Ae-ran Kim’s My Brilliant Life, translated by Chi-Young Kim, has deep themes of finding joy and happiness in even the most difficult times. A book like this feels especially relevant in our current turbulent world, so we wanted to share the moving letter she wrote to booksellers back in June 2020.
My Korean publisher informed me who I would be addressing with this letter.
I agonized over what to write, thinking of recipients far away, and I decided to share with you, the booksellers of America, something written by a neighborhood bookstore owner in Korea.
Titled Three Months of COVID-19 and the Transformation of a Bookstore Owner’s Thoughts, this essay was printed in issue 512 of a Korean publishing magazine, Planning Meeting. The essay is written by Jeong Hyun-joo, the owner of Bookshop Lisbon, which had been in steady business for five years, confessing that the store was in the red for the first time. She writes about worries, difficulties, and fears of the coronavirus era. At this bookstore, they launched a program sending new books to monthly subscribers. And one day she receives a message from a subscriber.
“I live in the quarantined city of Daegu. I saw how excited my friend was to receive a book from your bookstore yesterday. I was only getting food delivered and worrying about how to get masks, and at first I was amazed that you could get books delivered during this time. Later, I found myself thrilled. Thanks to you, I saw my friend in good spirits for the first time in a while. Thank you.”
Jeong started wondering what else a bookstore could do during the coronavirus era. She couldn’t afford to send new books but she decided she could send used books and samples to Daegu, and put out a call on social media for people to sign up for free books; the store would pay the delivery fees. She only expected about twenty people to sign up, but soon she was getting pings every minute, so she posted another message, asking if her followers would donate books that she would send. I’m sharing a part of her essay with her permission, to best convey that time:
Not long after I posted, money came into my account. My family sent some cash to cover some delivery fees. With that amount I could send books to eighty people. Soon there were payments of 30,000 won and 50,000 won. When I looked at the names I realized that they were members of our bookshop reading room—the regulars who gather in the evening to read together. They had sent money into the account where they had been sending monthly membership fees, without saying a word about it to me. When I reached out, I was told: “I have family in Daegu, too. I want to help out.” “I hear there are people asking for children’s books. Please use my donation to deliver books to kids.”
I cried a little reading the messages. It became clear in that moment why I hadn’t been able to let go of the bookstore even during these difficult times. For me, the bookstore and the people who came to the bookstore, were my social and emotional safety net. Through their actions, my customers were telling me that the world isn’t all bad, that there are quite a lot of good people out there, that I can keep believing in the goodwill of people.
I sent a thousand books to Daegu, to 160 people.
As I am not young, I know that goodwill doesn’t always come back to you as goodwill. But something like a fairytale happened at my bookstore, all because there are people who love books.
I understand that an author is to introduce her book through this letter. But I thought it would be better to use this opportunity to relay this small, luminous anecdote to American booksellers. Of course, a miracle lasts a mere minute and beauty exists for a split second, but these moments come together to forge a life and to create memories. I learned this from people much better than me, and through so many books from around the world. I send my deepest gratitude to all of you guarding our collective “social and emotional safety net,” both in the past and into the present day.
Writing from Seoul, in June 2020,
Pre-order My Brilliant Life—available on January 26, 2021!