[EYE] A treasure trove of old books

On the bustling main street of Insa-dong – which once symbolized traditional Korean culture, but now teeming with souvenir shops – visitors casually pass a store that contains centuries-old treasures.

Tongmunkwan, South Korea’s oldest bookstore, keeps its door closed most of the time.

Front of Tongmunkwan (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)

Upon entering, one is instantly overwhelmed by its massive collection of antique books, stacked from floor to ceiling, and the thick smell of old volumes. The oldest here dates from the end of Goryeo’s kingdom (918-1392).

“Some people touch books carelessly,” said Lee Jong-woon, third-generation owner of Tongmunkwan, when asked about the store’s unappealing appearance.

“I want (only those) people who would treat the books more carefully (enter). Many of the books here are very old and fragile.

In 1934, during the Japanese colonial era, Lee’s grandfather took over the bookstore from a Japanese owner. After Korean independence in 1945, he changed the name to Tongmunkwan, which means “a place where all books meet”.

For more than eight decades, under the leadership of Lee’s family, Tongmunkwan has become a treasure house of nearly 20,000 ancient books, dating back a few hundred years. In its collection are masterpieces of Korean literature.

Four years ago, the first edition of the poetry collection “Azaleas”, written in 1925 by the late Kim So-wol, was auctioned for a record 1.3 billion won ($ 1.1 million). for a Korean literary work.

“These early editions are valuable and usually stored at home,” said Lee, 49. “Unlike Western titles, old Korean books are resistant to moisture and are therefore relatively easy to store.”

Tongmunkwan owner Lee Jong-woon poses in front of Tongmunkwan’s old books on Tuesday (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)

Tongmunkwan’s clients include the National Museum of Korea and private museums, which purchase books of exceptional value. Prices are generally between 40 million and 50 million won.

Lee’s family sticks to one rule: don’t negotiate the price of a book and put a price tag on every book. This, according to Lee, builds trust with buyers.

“My grandfather used to tell me ‘don’t say the price twice (don’t change the price) and don’t cheat buyers regardless of their age’,” he said as he wrote his grandfather’s words. father in eight Chinese characters.

On his desk is a little note that says “In the beginning”.

“You know it is very difficult to lose the first resolution and control your mind,” said the owner. “I live by taking care of books, but once money becomes a priority it will ruin me not only myself but this store,” Lee said.

He particularly enjoys the textbooks of the Korean Empire, which lasted only 13 years until Japan annexed Korea in 1910. It was a turbulent period when Western cultures flocked while some Confucian scholars moved in. strove to protect their culture.

“The textbooks published by the Korean Empire government accurately reflect how confusing the period was,” Lee said. “It’s interesting how the books were made differently in two styles: a Western style and a traditional Korean style. “

While in a Western book the lines are laid out horizontally and the pages are flipped from right to left, the reverse is true for traditional Korean books.

Searching for rare old books is like searching for hidden treasures – like in the “Indiana Jones” movies, Lee said.

“I regularly make trips to Japan and China, usually five times a year, to search for ancient Korean books, which are overlooked there as foreign books without anyone realizing their value,” Lee said.

Lee said the company has yet to experience a major downturn, despite the sluggishness of the bookstore industry in general. “We are different from regular bookstores,” Lee said.

On the rapidly evolving book scene with e-books, web publishing, and more. He thinks there is something special about paper books.

A sign written in Chinese characters reads “Tongmunkwan”. (Park Hyun-koo / The Korea Herald)

“People can be easily distracted when reading digital books. But when you read a paper book, you have time to think about the content, ”Lee said.

He does not know how long Tongmunkwan will stay at his current location.

“I have a son who is a college student, but I don’t know if he wants to take over the store. He’s young and the world is changing fast, ”said Lee. “But I’m teaching him some Chinese characters just in case.”

As he looked down Insa-dong’s main street, he recalled the good old days.

“Insa-dong has changed a lot… what I miss the most are the kids playing on the streets and the old people coming to play janggi (Korean-style chess),” Lee said. “They’re all gone now, except for this store.”

By Park Yuna ([email protected])

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