Gangnam-style library in Seoul sells $25 getaway for book lovers

Linda J. Dodson

SEOUL — Shelved among the luxury apartment towers in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district is a small white library that charges more than the price of a new book for admission.

The nonmembers’ fee at Sojeonseolim starts at 30,000 won ($25). It has built up a following since opening in February, mainly among 30- and 40-somethings.

“Modern people need a space separate from the home or the workplace where they can feel free,” said Hwangbo Yumi, the director. “We designed the library with the concept of a personal study away from home.”

Housed in the basement, the collection of more than 30,000 books and periodicals is curated by experts and spans literature, philosophy, art, travel and other genres. A cafe on the first floor serves sandwiches and other dishes. Coffee and tea are free.

After 6 p.m., the cafe turns into a bar where steak, pasta and ham are paired with wine. Customers can take their glass to a downstairs sofa to curl up and read.

The six-story building, designed by Swiss architect Davide Macullo, was once a small museum. WAP CNE, a group that includes publishing and restaurants, spent the equivalent of around $4.6 million to renovate it.

“Not only is there a wealth of books, but I also like the architecture and the interior,” said first-time visitor Kim Ji-hae, a 38-year-old hotel worker. “I’d like to come again to spend time here.”

Sojeonseolim, which means “forest of books surrounded by white bricks,” has bookshelves over 2 meters tall gracing the pale walls. Indirect light illuminates the interior.

Sojeonseolim has gained a reputation as a salon where book lovers can mingle. Visitors are mainly in their 30s and 40s, with a roughly 40-60 split between men and women. The library has a maximum capacity of 40 people and attracts around 30 patrons on weekend days, Hwangbo said.

Paintings from the museum era hang above Scandinavian-style sofas and soft bench seating. The relaxing scent of cypress fills the air.

Admission costs 30,000 won for a five-hour stay and 50,000 won for a full day. Thanks to South Korea’s success in containing the new coronavirus, the library has started hosting small events, such as lectures on culture and the arts, as well as piano concerts.

“Most people come here alone to spend time however they want,” Hwangbo said.

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