Library of the forgotten

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

  • In Seoul’s Hwanghak-dong district, famous for its flea markets, the door to a small bookshop is wide open. From the outside passers-by can see the utter chaos of the shop through the large and grimy windows that obviously haven’t been cleaned in years. A melee of books strewn across the entrance floor makes getting into the shop something of a minor challenge, one that would likely turn away most casual shoppers. But then this isn’t a place for the casual shopper. The air is thick and musty and much of the store is unreachable without climbing over piles of books that are covered in a thin film of dust.

    Inside two men browse the shelves carefully, craning their necks back to look at the high shelves and bending over to peruse the books precariously staked on the dull tiled floor. I ask one of them, a man in an ill-fitting plain grey suit, if he’s able to find what he’s looking for. He shoots me a quizzical frown then turns his attention back to the books without so much of a word or even a dismissive grunt. He probably didn’t speak English, but even if he did something tells me his response would have been the same.

    The other man, wearing a blue coat, took a large red book from the shelf then stood there reading it for a moment before he placed it on one of the piles nearby as he walked away.

    I didn’t stay long. Ordinarily I like book stores because they make me feel smarter than I really am, but this place didn’t have that effect. Instead, it felt like a lonely place, like the hectic mind of a person who got lost in a world where the only words they heard were those they read aloud from the books they surrounded themselves with. All that knowledge and information seemed wasted to me, doing nothing more important than gathering dust, only to become someone elses mess to clean up one day.

    Before I left I wanted to meet the owner, to see if they were in person as outwardly chaotic as their little bookstore, but the pandemonium of pages forced me to retreat like a battalion in the face of certain defeat. It was only later when I looked at this picture that I spotted the face of a man sitting down peering over the bedlam of books at me as I snapped a few pictures. Might that have been the owner I wonder? Was he watching me carefully, wondering how I had found my way to his library of the forgotten? Maybe he was as curious about me as I was about him. But then again, maybe not.