Pentatonix's a cappella version of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis' Thrift Shop, everyone. Ever since I heard this song, I've been bent on doing some thrift shopping here in Korea. As a poor teacher, I'm thrilled when I find clothes for cheap. As an environmentally-conscious consumer, I support Reuse and Recycle and do not mind wearing clothes that have previously belonged to someone else, as long as they fit me and look awesome. Kudos to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for using music to make thrift shopping look cool. I wear your granddad's coat; I look incredible.
In Korea, it seems as if thrifting and secondhand shopping aren't a big thing. I think the idea of buying old and outdated items runs in opposition to a culture that puts a heavy emphasis on pulling ahead, having the newest and latest of anything (technology, fashion, etc.). Nevertheless, it does exist, manifesting in small and hard-to-find ways. Thrifting is largely like treasure hunting, anyway, so while you may not find an enormous Goodwill or Salvation Army in any strip mall in this country (or any strip malls, for that matter), there are still lots of places to look for your "vintage" fix.
I should first explain some of the things I've learned from experience, however. 중고 (junggo) is the Korean word for "secondhand" or "used", and a thrift shop can be referred to as a 중고품 가게 (junggo-poom ka-ge). "Vintage", on the other hand, does not necessarily refer to clothes from a few decades ago that have retained their style despite years of use. I admit I'm not totally sure how "vintage" is used in the US, but here in Korea, 빈티지 (bin-ti-ji, some excellent Konglish) could mean old knit sweaters and really ugly boots regardless of their year of manufacture. In other words, Korean "vintage" is a certain style of clothing and does not match up perfectly with what I imagine to be American vintage.
With all this in mind, I've been hunting around Hongdae for thrift stores and vintage clothes shops. I figured that, although this neighborhood is populated by young people who love fashion and are probably willing to pay top dollar to keep their wardrobes full and ahead of the curve, I'd be more likely to find any such stores here than in, say, Gangnam (too bougie) or the touristy areas of the city (too glitzy). And a lot of the "forward" Korean fashion is defined by the arguably tacky and unique items you can only find in a thrift store. I've found six vintage and/or thrift stores; some were successes, others not so much.
#1: Vintage Store. This is one of the first that I noticed in Hongdae. I realized after not too long that it is just another one of the hundreds of minuscule pop-up shops that sells only a handful of items for a super-select clientele. This corner shop is so small that it is literally a couple of clear walls put up outside of a building with strange, tacky clothes hung up on racks inside. It's the size of a walk-in closet. This store is Korean 빈티지, not actual thrift. Let's try again.  This store no longer exists, but there are hundreds like it still around. Again, it's "vintage", but it's not thrift. Moving on... [/edit]
#2: Vintage Clothing KD (케이디). Although this store right around the corner from my apartment looks legit, I have walked by it half a dozen times at all different times of the day, and it has never been open. Either you need a secret password to get in somehow, or it has indefinitely closed shop. If you know anything about this vintage shop, do let me know!
#3: Pollala Museum/Mania Recycle Shop (뽈랄라 수집관). A 수집관 (sujibgwan) is a collectors' museum. While I had high hopes when I saw the words "recycle shop", this is actually a hobbyist's store full of retro action figurines, posters, and toys from anime, manga, and sci-fi genres. Basically, it's geek paradise. No clothes, though. Here's a link to some more photos on a Korean blog.
#4: Ropa Usada (로파우사다) is both a Korean brand of vintage clothing and a chain of secondhand clothes stores in Korea. Katelyn pointed out that ropa usada is literally Spanish for "used clothes". This small vintage jackpot is neatly organized but very dense; there's so much for sale that it's a bit overwhelming. Most of the wares are dated American-style clothes: shirts, hoodies, jeans, tees, skirts, hats (likely stuff that foreigners have left behind, amassed in bulk over the years), but there's nothing you couldn't find for a better price at an American Salvation Army.
#5: Cowboy Vintage Shop (카우보이). This one is probably the epitome of vintage in Hongdae. I must stress that while it is legit vintage, it's certainly not thrift. What I like most about the shop is the atmosphere: retro music blasting as you walk into the basement, crazy outfits on the mannequins that actually look good, all of the clothes organized with an eye for style and color, and lots of random accessories like vinyl records on the walls, a Disney-style Pinocchio marionette, and giant Coca-Cola pins. It's all very American in an unsurprisingly in-your-face kind of way. What I dislike about the shop is that while all of its wares must have come from the United States anytime between 1970 and 2012, including the mechanic's uniforms, the cowboy boots, and the University of Wherever sweatshirts, it's all priced as if it's the latest in Korean fashion. Expensive. So this place is fun to browse in, but if I really wanted anything here, I'd go back to the States to find an equivalent.
Beautiful Store (아름다운가게). Finally, a real, honest-to-goodness thrift store! And this one has a social conscience, too. Like the Goodwill or Salvation Army stores, the money raised by these small stores (over a hundred in Korea) goes to charity. The organization's other goals include promoting fair trade, flea markets, volunteering, and recycling, helping marginalized people groups such as women, ex-convicts, and the homeless, and campaigning for the environment. Everything about this really is beautiful. The Beautiful Store in Hongdae is a very small basement shop with not a huge selection of clothes, but I did manage to find a really nice blazer buried beneath dozens of really ugly blazers for only ₩5,500! That's five bucks for a blazer. What a steal! I've noticed a few other Beautiful Stores in other places in Seoul that are larger than the Hongdae branch, so perhaps I will check those out later.
That's it for now! I know for certain that there are many other small vintage shops tucked away in small alleys around Hongdae; this neighborhood is large and I've only seen a fraction of it in my few weeks here. However, I also know that stores of any kind in Hongdae come and go frequently; a shop will close suddenly and a new one will take its place. So, there's no telling what you'll be able to find if you visit in a few years, or even this summer. It's likely that there will be more thrift and secondhand stores in the future. I like the idea that thrifting in general is gaining more popularity in Korea. It's a good sign that a society is taking human over-consumption seriously if more people actively take part in recycling culture.
Oh, and I made a map of the places I found. So if you're ever in the area, you can look for them. If you know of other shops I should check out, let me know in a comment! I'll find it and add it to the map.
View Thrifty in Hongdae in a larger map
Just for kicks, I want to mention Hongdae Free Market, a flea market that specializes in handicraft and local artists' work. It takes place at 1pm every Saturday from March to November. Too bad I'm leaving at the end of this month! If I come back to Seoul later this year, though, I'll make it a point to visit the Free Market.
Lastly, speaking of markets, the holy grail of vintage and thrift shopping in Seoul has to be Gwangjang Market (광장시장) in Jongno. It reminded me of La Boqueria in Barcelona, but instead of wandering aimlessly through a dimly-lit labyrinth surrounded on every side by food, I wandered aimlessly through a dimly-lit labyrinth surrounded on every side by clothes and accessories. It's one of my favorite places to be in in Seoul, let alone shop!