In the age of digital media, portable music players have become a ubiquitous part of our lives, but nothing can replace the crackly warmth of a vinyl LP record spinning on a turntable, the gentle throb of stereo speakers, the dusty aroma of colorfully decorated album covers. Although the record industry is long gone in Korea, the markets still remain, frequented by enthusiastic record collectors. 

Record vendors are scattered throughout the city, but the largest clusters of record shops can be found in Hwanghak Market and Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Arcade. 

Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Arcade has a small cluster of record shops, each crammed full of vinyl records. Walls are hidden here behind shelves of records, and the storefronts are lost behind the clutter. Record collectors could spend hours thumbing through the dusty old records, and still not see everything. 

The bargain bins are usually out front, hawking the more common records along with CDs for sale, with the more valuable vintage records stored more carefully inside the shops. Each record shop offers an eclectic mix of music, mainly foreign, but also vintage Korean rock, folk, and ballad records. One record shop even prominently displays the soundtracks to several old children’s cartoon shows from Korea. Another record shop offers American reissues of Shin Joong-hyun and Kim Jung-mi, which were pressed in 2011 by Lion Records and Light in the Attic Records, two American record companies who took an interest in restoring Korea's vintage recordings. 

The arcade, which opened in the ‘80s, used to be entirely devoted to secondhand LP records, but nowadays the record shops have been whittled down to just one section, making way for clothing stores and other shops. 

LP shops are clustered together in the Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Arcade.Record shops are clustered together in the Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Arcade.

Dol Record in Hwanghak Market has been open since the ‘70s. The entryway is long and narrow, the walls lined with shelves packed full of records, but it opens up in the back. The space is crammed full of vintage records lining shelves, in boxes, and stacked all over the floor, barely leaving room for owner Kim Seong-jong, who is watching baduk on TV. 

“Most of my customers are people who used to listen to vinyl records long ago,” he says, “people who are trying to find that old vintage sound.” 

Most of the records in the shop are foreign-made, covering everything from American popular music of the last century to classical. Most of these records are mass produced and could probably be purchased for pennies somewhere in any North American town. But it’s in back where Kim stocks his vintage records from Korea. Big names like Jo Yong-pil, Shin Joong-hyun, and Na Hun-a jump off the shelves. 

Kim says that his favorite genre is Korean folk music from the late ‘70s. He shares one of his most prized records, “Stateside,” an American-produced recording of the Korean Grand Ole Opry, featuring covers of ‘60s country songs Korean performers with colorful names like “Stand By Your Man” by Kimchi Kitty and “Orange Blossom Special” by Rice Paddy Granpa Jones. 

“This, our first album, is dedicated to all our military friends who have supported and helped us through the years,” announces the back cover of the album. Most Korean musicians of the ‘50s and ‘60s got their start playing for American soldiers on military bases in Korea, where they were exposed to the music and tastes of Americans. They went on to take what they learned to make music for Korean audiences, adding their own unique Korean spin to it. Many of the members of the Korean Grand Ole Opry went on to have successful music careers, Kim says. 

Kim refuses to give a price for the record. He’s never found another copy, so to him it’s irreplaceable and he refuses to sell it. 

Record store owner Kim Seong-jong shows off one of his prized possessions.Record shop owner Kim Seong-jong shows off one of the prized possessions of his record collection.

Collecting vintage records is not a cheap hobby in Korea. Most vintage records are priced high, even records in poor condition, with original Shin Joong-hyun albums often priced in the hundreds of thousands in won. The price is based largely on rareness, as Korean vintage records become more and more rare in their home country. 

The Korean record industry stopped producing new vinyl records around 1994, according to Kim. “The Korean music market totally collapsed,” says Kim. “Factories closed, markets closed.” Record shops have dwindled, but some still remain, exclusively selling used LPs. 

Not only are new records no longer being produced, but the existing ones are disappearing from Korea. Kim gets a lot of foreign customers, particularly from Japan, who seek out Korea's vintage records. He recalls Yoko, a Japanese record collector who would make monthly visits to the shop for vintage records and take them all to Japan. 

Japanese audiences especially love records by psychedelic rocker Shin Joong-hyun, even in times when his fame fell to the wayside domestically. “Many of Shin Joong-hyun’s records are in Japan, or most of Shin Joong-hyung’s records must be in Japan,” laments Kim. 

In the ‘90s there was a rush of Japanese record collectors coming to Korea for vintage records. Back then, Japan’s GDP was much higher than Korea’s, so Korean records were a bargain for adventurous audiophiles from Japan. 

Hasegawa Yohei and Sato Yukie, two Japanese record collectors who first visited Korea in 1995, recall seeing valuable Korean records on sale for as low as 500 won. 

“I am a member of the first collectors of Korean music,” says Sato. “[In 1995] there were no collectors in Korea, but recently there are many collectors here.” 

Hasegawa recalls the response they got when trying to buy Korean records. “Every Korean laughed at us, ‘Why did you buy this? This is very old, not very interesting. You have to buy new bands and more famous artists.’” 

Fujimoto Shinji, a Japanese resident of Korea, agrees that while Korean culture always values current trends and the latest technology, Japan is more accepting of the old, the worn out, and retro fashions. He is the owner of Roots Time, a small basement bar in Hongdae dedicated to reggae music, most of which comes from his extensive record collection. He also collects heavy metal and Korean vintage records. 

Last month, he managed to get a copy of “Now” by Kim Jung-mi and a Sanullim album from his friend Kang Junsung. Kang plays lead guitar for the Korean straight-edge hardcore band the Geeks, who released their album “Every Time We Fall” both on CD and vinyl. However, it's only for sale on CD in Korea, because record players are too rare among the band's younger fanbase. 

On June 9, Fujimoto and Kang ran a stand in Hongdae Playground to sell off some of their records. Stands like this are common at bazaars, and can be an excellent way for record collectors to acquire used records that have just returned to the market. 

Vinyl collector Fujimoto shows off some of the latest acquisitions in his record collection.Record collector Fujimoto shows off some of the latest acquisitions in his record collection.

Fujimoto, like Hasegawa and Sato, has made Korea his home. Hasegawa now works with Korean rock groups like Jang Kiha and the Faces and the Mimi Sisters, pushing them toward a more retro sound. Sato started the all-Japanese band Gopchangjeongol, extensively covering vintage Korean bands like Shin Joong-hyun and Sanullim. 

Fortunately, the interest taken by Japanese vinyl enthusiasts has caught the attention of Korean music fans, and many bars and cafes across Korea have their own vintage record collections available for listening. Establishments like Gopchangjeongol -- named after Sato’s band -- are an affordable way to explore Korea’s vintage music in a comfortable setting. The DJs take requests, and it’s very common to see Korean people singing along with songs they haven’t heard since their youth. 

“When Korean people listen to Shin Joong-hyeon or Sanullim, they think ‘Oh, I miss it,’” Sato says. “They may forget the name or song titles but when they hear the song they know it.” 

Sato Yukie made a name for himself in Korea by performing covers of songs he discovered on vintage Korean records.Sato Yukie made a name for himself in Korea by performing covers of songs he discovered on vintage records found in Korea.

As more and more people in Korea and overseas start to take interest in Korea’s vintage records, the music is finding itself relevant once again, but opportunities for record collectors become rare and prices rise. Although vintage records are becoming rarer and rarer, record shopping in Korea continues to be an entertaining experience. 

To get to Hwanghak Market, go out exit 3 of Dongmyo Station (lines 1 and 6). The record shops are on the far side of the market, south of Cheonggyecheon. They can be found next to Seongdong Technical High School. 

Hoehyeon Underground Shopping Arcade can be found from within Myeongdong Station (line 4). It is also connected with Shinsegae Department Store’s new building. 

By Jon Dunbar Editor