RIP Itaewon's The Red Door Store

by Richard Stansfield, 06/04/2012

In November of last year, I noticed that an icon to many long-term expatriates in South Korea had finally disappeared. The Red Door Store of Itaewon had been replaced with another shop.

When I first arrived in South Korea in 1996, it was very different from today. It was nowhere near as globalized as it is today. Back then, South Korea dreamed of being recognized as an advanced, developed country. Incheon International Airport would not exist for years, and passengers had to make do in the chaotic Gimpo Airport. Samsung, LG, and Hyundai products were not respected abroad as they are today. There were fewer foreigners. You didn't dare hold your Korean girlfriend's hand in public. Lastly, the range of food available were far more narrow.

There were far fewer foreign restaurants, and the ones that did exist were not as authentic or as good as ones that you can find today. (One of the worst pasta meals that I've ever had was at a restaurant which has inexplicably become a successful franchise.) Brunches would not exist for years, until Suji's restaurants would popularize them. Sandwiches were inedible. The only easily available bread was of the unhealthy, white kind. If you wanted to buy beer, you would probably be only able to find a Korean brand, and these brands had not yet begun to experiment with stouts or 100% malted barley beers. Needless to say, microbreweries (such as Craftworks Taphouse) were far in the future. I found it very difficult to find the black tea that I like, and finding loose-leaf tea (as opposed to tea bags) was simply impossible.

It was in this atmosphere that the Red Door Store became a sanctuary for foreigners seeking comfort food from home. When I first heard about this shop, I was told that it sold black market goods. This conjured up a sinister image of things like contraband cigarettes, illegal pornography, smuggled concealable weapons, or perhaps illegal drugs. However, this tiny shop (only about half the size of most convenience stores) carried nothing like that. The products were bought at the American army's PX and resold here at a premium. Not surprisingly, it looked as if a small whirlwind had swept up a random assortment of things from a western supermarket and deposited them onto the Red Door Store's shelves. Macaroni and cheese, western breakfast cereals, herbs and spices, multivitamins, canned goods, western honey, Hamburger Helper, condoms, sexual lubricant, toothpaste, cosmetics, and deoderant were some of the things that were difficult to find anywhere else.

The place was usually busy with customers. However, the customers became fewer and fewer in recent years, and so it was not surprising when it finally closed for good. What happened?

The Red Door Store was probably a victim of Korea's globalization. Nowadays, there are very few things from North America that cannot be bought somewhere in South Korea. You can buy root beer at E-Mart, Newcastle Brown Ale at Home Plus, and deoderant at the Body Shop. In Incheon's Shinsegae department store, you can buy Lady Grey loose leaf black tea and eat a good brunch at a branch of Suji's. For the most part, there isn't the need to go to Itaewon and pay the extra cost.

Even though I no longer needed the Red Door Store, I was sorry to see it go. Living as an expatriate abroad can be difficult at times, and for many years, the store was a reassuring anchor. I believe that other long-term expatriates feel the same way, so RIP Red Door Store. 

Article: Seoul Weekly 
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