Inside Seoul's Unlikely Obsession: Analog

Nacasa & Partners

Record stores, stationery shops, and all manner of lo-fi pleasures have become an unlikely obsession in one of the techiest cities on earth.

The Hyundai Card Music Library, which opened in Seoul’s trendy Itaewon neighborhood in 2015, is one of the most striking buildings in this city of radical architecture. The building looms over a covered, open-air plaza, and it is only when you walk through the hangar-like structure enclosing the plaza that you notice the giant image of a naked fan crowd-surfing at a Rolling Stones show. In warmer months, bands and DJs play from a suspended platform here, but it’s what’s inside the library that draws music lovers who have a Hyundai credit card. (Visitors can request a day pass from select hotels to get in.)

Above the small café and underground concert hall that’s hosted Sting and Elton John is a tall, narrow room framed by a wall of windows on one side and more than 10,000 vinyl records spread across two stories on the other. The albums include pop hits by artists like Adele and John Mayer; early jazz classics; rare soul editions (Paul Jackson’s jazz-funk masterpiece Black Octopus); and even rarer Korean gems, like the 1970s psychedelic band He-6’s Go Go Sound ’71, featuring a cover of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Nine Pioneer turntables face the desk from which librarians and an in-house DJ curate the collection.

“It’s a very special place,” said Hyeji, a 30-year-old dental hygienist as she listened to an Ed Sheeran album with her boyfriend, Ki-wan, a businessman, their legs entwined below their stools. “And it’s just more fun to listen together.” On weekends, young couples on dates wait for as long as two hours for the chance to sit side by side and enjoy the records.

South Korea claims to be the most digital place on earth, with greater rates of Internet and smartphone usage and more online shopping than even the United States or Japan. This is the home of Samsung and LG, a place where robots have a code of ethics, where locals line up at stores to buy giant teddy bears featuring their favorite emoticons.

But Seoul also has a surprisingly thriving analog heart. It can be found in the many new boutiques, cafés, and institutions trading in unplugged pages, music, and experiences, which have emerged in hip neighborhoods like Hongdae and Bukchon, as well as in more traditional areas like Insadong, where whole blocks are filled with stores selling handmade paper and calligraphy brushes.

“Younger people in their twenties, they like the smell and texture of a book,” said Seo Mi-ri, a librarian at Seoul’s main Metropolitan Library, which opened in the old Art Deco city hall building in 2012. Unlike North American libraries, which increasingly emphasize their technological prowess, Seoul’s libraries are happy to celebrate the printed page in places like a small but charming branch tucked in among the trees of Samcheong Park. With its plywood walls, skylights, and reading nooks, it is the perfect oasis in this plugged-in city.


Listening stations in the highly curated Hyundai Card Music Library. Nacasa & Partners

Paper is big in Seoul. Hottracks, the mother of South Korean stationery shops, with locations around the city, is a place where you can lose yourself for hours shopping for colorful leather notebooks, decorative rolls of tape in all shapes and sizes, and packs of stickers.

Behind analog’s revival in Seoul, there is a deeper sense of a city searching for its identity amid rapid change. Colonized by Japan, liberated into a destructive war, and clawing its way out of poverty and dictatorship, South Korea is still a remarkably young society. It only recently had time to step back from a relentless drive toward modernization, according to Kim Dong-hyun, a television journalist. “We considered old as inferior,” said Dong-hyun, “and only recently have people started to revalue analog.”

That new value is the ethos behind many of these up-and-coming businesses, like the graphic design studio and gallery Zero Per Zero. The owners, husband-and-wife artists Kim Ji-hwan and Jin Sol, produce cheery, colorful, hand-drawn posters, prints, and paper products, made with silkscreen and offset printing techniques, around the themes of travel and family. “When digital things showed up it was new,” said Ji-hwan, “but now digital is so common that analog is the new thing to experience. It can stimulate people’s feelings more deeply.”

The balance between the head and the heart is what Seoul’s citizens are indeed seeking out with analog. It is fundamentally about fun with simple pleasures: a quiet moment with a book, an hour digging through bins of old records or reams of artisanal paper, or even a Friday night settled in with a whiskey highball at the small bar Seoul Vinyl (30 Sinheung-ro, Yongsan). There are only about two dozen seats, and the menu offers just a couple of snack dishes, yet loyal fans wait outside for a table to hear owner and DJ Lee Jin-uk weave a perfect musical feast of soul, R&B, and hip-hop. His personal collection of 5,000-plus records lines the walls behind the bar. It’s not a dance club or a concert, just the world’s best listening party, every single night.