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(Yonhap Feature) Korean youth prepare for future in cafe libraries

All Headlines 09:17 September 01, 2016

By Shim Sun-ah

SEOUL, Sept. 1 (Yonhap) -- Want a quiet nook to study free from cafe noise and library restrictions while sipping a cup of coffee? Then try a book cafe or a study cafe.

The two types of cafes are mostly the same except that study cafes don't always have shelves of books available. But they commonly provide free high-speed wireless Internet connections and shared study space that is silent aside from some soft music playing over the loudspeakers for only about 5,000-6,000 won (US$4.40-5.3) -- the price of a cup of coffee.

In Seoul, these cafes are mostly located in trendy college neighborhoods or near the Gangnam subway station where many office buildings and "hagwons," private educational institutes, are located.

There about 25 study cafes in operation, in particular, on streets along the section of the Gangnam Boulevard between Gangnam Station on subway line No. 2 and Sinnonhyeon Station on the subway line No. 9.

That's because the neighborhood mentioned in singer-rapper Psy's global hit song "Gangnam Style" is quickly transforming into a hagwon zone as more and more language institutes and hagwons for aspiring civil servants have opened in recent years. Before, it was only known for hosting lots of bars, restaurants and entertainment spaces.

A leader in the study cafe business is Mayisland, which runs two large cafes in the upscale Gangnam area in southern Seoul.

Nestled on the fourth and fifth floor of a building on a side street of the Gangnam Boulevard bustling with cars and pedestrians, the Gangnam store of Mayisland definitely felt like an "island" that shuts users off from the bustles.

One can stay in the "island" for at least five hours from the time when he or she buys a cup of coffee, tea or drink from the counter located on the fourth floor. The next step is to go upstairs to study in an environment as quiet as a library.

During regular business hours on Tuesday, a score of young people were pursuing their personal or professional goals with a cup of coffee by their side.

It houses various amenities, including desk space, small rooms where people can have a group study or a meeting, lockers, a copy machine, a printer and a fax machine, and shelves of books for those who might want to rest their minds reading. One can borrow notebook computers or a projector for reasonable prices if you need one. The space is open from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. all year round.

But the "cafe" label doesn't quite capture what it offers. Occupants of study rooms can be found snoozing or digging into fried chicken, sandwiches or sliced pizzas, which they purchased at the counter.

Yeo Seong-hee, a college graduate who is preparing for a graduate school entrance exam, is one of the cafe's regulars.

"I like to study in cafes because staying at the library all day long is boring," the man in his 20s said. "But I've frequently come here this summer because typical cafes were so crowded with people that it was hard to find a quiet corner."

He said it was his third time visiting the place this week alone although it is far from his home. For him, the cafe's easy access to the subway stations is another reason for frequenting the place.

"After hours of intensive study, I usually go out to meet my friends in the afternoon," he said.

Kim Kyung-min, a jobseeker, was working on her laptop with various lecture notes, textbooks and highlighters spread on the table.

"Although I'm a graduate, I still can use the library of the university where I attended," she said.

"But I can't really focus (if I go there) because I come across so many people whom I know there. Sometimes, I feel a lot of pressure from my college friends who are preparing for the same exam as the one I'm taking whenever I bump into them."

Kim said it was her second visit to the study cafe but confided that she was totally hooked.

"I feel less constrained here than in a library and, most of all, I like this library atmosphere, which makes it different from other cafes," she said. "I also like the fact that nobody knows me here."

The boom of such cafes appear to be peculiarly a Korean phenomenon where young people are accustomed to the culture of studying in shared study spaces, called "dokseosil" here, and youth unemployment continues to be of concern to the government. South Korea being one of the world's most highly wireless connected countries and the people's newly found love of espresso coffee also seem to be factors behind the phenomenon.

The emergence of the study cafes has been welcomed by both coffee shop operators and their clients as a solution for the growing complaints about "cagongjok," which is Korean slang for those who camp out in cafes. With the increase of students occupying seats for long hours over one cup of coffee, many cafe owners are upset at such people.

Most book cafes are run by local publishing companies wanting to make their books more accessible to potential readers in an effort to find a way out of the sluggish book market.

In Cafe Comma, which sits in the trendy Hongdae neighborhood, full shelves of books released by the Seoul-based Munhakdongne Publishing Group tower up to the ceiling.

The place is so popular among young people it is difficult to find an empty seat on weekend afternoons.

The publisher specializing in literature and humanities opened the place in March 2011 near the Sangsu Station on subway line No. 6.

"We started from the simple idea of advertising our books," Jang Eu-tteum, who runs the cafe, said.

But rather than browsing shelves, the majority of customers were working on their laptops or poring over textbooks or other study materials that they bring with them.

"It may not be a profitable business. We're trying to keep it afloat as we have received encouraging feedback from so many people who love books," said Jang, who also runs the cafe's second store near Hongdae Station.

About a five minutes' walk toward Hapjeong Station from Cafe Comma is Bbalganchaekbang Cafe, or Red Bookstore Cafe, in Seoul. The book cafe, which opened in June 2014, is run by Wisdomhouse Inc., a Korean company that mainly publishes economics and management books.

The cafe provides a shop-in-shop experience that also features carefully chosen books from Wisdomhouse and other publishers, and products from established and popular bakery or dessert brands from around the capital area.

But reading or studying over a cup of coffee is not the only experience provided by the book cafe. On the third floor, it has a studio where the renowned film critic Lee Dong-jin hosts a podcast program, which reviews new books published by Wisdomhouse. There also is a space for lectures, small concerts and exhibitions.

"We wanted to make it a space where customers can enjoy various elements of culture, such as books, exhibitions, music, tasty bread and beverages, all together," said Kim Jin-min, the cafe's manager.

sshim@yna.co.kr
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