A satellite city 22 miles northwest of Seoul, South Korea, Paju is small, with a population of around half a million. The streets are quieter than those of the bustling capital, the air cleaner and the pace of life half a beat slower.
While many people know the city for its military base, Paju is also home to the nation’s elaborate book publishing hub — officially known as Paju Publishing Culture, Information and National Industrial Park but commonly referred to as Paju Book City. Around 900 book-related businesses, including printing presses, distribution companies and design studios line the streets, and signs reading “Paju Book City” are everywhere.
Every aspect of the Forest of Wisdom, a central attraction in Paju Book City, is designed to promote a love of books.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
The government opened the publishing hub in 1998, after almost a decade of planning and as part of a larger effort to modernize the nation. South Korea’s book industry used to be dispersed, but, according to Lee Sang-yeon, a manager of one of Paju’s primary cultural facilities, the Asia Publication Culture and Information Center, “the founders of the publishing city thought this scattered, decentralized way of creating books was inefficient.”
In clustering all of its bookmakers in one place, South Korea hoped to better produce and distribute a major part of its culture. Books are a big business in South Korea. Last year, more than 115 million books were sold nationwide, according to the Korean Publisher’s Association.
The book city’s mission — to “actively support culture and arts based on books” — can be seen in buildings all over town. Photopia, a serene purple structure curved like an ocean wave, serves as a photography production and processing studio. One publishing company, Dulnyouk, has its headquarters in a towering, geometric structure that resembles the kind of cumbersome transport vehicle found in “Star Wars.” Quaint cafes, where visitors can sip their drinks while reading, dot Paju’s street corners. Everything is designed to preserve and spread a love for books.
At the core of Paju Book City is where Lee works, the Asia Publication Culture and Information Center, a five-story complex that includes an education facility, events hall and exhibition space, and that serves as a social and professional nucleus for local publishers. The center draws almost 10,000 visitors a year.
On the building’s first floor is the Forest of Wisdom, a central library with tens of thousands of books on display and tens of thousands more in storage, according to Lee. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, some more than 25 feet tall, line the walls. Though visitors are not allowed to check out books — fiction and nonfiction, reference texts, picture books and other works — they are welcome to browse the shelves and read in common areas. The seemingly boundless collection means guests include families with children, young couples on dates and groups of older people on social outings. The center includes a hotel for anyone who wants to spend the night.
The publication center also prides itself in preserving ancient texts and the practice of typography. The Book City Letterpress Museum, adjacent to the center’s main building, holds in its collection traditional printing equipment, including 35 million metal character blocks.
Unsurprisingly, schools love to visit Paju. On a Friday afternoon last month, first graders in matching school uniforms read along a flight of stairs, some sitting in pairs, others alone. Elsewhere, a class of high school juniors and seniors discovered the printing and publishing process through a hands-on lesson.
Every fall, the center hosts a book festival, bringing together local authors, artists and book lovers. This year’s event, the 12th annual gathering, included art exhibitions, live music, a typing competition — in which contestants, sitting at typewriters row upon row, were judged on speed and accuracy — and, of course, ample opportunity to delight in the culture of books.
“Even as the world becomes more digital, the charm of books is never lost on readers,” Lee said. “Those who love to read books will always come back.”