Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop: A Novel

Image of Welcome to the Hyunam-dong Bookshop: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 20, 2024
Bloomsbury Publishing
Reviewed by: 

“If you want plot, read James Patterson. If you want to think, this is the book for you.”

In this Korean novel, Yeongju is a woman in crisis, despite being married and having a good corporate job. She is dissatisfied with both her husband and her job, and, on a whim, she abandons both to open a bookshop. She has no experience other than enjoying books while she was growing up. Unable to settle on a name, she names the store after the neighborhood where it is situated, and so The Hyum-Dong Bookshop is born.

It's rocky at the start. Yeongju is clearly depressed and spends most of her first year crying in the shop and ignoring the few shoppers who enter. One can only guess that it’s a lot cheaper to rent a storefront in Korea than America because it’s unlikely this sort of thing would happen here.

But this is a promising premise for the rest of the novel, which was a runaway success in Korea. One suspects that it will catch on with readers here also, if for no other reason than the setup and the magic of a bookstore. Of course, it’s a natural for readers. What lover of books has not thought about starting a cute little bookshop like this one?

Yeongju shakes herself out of her ennui and begins taking herself and the bookshop more seriously. She begins to think: What makes a good book? And despite her own love of fiction, she begins to understand that not every reader is the same, that some do not like fiction at all. As time goes on, she resolves to support small and interesting authors and shuns the large commercial books even though they bring in more money.

She’s trying to create something here and make a statement. She expands what the bookstore provides, first hiring a trusty right-hand aide Minjun to brew and sell coffee in the shop’s small café and he becomes as infatuated with coffee beans and coffee as his boss is with books. She realizes with an intuitive third eye that he is similar in disposition to her.

Soon enough, it’s apparent that it’s not only coffee that Yeongju is seeking from Minjun. One day, she asks him the age-old question: “Do you think there’s any meaning to life?”

Minjun, who has disappointed his parents by taking the menial job (to them) of making coffee, is struggling with his own questions about the meaning of life. He stares blankly at Yeongju, taken aback but, no matter because she answers her own question.

“It’s obviously not going to be easy,” she says. “After all, it’s the meaning of life. Well, I still want to try. But if I fail, does it mean that my life has no meaning?”

That type of philosophizing and questioning life is at the heart of this book.

Soon enough, the store finds its true calling as a place that caters to a collection of lost souls: the woman who sits all day crocheting, the surly teenager whose mother requires him to sit there every day as a type of discipline, and a writer and editor who eventually teaches courses dreamed up by Yeongju.

All of them seem to be questioning the meaning of their lives. Yeongju suggests books to all of them, but it’s clear that by offering a waystation where they can think, she and the bookshop are something so much more important.

Author Hwang Bo-Reum’s own life is intertwined with characters and her novel. She was a software engineer who won a writing contest and turned her story into an e-book. From there it became a sensation. The writing, perhaps because of the translation, tends to be herky-jerky and feel like a collection of short stories. But to criticize the writing too harshly would be wrong. This is a heartwarming story that everyone should read in their quiet moments.

If you want plot, read James Patterson. If you want to think, this is the book for you.

In the author’s note at the end of the novel, she concludes: “The yardstick to measure one’s life lies within oneself. And that’s good enough . . . there are moments in life where we come to think, That’s good enough. In that moment, all the anxiety and worries melt away, leaving us with the realization that we’ve done our best to get to where we are. We’re satisfied and proud of ourselves.”