An English book store in Itaewon

Contributor: Nam Sang-so

“We sell, buy and exchange – since 1974” says the advertisement of foreign book store located at southern end of Itaewon township, near Line #6…

Topic: Books, cultural exchange, Education, People, Yongsan Legacy
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“We sell, buy and exchange – since 1974” says the advertisement of foreign book store located at southern end of Itaewon township, near Line #6 of Noksapyeong subway station.

Mr. Choi Ki-ung (about 80 years old) and his wife had started collecting secondhand English books discarded by U.S. Army and civilian personnel of the Yongsan Garrison when they were taking liberty in the town. Their first stall was located in a back alley by the current Hamilton Hotel.

When the American soldiers and civilian employees at the Garrison are taking outings, some of them brought books, cartoons, magazines to read in the town sometimes with their girlfriend. Choi and his wife gathered abandoned books and cartoons by paying $1 or 2, or some soldiers dropped the finished books at the vender as a gift. Choi usually had hundred copies of the paperbacks and cartoons piled up in his street shop.

View of the inside of the story taken during summer 2018 _ photo credit Nam SangSo

The Choi’s book vender was a fine place for young Korean students who were learning English as his secondhand books were much cheaper – $2 or 4 a book then getting them at big book stores in the city. And he carried the latest editions of the novels came directly from the United States, including such tabloid magazines Playboy showing bunny girls on the cover or Forum which the vender had kept under his box chair hiding as those erotic ones had been then banned in Korea.

Sad Sack cartoon was one of the bestselling comic strips among the U.S. Army cartoons. We Korean students loved poor army soldier Sad Sack and at the same time wondered how the Department of Army would allow such comic that clearly exhibit a revolt against their military seniors to distribute without any restrictions.

I and my architect/engineer friends who worked at the Building 1510 in the Main Post, Yongsan Garrison, had visited Choi’s book shop quite often on our way home in the evening and bought the cheap paperbacks and comic strips. And we had noticed that the English words and sentences printed in Korea such as in The Korea Times, The Korea Herald and school text books are quite different from those English books available at the Choi’s stall.

Since big Kobo Books and YP Books had started import foreign books and the English books are readily available via Amazon, I haven’t visited Choi’s for a long time until in late July this year.

Choi, who must be over 80 years old now, and his wife were delighted to see me, an old frequent customer.

Ms.Choi in front of the store Summer 2018. Photo Credit Nam SangSo
That old vending stall has changed to a small building facing Noksapyeong Boulevard in Itaewon and the smiling faces of Mr. and Mrs. Choi looked happy, with thousands of secondhand English books stacked up to the ceiling at every available space in the shop and still many are spilling over onto the sidewalk as you would notice in attached photos. She is Mrs. Choi.

“I’m glad to see you doing well. You know, you have greatly contributed in transferring American cultures into Seoul community, myself included, so easily and inexpensively,” I commended the old couple in English. I knew they are good at conversational English. “We have never thought that way, thank you. But we’ve had rather good time socializing with those young, warm hearted American soldiers in the past 44 years. They must be over 70 years old now, back in their homes, and I hope they are having good time with their grandchildren. My husband and I miss them. And we miss U.S. Army Yongsan Garrison, too. We thought that we too should relocate to Anjeong-ri, Pyeongtaek, in front of the Main Gate, Camp Humphreys, but we decided we are too old,” said the old lady looking at me rather sadly, holding my hands speaking an accented English.

By Nam Sang-so (sangsonam@gmail.com), retired architect/engineer from the Building 1510, Main Post, Yongsan Garrison. Seoul, August 5, 2018.