I finished Welcome to Hyunam-Dong Bookshop the day I visited The Bookshop Inc at Lodhi Road in Delhi. Before my visit, I had been wondering why so many writers like to situate their books inside bookshops. From Calvino to Yagisawa, books where a bookshop plays an important role could be a genre unto itself. It was only when I reached the bookstore and found myself seated for hours browsing through a wide and well-curated selection of books, undisturbed and unhurried, that I got my answer. The Bookshop Inc isn’t just a place to buy books, it is a place where beauty, art and knowledge converge to create a space of community, reimagining, and possibility.
Similar to the multiple roles played by The Bookshop Inc in real life, with its mirrored ceilings and tawny brown cat, Welcome to Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is a novel which does many things. It isn’t just a book about a bookshop – it is at its heart, a book about how we find meaning in our lives. Written by Hwang Bo-Reum and translated by Shanna Tan, the novel reflects on multiple themes that often make for philosophically heavy reading: What is a good life? What makes a good book? What is happiness? Hwang Bo-Reum grapples with these questions with a lightness of language that allows multiple big ideas to be considered with simplicity.
A safe space
The novel opens with a burnt-out protagonist, Yeongju, who is attempting to run a bookstore with little chance of success in a sleepy Seoul neighbourhood when she decides “I must do better” – for herself and for the people around her. Yeongju makes it her mission to excel at her new job, and to make it work despite the usually short-lived nature of bookstores in a consumerist, digitised world. Through Yeongju’s interactions, readers are introduced to a CEO of a coffee company, a part-time barista tired of pounding pavements, a blogger famous for helping people become better writers, and an interfering mother who decides to leave her son at the bookshop as punishment for being undisciplined.
All these characters enter the bookshop coping with the culture of contractual jobs and gruelling workweeks, competitive college exams and a grind that never seems to end. As their lives weave in and out of the bookshop, they find ways to find passion and meaning in what they do. The bookstore evolves alongside its customers, from a simple commercial venture meant for profit, into a cultural hub where ideas are exchanged freely and without judgement.
There’s coffee, crochet, and cosiness – inviting readers in to become comfortable before posing an uncomfortable question: why do we work and what are we working for? In many ways, the central theme of the book is how we find meaning in our work and cope, even when we don’t find our work meaningful.
A gentle critique of capitalism
Welcome to Hyunam-Dong Bookshop is a celebration of the small steps towards progress that often go unnoticed in our attempts to live a life that society deems productive. It’s not the kind of book you ought to read in a single sitting, and like a well-brewed cup of coffee, it is best to savour it slowly. Given that the plot is somewhat slow, it helps that the chapters aren’t longer than a few pages.
But each chapter has something to offer, and each character’s unique journey is comforting in its own way. There is resilience and tenacity in the protagonist, who, when tired of impermanent contractual jobs, quits a system that no longer serves her to create a space for others to find something permanent in their lives. The blogger who does not like his day job will be relatable for many who work in jobs they don’t enjoy because they need to make ends meet. There is something in the book for anyone who has ever felt the guilt of not doing enough or anyone who has ever wanted to leave their life and start afresh.
Despite its gentle yet persistent critique of capitalism, the book isn’t advocating a life of no work, or passivity. Instead, it advocates a life lived with discipline and commitment. Like the movie 3 Idiots, this book seems to say that “success is inevitable when you chase excellence.” Perhaps that is how a book about a bookshop that refuses to stock bestsellers became one with the “bestseller” tag on its cover!
The significance of a book about slowing down in a culture that glorifies overwork cannot be underestimated. In South Korea, where people passing out from overwork is common and suicide rates are among the highest in the world despite a robust discourse on healing and well-being, Hwang Bo-Reum’s words offer more than just empty comfort. Before being acquired by Bloomsbury, the book had already been voted the winner of a writing contest on the Korean platform “Brunch”.
It marks the second major Korean book on well-being to be acquired by Bloomsbury after Baek Sehee’s I Want to Die But I Want To Eat Tteokbokki, translated by Anton Hur. Tan, incidentally, happens to have been mentored by Hur at an international translator’s workshop. The acquisition and translation of books like this signify a major change in publishing, towards making all kinds of Asian books accessible to readers across the world. In a consumerist world, this novel speaks to global human concerns.
Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop, Hwang Bo-Reum, translated from the Korean by Shanna Tan, Bloomsbury.