As the weather turns cold and the mid-semester workload piles up, I’ve noticed an exponentially increasing portion of my meals come from the Ministop convenience store up the road. Or the CU just past that. Or the GS25 a five-minute walk in the opposite direction. I can tell you exactly where the pre-made meals section is, which brands of kimbap taste the best, and when they restock these shelves (mid-morning, around 10 am).
I can imagine my mom’s face when she finds out just how many meals I eat from these stores. After all, convenience stores in the US sell cardboard pizza and questionable hot dogs from the ever-turning spit. No one of reasonable financial means, sound mind, and decently healthy body would choose to live off US convenience store food.
But in Korea, the mentality around convenience stores is entirely different.
To start, there’s a convenience shop on every corner. This is not an exaggeration. You’re unlikely to find a place in Seoul where the closest store is more than a five-minute walk away. South Korea boasts the highest density of convenience stores in the world with an estimated 40,000 stores providing 1 for every 1,300 people. Whether a CU, Ministop, emart24, GS25, or 7/11, these stores provide every necessity for city life.
Have to recharge your Tmoney transit card? Go to a convenience store.
Need coffee to wake up before that morning meeting? Stop at the convenience store.
Studying late and looking for dinner? Hit up a convenience store.
Fighting sickness and out of medicine? There’s a convenience store!
Running out of shampoo but don’t want to walk far in the winter chill? Just pop in the convenience store.
Feeling peckish for some chips or red bean ice cream? Swing by a convenience store.
Looking for extra-long fake eyelashes as a finishing touch for some anime cosplay? You guessed it, convenience store.
Factor in the 24/7 opening hours and the large variations in Seoul’s temperature from 30°C (86°F) in the summer to -6°C (20°F) in the winter and the plethora of these stores makes sense. In apartment buildings with a store on the ground level, residents could live indefinitely without leaving their building.
I have to admit: as a busy university student, having a place that can fill your transit card, random snack craving, and entire stomach with healthy, nutritionally-balanced food at any hour of the day or night is a game-changer, especially with constant “2+1” deals. While this alone is enough to make Seoul’s convenience stores unique, the true significance surpasses this cheap-and-easy student mentality. Rather, these stores in Seoul serve a broader cultural purpose.
In a city of over 9.9 million inhabitants where the average person has a living space of 32 square meters (or 342 square feet for the Americans), Seoulites rely on external meeting spaces. Convenience stores offer exactly that. At any one of these shops, you can have your cake and eat it too — all in one place. Or, more accurately, you can buy your ramen, prepare it in the microwave, plop down on the available seating, and eat your meal — all in one place.
Larger stores often have a couple of tables in a cafe-style arrangement. Mid-sized stores usually provide a couple of stools at a high-table, commonly looking out the window. Even the smallest stores will offer a large stoop just outside. And people certainly enjoy these complementary spaces. Whether it’s a pair of grandfathers sharing a cigarette and a bottle of soju in the evening, a gang of high-school girls chatting excitedly over coffees, or a fellow student having ramen at some random hour, the seating exists for the community.
Seoul’s dependence on convenience stores is a way of life. Offering cheap necessities and complimentary spaces, these stores are integral for the high-functioning daily routines of Seoulites and crucial for building community in a vast metropolitan area. Spend even a few days in Seoul and you’ll find yourself among the tens of thousands — perhaps millions — of individuals visiting a store on a routine basis. Surprisingly, you may even find that you like this convenience store life; I certainly do. Nothing makes you feel more like a local than calling “annyeonghi keseyo” to the cashier as you stroll out of a CU with pre-packaged (or even pre-warmed) coffee in hand on your way to whatever adventure Seoul has in store for you.