By Kim Boram
SEOUL, May 25 (Yonhap) -- Under a ceiling made of paneled glass that allows the warm rays of the sun to light up the vast emporium, a beautiful, book-brimming space filled with the sound of soft music and people talking in whispers greets all those who come to experience the now famous Starfield Library at Coex Mall.
This book lover's paradise -- with gigantic shelves rising from the floor of the underground level to the roof on the ground floor -- is packed with countless publications from all over the world. It has made the library a must-see place for anyone visiting Gangnam, the southern neighborhood of Seoul made famous by Psy's megahit song and renowned for high-end stores, luxury malls and posh restaurants.
In addition to the near endless rows of books that seem to double as walls on all sides, the upper story also has smaller brown lacquered shelves with numerous volumes for bibliophiles to peruse, while colorful magazines and periodicals are on display at kiosks downstairs.
There is even a corner space reserved for weekly cultural events like music concerts, poetry readings and lectures by renowned authors.
Tables, benches, stools and plush sofas are scattered in the book haven, where anyone can pick up a book and read as long as they want, with tables and desks with electric plugs available for those using mobile devices and laptops.
"I feel free to read in this huge library. I don't have to be conscious of being watched or what others do," said Kim Ju-hyun, who read a poetry book at a side table of the library. "It's a perfect place to browse about the bookshelves and pick all the books that catch your eyes."
Along with Kim, a 68-year-old retired computer expert, many people wandered around the bookshelves to browse through the covers and pick a book to read. Others worked on their laptops with a cup of coffee bought at one of the many stores nearby.
The free-of-charge library opened in late May last year and occupies a whopping 2,800 square meters, with the operators estimating that it had attracted more than 1.7 million people to Coex Mall as of March. It has brought more life to the mall, which had actually lost shoppers to a nearby shopping center and department store.
"After the Starfield Library opened, the mall looks more vibrant and full of energy," Kim Jin-sook, the manager of a cosmetics shop in Coex Mall, said. "The number of our customers more than doubled."
Kyobo Book Center, the No. 1 online and offline bookstore in South Korea, has not overlooked the importance of attracting people as can be seen by the popularity of Starfield Library. It too has set up an 11.5-meter-long wooden table that can seat 100 people at the same time as its Gwanghwamun branch did in downtown Seoul. The table allows bookworms to read to their heart's content, unlike the previous unpopular arrangement in which the center merely tolerated people who sat on the floor between aisles of books to read a book they may or may not buy.
The bookstore also remodeled its food court with several coffee shops and expanded stationery and toy shops.
Since then, the company has seen the number of monthly visitors jump 13.2 percent on average. They buy not only books but also beverages, notebooks, pens, accessories and small electronic devices on sale at the bookstore.
The Kyobo Book Center's sales edged up 0.4 percent to 525.5 billion won (US$486.9 million) last year, turning around from a 5.8 percent drop in the previous year.
Retail giant Shinsegae joined hands with Youngpoong Bookstore, the second-most popular bookseller here, and opened a large cafe-like bookstore that is also open to the public and allows people to read books freely at the newly built shopping complex Starfield Hanam.
The new trend is part of ongoing efforts to boost sales by local offline booksellers struggling with a long slump stemming from the emergence of diversified Internet content, cheaper online books and convenient electronic materials.
According to data by KB Financial Group research center, the operating profit ratio of South Korea's top three brick-and-mortar bookstores reached an average of 0.4 percent in 2010-2014, sharply down from the 3.2 percent tallied in the 1994-1998 period when the online book market did not exist yet. The number of offline bookstores plunged to some 1,560 in 2015 from 4,595 in 1999.
Experts say businesses know that free books are the easiest and most promising item to attract people and make them stay longer at malls, which leads them to spend money to buy books and other goods while they are there.
"Despite the irreversible online trend, bookstores have made efforts to offer services tailored for customers who read physical books," Lee Taek-su, a researcher at the KB Financial Group, said. "They hold concerts, arrange book clubs or set up tables and chairs with beverages. Also, they go into large shopping malls as a kind of landmark to attract people."
Others have said the move towards the latest kind of open library is starting to emerge as something like a cultural trend that not only helps booksellers but also enriches people's lives, providing a place to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and relax among books in a comfortable environment.
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