This weekend some friends and I made our way to the Gwanjang Market in the Jongno district of central Seoul. While most people visit this renowned market for its street food, we went out there to check out the vintage clothing market hidden away on its second and third floors.
The inside of the market can feel quite claustrophobic, especially when there is a lot of people, or you come to a choke point like a pillar. It looks as if a child made a fort entirely out of second hand clothes.
I had better luck finding clothes I liked more than any place in Korea. I managed to procure an old cowboy-style belt, complete with a buckle from the 1982 Hesston National Rodeo Series. Also, it was once owned by somebody named Basil, as its embroidered on the back. I also picked up an awesome flannel shirt that actually managed to fit me. Both were only 10,000 won a piece.
Most of the clothes were the real thing, but looked like they had been shipped over from the States 25 years ago. Unlike the markets of Dongdaemun and Namdaemun, the clothes weren’t cheap off-brand stuff made in China (like my ‘NovellaFace’ hiking pants I bought for my trip to Mongolia). Like any good thrift store, if you see something you like you’d better buy it because odds are if its quirky or interesting there’s not going to be another hiding in a stockroom in the back.
The market may be chaotic at first, with the maze of stalls that look eerily similar and the narrow aisles jammed with people. A musty scent fills the air, while stalls are overflowing with heaps of used clothing, bags and shoes. (Pay close attention since some ajummas were spotted sleeping on top of their wares.)
Most of my experiences in Asia have led me to believe that thrift stores for the most part, do not exist. There are one or two Incheon that I’m aware of but they are nowhere near the size or quality of those in the U.S.. Most Koreans probably don’t have an excess of physical goods to donate like most Americans do.
Anyway, the market is the best substitute I can think of to a thrift store in Korea. The top floors had the very homey feel of an thrift store with an array of one-of-a-kind knick-knacks and accessories. Basically, it made for a great place to spend a Saturday afternoon.
Under the bedlam of clothes on the top floor was a larger vintage shopping center with established shop cubicles seen around most full-fledged shopping centers in Korea. The best comparison is the shopping centers one can see underground at several metro stations in the greater Seoul metropolitan area. Each stall played it’s own music and squeezed in as much decor as possible into a 6 feet by 10 15 feet space. Each stall, which had some crazy Konglish name, was staffed by trendy, young Koreans while the top floors (which even had a few fur coat vendors) were staffed by friendly older Seoulites.
Once you get outside to the ground floor can find a very busy traditional market with goods ranging from toiletries to hanbuk to dragonfruit to pig’s feet. We didn’t get a chance to stop and eat at any of the food vendors (which looked delicious), but I have a feeling the next time I make it out to Jongno I’ll find something to eat.
John is a Technical Project Manager at WP Engine. Before working at WP Engine, John lived and worked in South Korea and China for the better part of four years. His life as a Chinese web censorship expert, traveler, map nerd, and beer geek can all be found on this site.