Itaewon is a weird neighborhood—and despite the fact that official tour guides seem to think it’s the Korea that every foreign tourist wants to experience, it’s probably not if you’re looking for any kind of authenticity. On the hand, if you’re a non-Korean resident of Korea, there’s probably going to be some point when you start to miss the comforts of home. As anyone who’s ever lived in a foreign country can tell you, it’s the small things that you used to take for granted that linger in your mind. For example: books in your native language.
Finding an English book in Seoul definitely isn’t the most difficult thing in the world, but it isn’t exactly an exercise in instant gratification either. Most mega-booksellers in Korea like Bandi & Luni’s or Kyobo will have fairly comprehensive English-literature sections, as will most large bookstores found in department stores. At the same time, relying on such businesses is unfortunately terrible hit-or-miss. Even booksellers that share the same corporate brand might vary wildly in terms of what they have in stock: if you’re unlucky, an English-literature section might consist of a few Penguin classics, children’s series, and a few volumes dubious-looking political nonfiction. Last summer, I was browsing the selection at the bookstore in the Yongsan I’Park (which, considering its proximity to the military base, you would assume would have a great English-literature section) when I noticed that Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle—a book I’d never even heard of—was being touted as a #1 American Bestseller. On the other hand, they didn’t have the book I was looking for (Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes), which actually was on the New York Times Bestseller List that summer.
Either way, imported books in Korea (even at big brand-name booksellers) are devastatingly pricey. This is where Seoul’s best (and possibly only) English bookstore comes in: What the Book?
What the Book? is an all-English bookstore that can be found, perhaps predictably, in Itaewon. Unless there's something great flying extremely low under the radar, there isn't a business in Seoul that can compete in this category. Not only do they have a great, thorough selection of both English non-fiction and fiction, about half the store is dedicated towards used books. This means that you can easily make off with three used volumes for what would be the price of maybe one new book at its Korean sticker price. Honestly, even without the Used section, What the Book? would still be a clear draw for ex-pats.
The store is reminiscent of a fantastic independent-yet-successful business: shelves of fiction take up most of the space, but there’s also displays under subjects like ‘Religion’, ‘Self-Help’, ‘Business’ and other general non-fiction headers. Typical of a Used bookstore, there’s definitely a surplus of paperback romance and science fiction—sold cheap, and at great deals. If you can’t find a book you’ve been wanting to read in Korea, and are loathe to order it through Amazon, chances are that What the Book? will carry it. They seem to have all of the major contemporary authors, as well as poetry and drama (something most Korean booksellers can’t compete with when it comes to this).
Sometimes books are arranged horizontally, stacked on top of each other, signifying that there are too many books for the amount of space. Personally, I think that’s a fantastic sign.
The only major problem I have with What the Book? is that its Used fiction section doesn’t seem to be organized alphabetically, but instead, all of the books authored by people with the same surname initial are found in the same general area. It’s irritating, but certainly not terrible. You just have to scan a few shelves up and down, and sideways, in order to make sure they’re not carrying what you’re looking for.
What the Book? also has a website at which you can order books online and browse their selection, but I would definitely suggest taking a trip to the actual store if you have any time at all. It’s a wonderful feeling to be surrounded by tons of books that you can actually read, and there’s always a chance that you might be able to score something that isn’t on the online catalog yet.