In South Korea, independent bookstores are on the decline, readers are on the decline and so is the time they spend reading books—just six minutes a day on average, according to Statistics Korea. But chaek-maek (literally ‘book-beer’)—a neologism that refers to a beer enjoyed with a book—indicates that beyond the discouraging statistics, there’s still a subset of the population that regards reading books as attractive, or at least books as an acceptable pairing for a beer.
If today’s perfumers can successfully sell the scent of old books—and dead writers—then surely bars, with alcohol as a lubricant, could bring together books and readers, and hopefully for more than six minutes. At least, that was the theory I set out to test as I followed a trail of hashtags to three different Seoul book bars at the vanguard of the book-beer trend.
Chaeg means ‘book’, and Chaeg Bar is full of them. This self-described ‘nocturnal bookstore’ also runs a small lending library, but ultimately it’s a cocktail bar that fetishizes—to great effect—books and the people who love them. At least, that’s the assumption I made when I visited at around 11 pm. The bar was full of books (and presumably, readers), and there was jazz music playing at a volume perfect for reading but most people were sitting at the bar, chatting to the bartender. I heard someone say to their friend: ‘Should we read our books now?’ but after they came back from their cigarette break, they wandered around instead. The chatter died down around midnight, and I finally spotted another reader—the only other solo guest I saw that night (everyone else had come in pairs).
The menu featured cocktails based on famous novels. I ordered the Cutty Sark Highball (inspired by Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore).
I brought a short story collection called The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, an author David Bowie was said to have liked. It was the right book for slightly tipsy reading, getting more engaging the more I drank.
BOOK BY BOOK
Book by Book is a bookstore that happens to have a bar, and promised a free coffee to the purchaser of two books when I visited on an early Saturday evening. The first-floor shelves showed a definite bent toward self-help books and life hacks, but the basement level had novels, essay collections and art books, along with a piano and a stage. There were five other people there when I arrived, who I judgmentally noted were chatting, not reading, though they did pick up their respective reads during my beer-long stay.
There was a wide selection of beer, cocktails, wine and nibbles. I got a draft beer and a donut.
I made some headway with Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, an excellent companion with its frequent, loving references to cold beer.
EDITORIAL CAFE B+
There were about eight or so readers sitting inside Editorial Café B+ on the Saturday night I visited. The number waxed and waned, and sometimes the readers opened up their laptops, but the main activity was reading. The well-thumbed volumes at this bar aren’t for sale, so curious readers are free to get up at any time and pick out a book from the well-rounded library, whose bookshelves fill every available section of wall in the cafe.
The selection wasn’t as cute as the novel-inspired offerings at Chaeg Bar, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides coffee, there were separate sections for beer, wine, cocktails and hard liquor. I got an Irish coffee—I could taste the Irish in it, but it ended fairly quickly and did not linger.
I ventured into philosophy with Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture.
I could have made myself a (stronger) cocktail and read at home—and I often have, as I’m sure others have, long before the coinage of ‘book-beer.’ But there was something to being in a space dedicated to the specific pairing of books and alcohol, something that encouraged both activities. I didn’t expect the atmosphere of the bars to be so social, nor for the majority of purported readers to not actually be reading, but I guess that’s one more reason to go out—if your book is no good, you can always talk to your companion.
Do you think this is an idea that’s going to take off? Tweet your thoughts to #momentumtravel.