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From Seoul to London – An interview with T.J. Kim, antiquarian bookseller in the Republic of Korea

ILAB is like the United Nations for antiquarian booksellers. As a truly global umbrella organization it shows that the rare book business is fascinating in its diversity: from Europe to South Africa and the United States, to Australia and Asia. When in 1989 the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Korea (ABAK) was founded, the antiquarian booksellers in the Republic of Korea immediately became affiliated to ILAB. And now, for the first time, the South Korean colleagues exhibited at this year’s London International Antiquarian Book Fair. T.J. Kim, owner of Tmecca Korea, Inc. in Seoul, was one of them. He tells us about rare bookselling in his home country, his own career and future perspectives of the trade.

In May 2015 antiquarian booksellers from the Republic of Korea exhibited at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair. Tell us about your experiences.


Thank you to ILAB and the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA) for their help and cooperation, first of all by writing official letters of invitation to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Korea and to the Korean government. As you mention, the London International Antiquarian Book Fair was our first fair abroad and we learned a lot. The London Fair was very well organized and we really loved to exhibit at National Hall Olympia.

Let us learn more about the rare book business in the Republic of Korea. How many dealers are there?


Right now, ABAK has 27 members, located in all provinces. However, you will find most rare book dealers in the South Korean capital Seoul or in Daegu, which is with 2.5 million inhabitants among the four biggest cities in the South East of Korea.

Do you have any antiquarian book fairs in Korea?


At the time when ABAK was founded in 1989, we organized antiquarian book fairs in Seoul every year. In recent years business has been getting slower. So we decided to cancel the annual book fairs and to run fairs irregularly, from time to time.


Do most antiquarian booksellers in Korea run open bookshops? Or do you concentrate on the internet, or on rare book catalogues?


Most Korean dealers run open bookshops. We also do auctions, but only a few of our colleagues publish catalogues. At the moment, the antiquarian booksellers in Korea are opening up for the Internet. ABAK has a website with lots of information and pictures, for example about our trip to London (www.abak.kr). Also some of the ABAK members have already been setting up websites. (See below for a list of websites of South Korean rare book dealers).

What about your own career? When did you start working in the antiquarian book trade and how did you become involved in the business?


My career began with new books. I started as an agent for modern academic and technology books in Korea, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan and supplied over 100 South Korean institutions and universities with books. Over the years and as you might know, books printed on these subjects have more and more been replaced by e-books and e-journals. The market has been shrinking. As a consequence, I founded my own rare book company in 2005 and specialized in antiquarian books about Asia. It was the right moment for this step into another part of the book world, because at that time, very few dealers in South Korea were buying and selling Asian and foreign books about Korea on an international level. So, I concentrated on the international book trade and visited over 1,000 antiquarian book dealers in the United States, Europe, even in Africa, in Asia and Russia. That’s why I have good business relations worldwide and visit over 20 international antiquarian book fairs and auctions every year.

Do you see any differences between the rare book markets in Korea and abroad?


Yes, there are many differences. First of all, the Korean government does not allow to export any books or items which are older than 50 years. Which means that it is impossible to sell such rare books and manuscripts outside the Republic of Korea. This law was inserted by the government around the 1960s. So, for most South Korean dealers it does not make sense to exhibit their books at international antiquarian book fairs. This is also the reason why we were only allowed to display our books at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair, but not to sell them. The complete list of all books to be exhibited in London had to be approved by the Korean government four weeks before the fair. And when we returned the books to our home country, we had to present proofs that they all had been brought back safely.

As a consequence, most Korean rare book dealers haven’t been doing business with international dealers so far. We hope, however, that this law will be changed, maybe with the help of ILAB, so that we receive permission to sell rare and old books, manuscripts and prints outside Korea which are older than 50 years, unless they are defined as a National Treasure. We do hope to become regular visitors and exhibitors at the international antiquarian book fairs under the auspices of ILAB in the future. And we look forward to get in contact with our colleagues everywhere in the world.

The South Korean antiquarian book trade in the internet:


Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Korea (ABAK)

President: Min-jae Kim

>>> www.abak.kr

Kobay

Antiquarian bookshop and auction house, run by ABAK President Min-jae Kim

503, Sueun Assembly House Bldg., Gyeongun-dong, Jongno-gu
Seoul 110-775
Republic of Korea

>>> www.kobay.kr

Hwabong Inc.

Antiquarian bookshop, established by the founder of ABAK, Soon-Ku Yo

3FH FL Unseok BLD, 132-3, Seongbukdong Seongbukgu,
Seoul 136-824
Republic of Korea

>>> www.hwabong.com  

Han-dan mun hwa

Director: Hyun-ja Cho

Bl, 217-8, Bongsan-dong, Jung-Gu
Daegu 700-400
Republic of Korea

>>> www.hanauction.com

Mido Folk Museum

Director: Sang-suk Kim, ABAK Vice President

Gaheung-ri 117-4 Gageum-myeon, Chungju-si
Chungbuk
Republic of Korea

>>> www.hgnara.net

Kumyo goseobang

Auction house, established by the former President of ABAK Min-chul Park

223-6, Bongsan-dong, Jung-Gu
Daegu 700-400
Republic of Korea

>>> www.kumyo.co.kr   

Tmecca Korea, Inc.

Director T.J. Kim

Tmecca Korea, Inc. 2nd Floor, 36-5, Youndeungpo-dong 7 ga Youngdeungpo-gu, Seoul, Korea. 150-037
Seoul 150-037
Republic of Korea

>>> www.tmecca.com

The South Korean dealers at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair 2015

(The pictures, courtesy of ABAK and T.J. Kim show, amongst others: the ABAK booksellers at the airport in Seoul receiving the export license for their books; ILAB President Norbert Donhofer visiting the ABAK booth at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair; the ABAK booksellers at the London Fair, the ABAK booksellers on their way home)

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