The following is from Hwang Bo-Reum's debut novel, Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop. Hwang Bo-reum wrote several essay collections: I Read Every Day, I Tried Kickboxing for the First Time and This Distance is Perfect. Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop has sold over 150,000 copies in Korea and been sold into 9 territories.

Before running the bookshop, Yeongju had never considered whether she was suitable to be a bookseller. She thought, rather naively, that anyone who loves books could be one. It was only when she started her own bookshop that she realized she had a serious shortcoming. She fumbled questions such as ‘Which book is good?’ and ‘What’s an interesting book?’ Once, she made a complete fool of herself when a man in his late forties sought her recommendation for a book.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is really interesting,” she enthused. “Have you read it?”

The man hung his head. “No, I haven’t.”

“I’ve read it more than five times, I believe. It isn’t that interesting, not in a generic sense. You know how some books make you throw your head back in laughter, or dizzy with anticipation? This book isn’t interesting in that sort of way. I mean . . . it’s beyond the generic interesting. There’s no uh . . . climax or a central plot stitching the book together. The entire story follows a child’s thoughts and takes place over the span of a few days. That said, I mean . . . I still find this book interesting,” she finished pathetically.

“What does the child think about?”

The man looked so serious Yeongju felt a stab of nerves as she tried to explain.

“It’s about how a child sees the world, his thoughts about schools, teachers, friends, parents.”

The man furrowed his brows. “Will I also like this book?”

She was stumped. Will he find it interesting? Why, of all books, did I recommend this? It must have shown on her face, for the man simply thanked her and walked away. Later, he approached the counter and bought Insights of Eurasia. So that was what he liked. Historical non-fiction. Something he said before leaving the shop that day had remained on her mind ever since.

“I’m sorry I asked a difficult question when everyone has their own preferences.”

A customer saying “I’m sorry” to a bookseller for seeking a recommendation when she should’ve been the one to apologize for her incompetence! It was an important lesson learnt: never to blindly recommend her own favorites to the customer. She wanted to do better. But how? In her spare moments at work, she brooded over it and came up with the following:

Avoid personal biases. Instead of “books I like”, recommend ‘books which the customers may enjoy”.

Don’t rush into a recommendation. Ask the following questions: what is a book you enjoyed reading recently? Which book left a deep impression on you? What genres do you like? What is on your mind recently? Who are your favorite authors?

Despite developing a strategy, she still blanked occasionally at such requests.

“Is there a book that’ll unclog a smothered heart?” Mincheol’s mother asked as she ordered an iced Americano, adding that she’d skipped her classes because she wasn’t in the mood for them.

A book to unclog a smothered heart? The request was too abstract but none of her prepared questions seemed at all appropriate. Desperate not to drag out the silence, she cast around for something to ask and landed on the innocuous, “Something’s bothering you?”

“It’s been like this for the past few days, as if I’m stuffed with injeolmi rice cakes, stuck all the way up my throat.”

“What happened?”

At Yeongju’s question, she suddenly stiffened, her eyelids trembling. She quickly gulped down half the iced Americano, but it didn’t bring light back to her eyes.

“It’s Mincheol.”

A family issue. Somehow, running a bookshop made Yeongju privy to the most private matters of her customers. She’d read somewhere that authors often get people opening up to them, as if being a wordsmith somehow meant that they would understand things that even the closest of friends couldn’t. Apparently, people thought the same of booksellers, as if owning a bookshop was an accreditaion of exceptional emotional intelligence.

“Something happened to him?” she asked.

She had seen the lanky high schooler on a few occasions. He’d inherited his mother’s pale face and when he smiled, he looked pure and bright.

“Mincheol . . . he told me he sees no meaning in life.”

“No meaning in life?” Yeongju echoed.



“I have no idea. I don’t think he really meant it, but since then, I haven’t been able to focus on anything. My heart aches whenever I think of what he said.”

According to his mother, Mincheol said he had zero interest in anything – studying, games, hanging out with friends. While it wasn’t like he completely stopped doing any of these – he still studied when exams were around the corner, played games when he was bored and met his friends occasionally – he was indifferent to them all, and on most days, he would return home straight after school, browse the Internet on his bed and drift off to sleep. At the age of eighteen, he was sick of life.

“Is there no book that’ll help me?” Mincheol’s mother poked her straw in between the ice cubes and sucked up the last drops of coffee. For Mincheol, Yeongju could draw up a reading list. There were plenty of stories about fatigue or being lost in one’s own world. What, though, could she suggest to a mother whose child was going through a teenage life crisis? No matter how hard she thought, she couldn’t come up with anything suitable. She couldn’t recall any novels about a mother and son, nor had she read a single parenting book. She was filled with dread. Not because she couldn’t find a suitable book, but because it suddenly hit her that she was the limiting factor of the bookshop, the cause of its narrow worldview. Hyunamdong Bookshop was tailored to her preferences as a reader, her interests, and her reading repertoire. How could such a place be helpful to others? She decided to be honest.

“I can’t think of any book that’ll help.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Actually . . . wait. There’s a novel I just thought of. Amy and Isabelle. It’s about a mother and daughter living under the same roof who hate each other as much as they love each other. Being a parent and child doesn’t mean they’ll always understand and accommodate each other. Reading it made me think that, in some sense, even parents and their children should lead their own separate lives eventually.”

“This sounds intriguing,” said Mincheol’s mother, “I’ll get it.” She declined Yeongju’s offer to lend her the book first to see how she’d take to it. As Yeongju watched her leave with the book in hand, she thought about the power books held. Is there a book that’ll unclog a smothered heart? Will a book have that much power?

Two weeks later, Mincheol’s mother dropped by again.

“I have to run but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed the book. It reminded me of my own mother. We fought a lot, too, although not as much as Amy and Isabelle.”

She paused, as if her thoughts had drifted far away and when she spoke again, her eyes were slightly red.

“That last scene, where the mother kept calling out for her daughter . . . I bawled, thinking about how there’ll come a time when I’ll miss my child so much. I can’t hold him in my arms forever and a day, I’ll have to learn to let him fly, to let him live his own life. Thank you so much, Yeongju. Please recommend me more good books again. Alright, got to run!”

While it wasn’t quite the story she was looking for, Mincheol’s mother had enjoyed what Yeongju somewhat hesitantly recommended. The heaviness in her heart remained, but the book brought back memories of her mother and nudged her to reflect on how to handle her  relationship with her son. Could it count as a good recommendation? Despite falling short of expectations, could a book, if enjoyed, be considered a good read?

Is a good book always a good read?

Her recommendations might not be what the customers hoped for, but if they said, “It’s still good,” perhaps she had done a good job. Of course, suggesting a novel about a high school student – even if it’s one of the best literary novels with social commentary – to a middle-aged ajusshi who enjoyed non-fiction history titles could still be a no go. But who knows? One day, he might feel like reading a novel. Or maybe, when he wanted to better understand his children, he might recall being recommended such a book and seek it out. If he did, he might even enjoy it. As with everything in life, reading is about the right timing.

That said, what counts as a good book? For the regular person, it’s perhaps a book they enjoyed. But as a bookseller, Yeongju needed to think beyond that. She tried coming up with a definition.

– Books about life. Not something generic, but a deep and raw dive into life.

Recalling Mincheol’s mother’s red-rimmed eyes, she tried to elaborate further.

– Books by authors who understand life. Those who write about family, mother and child, about themselves, about the human condition. When authors delve deep into their understanding of life to touch the hearts of readers, helping them to navigate life, isn’t that what a good book should be?


From Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop by Hwang Bo-Reum, translated by Shanna Tan, forthcoming February 20, 2024. Copyright © 2022 by Hwang Bo-Reum. English Translation © Shanna Tan, 2023. All rights reserved.

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