Two stores, two very different experiences. One store feels like a small town, locally owned independent bookstore with a collection that has spanned over decades. The other store feels like a giant, soulless corporately owned MegaBox store with a vast selection of books, neatly organized into sections without a speck of dust touching their covers. Although different, each one has their good qualities. Depending on what you want your shopping experience to be like, you can choose either one and have a great shopping experience.
What The Book
How to get there: Just below my favorite Thai restaurant in Seoul, What The Book has come along way from its shady location across the juicy bars and brothels of Hooker Hill. Now located right on the main strip of Itaewon, What The Book has become essential to the literary foreign community. First take the subway to Itaewon Station (Line 6) and depart from Exit 1. You will walk about 250 meters and when you get to the guy who wants to sell you a suit, you are very near. You will see Wang Thai’s menu out front. That’s your cue to walk up to the second floor.
LP’s Description: LP makes the claim that What The Book is Seoul’s best bookstore which sells and buys secondhand English books. They also mention that there is a large American magazine selection.
What’s at What The Book: Lonely Planet is spot on the money when it comes to the magazine selection. GQ, Sports Illustrated, Time Magazine and People are all there. Their selection is extensive and the price is fair. Considering we are a half a world away from their publishers, for an independent store to have this type of selection is very impressive.
What The Book also has an extensive travel book sections, including, you guessed it, a wide variety of Lonely Planet books. The Lonely Planet books dominate the travel section. In fact, it’s where I get all of my Lonely Planets. That said, it has left very little room for their competitors and if you are not a Lonely Planet fan, you might be sourly disappointed.
A huge advantage that What The Book has over Itaewon Foreign Book Store is the children’s section of books. Their children and young adult section is huge. My wife, an amazing grade 3 teacher at an international school, is always on the hunt for new books for the kids. She has never been disappointed with the selection. Also, their young adult section is growing, as more foreign families continue to migrate to the ROK. Their old store on Hooker Hill had a pretty bare (no pun intended) select of YA novels, but the room at the new store has allowed them to really expand their selection.
Finally, their wide selection of graphic novels is impressive. As a Walking Dead junkie, I’ve found their entire collection from Volume 1 – 18 here at What The Book. Also, they are very generous with their exchange program right now on graphic novels, especially The Walking Dead, which is one of the most popular shows right now. I exchanged my two hardcovers for 30,000KRW in store credit and picked up a new Lonely Planet.
There are tons of English fiction, non-fiction, all displayed in well-ordered and for the most part alphabetical order. If the title you are looking for is not here, you can order the book online to the store. I’ve done this a couple of times, and the usual ETA from the publishers is about a week. Finally, TWB has some of the cleanest bathrooms on the strip. Never underestimate that when your strolling around Itaewon.
Who should go to What The Book: What The Book is great for people who are in a hurry, know what they are looking for and want to be in and out quickly. It is also great for people who have kids and are looking for a wide selection of children novels. If you are a fan of Barns and Noble or Chapters, What The Book is the place to go.
Who Should Avoid What The Book: These books are seriously overpriced with no room for negotiation. Remember when I said it was like a big-box store? Also, lots of their trade-in policies are pretty lame. For example, you can’t trade in an old Lonely Planet, you can only trade in the current year Lonely Planet. Give me a break, there will be someone who will buy a used copy of a travel guide for half the price of a new one, especially when 90% of the content doesn’t change.
Itaewon Foreign Book Store
How to get there: If you want to head to Itaewon Foreign Book Store from What The Book, it is a pretty easy walk. Continue to walk straight towards Noksapyeong station, staying on the same side of the road as WTB. Now, instead of heading up the hill to Vatos and Buddha’s Belly, stay down on the lowlands and make a right. You will go down a hill. Across the street is the Yongsan Military Base. Itaewon Foreign Book Store is about 200 meters or so down the hill on your right.
Subway: Or you can take the subway to Noksapyeong Station (Line 6) and head out Exit 2. Now it gets a little tricky, but nothing too overwhelming. You need to make a U-turn and hopefully you will see the bridge that will take you to the other side of the street. You need to cross the bridge and go over to the other side of the street. Walk down that side of the street, the one which connects to Itaewon’s main strip and you’ll be there in about 200 meters or so.
What’s at Itaewon Foreign Book Store: As you walk into the bookstore, don’t be intimidated by its array of books, scattered about in a sea of literary madness. Fighting the storm is half the fun. There is no order, only chaos. Walking through the tiny, and I mean tiny (it’s only two rooms) with books scattered on the floor. In the other room, the inner charm of Itaewon Foreign Book Store begins to reveal itself over it’s chaotic face. The diamonds in the rough start to twinkle and catch your eye, and suddenly you’re hooked, and the treasure hunt begins.
Over the years I’ve found countless classics and new books at Itaewon Foreign Book Store. It’s a secondhand place, so the prices are always pretty reasonable and unlike What The Book, there is a little wiggle room for negotiation. For example, I found a copy of 1984 for 5000KRW, and JP found a copy of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 hardcover for 16000KRW. Let’s compare. On Amazon, a hardcover of 1Q84 is $22USD without the shipping, and at What The Book the hardcover is 31000KRW. Also, they have titles that are out of print, or are soon to be going out of print. It really is a treasure trove of books if you have the time.
Who Should go to Itaewon Foreign Book Store: If you are looking to save money, or have an afternoon to kill and want to find some rare books in a charming old bookstore, I would recommend this place in a heartbeat. Also, if you want to practice your Korean, the owner loves to talk to foreigners in Korean.
Who Should Avoid Itaewon Foreign Book Store: If you are in a hurry or have kids. This place isn’t exactly kid-friendly, although there is a selection of children’s books, I would take my kid down to What The Book because there is a section of the store that is devoted to kid’s reading. IFBS is way too small.