'Happy, dancey' Korean music draws crowds to Halifax's first K-Pop shop
Early last Saturday, employees opened the doors of the Sarah and Tom gift shop in Halifax to a crowd of K-Pop fans already gathered on the sidewalk, anxious to get their first peek inside.
The store celebrates Korean pop culture, or K-Pop. Staff had spent weeks unpacking adorable toys and Korean pop albums for the Quinpool Road store's opening day, and spent much of Saturday restocking shelves.
"Everyone's so friendly and excited as we are to be here," said co-owner Sarah Milberry, who hails from New Glasgow, N.S. Her husband, Tom Yun, greeted and rang in customers before saying goodbye in English and Korean.
Yun is from South Korea, which is also where the couple met. They decided to open a Halifax K-Pop store after the success of three other locations in Toronto and Montreal. They first looked at Vancouver, but discovered the property on Quinpool Road and moved to Nova Scotia to open the new store.
It turns out that Nova Scotia, known for its folk music, is also home to a population of English-speaking lovers of Korean pop music. Elderly, young, single, married, English, Korean, Chinese — all were drawn by the first K-Pop store in Atlantic Canada.
"It's happy, it's dancey, and it doesn't require profanity to be catchy. That's why I like it," said Ashley Martin, who was at the store with her family. Her 17-year-old sister-in-law, Sam Martin, introduced her to the music.
Eventually the whole family got into it. They didn't expect much company for the store's opening. "I thought there would be like, two people here," said Sam.
Korean pop music is a growing global trend resembling Western boy and girl bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s. K-Pop group BTS was the first to top American music charts in May.
In 2012 the K-Pop song Gangnam Style by Psy went viral and began drawing more Western ears to the positive messages, bouncy rhythms and techno beats of South Korean pop artists.
Sam Martin has been following Korean pop for four years. Her room is filled with thousands of dollars worth of merchandise: CDs, stuffed toys, posters, stationary, and even socks. She's flown to Toronto twice for Korean boy band Got7 concerts, and she has all of the group's albums.
"It's just different to what's usually put out by American artists," she said. "I don't always understand it, but it just kind of [gives me] a feeling."
Where CDs are typically encased in a standard, clear case, Korean packaging is usually bigger, with collectibles inside. Lined in decorative boxes on a shelf, the CDs look like they could be graphic novels.
At Sarah and Tom, Ashley pulled out the album they listened to on their way to the store. It was Sunrise by Day 6, and its square packaging opens like a shoe box. Inside is a photo book of band members and handwritten messages on individual photos.
It feels personal, and that's something that makes K-Pop groups different from Western celebrities. Group members personally respond to fan mail through social media and put extraordinary effort into showing they care, in English and Korean.
Ashley said her sister-in-law is quite shy, although Sam occasionally talks to her favourite band members on social media. She's even talked to their parents on Instagram and is learning Korean and Mandarin.