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Jennifer Kim opened Nooroongji to put multilingualism, multiculturalism and literacy front and centre.
Granville Island’s newest bookstore doesn’t have an “Ethnic” section or “International” aisle. Instead, owner Jennifer Kim dedicates every square inch of Nooroongji, her spacious Net Loft storefront, to celebrating cultures and languages from all over the world.
Walking through Nooroongji feels much like embarking on a world tour. Vibrant board books offer babies their first words in Korean, Japanese and French. Joyously illustrated picture books tout classic Filipino, Vietnamese and Indian children’s stories. Then there are workbooks for language learners of all ages; explorations of world religions, cuisines, philosophies, myths, art and architecture; a plethora of novels by emerging international authors; and more.
Scoring a spacious, highly visible storefront in the Net Loft building was no easy feat. Kim submitted a proposal to the administration that oversees the island’s retail leases, and while supportive of the idea for a multilingual bookstore, they offered her a smaller, less central location in the building. But Kim persisted.
“I’m very adamant about this particular space because it’s front and centre,” she says. “It’s directly fitting in with my goal, which is to make multilingualism and multiculturalism and literacy front and centre. Saying this is worth the space.”
For Kim, who immigrated to Canada from Seoul, South Korea, as a child in the early 1990s, the mission is personal. She developed a passion for books while growing up in her family’s Granville Island shop, Humpty Dumpty Books, and regularly exploring the Vancouver Public Library. Still, she rarely felt represented by the stories and illustrations surrounding her. “I always wished that I could have grown up seeing books with Asian faces or Korean language.”
Today, Kim’s passion for cultural representation and literacy is embedded in every aspect of her business. ‘Nooroongji’ or ‘nurungji’ is the Korean word for the scorched bits that coalesce at the bottom of a pot of rice. In Korean cuisine, that crunchy layer can be repurposed into a snack, dessert, tea or soup. “I discovered that all sorts of different cultures have their own word for this,” she says. “It’s all about finding commonalities across differences and also the silver lining in any situation.”
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Sure enough, Kim’s road to debuting Nooroongji in August was rife with silver linings.
She took over Humpty Dumpty Books in 2018, after illness forced her mother to retire unexpectedly. At the time, Kim had been working at VPL and preparing to apply to law school. But the prospect of directing her own future — and putting decades of her own business ideas to work — intrigued her.
Searching for multilingual picture books to add to the shelves soon led Kim to the world’s largest children’s book fair in Bologna, Italy. To her surprise, international publishers offered translation rights for their best titles, but they weren’t prepared to sell her those books in their native languages.
This strange gap in the market planted the seed, she says. But first, she had to weather the pandemic.
Amid the initial uncertainty, Kim closed Humpty Dumpty Books and laid off her staff. To keep the business afloat, she shuttled books home, listed them online and delivered small orders herself. Despite the stress and economic setback, Kim says she saw first-hand how much people care about small, independent bookstores. “I think I gained some faith and confidence.”
Soon after Granville Island reopened to shoppers, Kim spotted Nooroongji’s future home and hustled to make it a reality — alongside continuing to make Humpty Dumpty Books her own.
While selecting books for either store, Kim says she looks beyond the heavily marketed bestsellers lists. “I look for beautiful writing, beautiful art and important stories. Stories that aren’t considered mainstream, but they are to a certain culture.”
She also has a keen eye for indigenous writers and joyful works that center the “richness, beauty and talent” of their cultures, she says.
Although she feels confident in the collection she’s amassed so far, Kim says self-funding a niche independent bookstores has been stressful. “I used credit cards,” she sheepishly laughs.
But the response to Nooroongji has been “just magical.”
“To see people’s reaction when they come in, the joy on people’s faces when they see their culture or their language forwarded in such a prominent space, I think that’s the most wonderful feeling,” says Kim, with an air of satisfaction and relief. “It inspires me to keep going, bring in more languages and more unique titles.”