Expats Really Like to Drink in Front of Korean Convenience Stores

Fans of "marting" say it's cheaper and better than going to any bar or club.

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May 1 2015, 8:50pm

Lexy Mart at night. All photos by Jo Turner.

This article originally appearing on VICE Canada.

On any given night in South Korea, you can see thousands of people drinking outside of corner stores. These are not your teenagers of North American suburban lore, knocking back Coke cans half full of whiskey behind the 7-11, getting ready to be belted out as soon as the manager catches wind of them.

No, these are grown men and women. They are employed, often besuited, pounding back beer and liquor legally at tables provided by the corner store's management. Koreans don't have a specific name for it. Foreigners in Korea, who have taken to it like pigs to shit, call it "marting."

Sang Man Seok, 51, is the manager of Lexy Mart, a corner store in the city of Ilsan, just north of Seoul. Any night in the spring, summer, or fall, he can have up to 30 people outside the Lexy, which adds up to 60 or 70 over the course of the night. During the warm season, he estimates 30 percent of his profits come from people drinking outside. Even in winter, it can still reach 15 percent.

But why drink outside a corner store anyway? "First and foremost is price," Sang says. "The anjou [drinking food] is much cheaper, too. Then there are the anti-smoking laws [in the bars]."

And though it's a bunch of plastic tables on a street corner, it has its own atmosphere. "When it drizzles outside, we lower the awning, and we provide an atmosphere no bar can," Sang says proudly.

Down the street at the CU Mart, Kang Sujin, 22, tends the register. Here the tables and chairs sit under a covered upstairs balcony, sheltering it from rain. This is especially useful in July and August, Korea's monsoon season.

"It just fills up," she says, throwing her arm toward the tables. "We get about ten people, all the tables and chairs out there. But there are people who walk by, looking to sit, see that it's full, and then move on to the next one."

She says they're often on their way home from the bars, stopping in for a nightcap. "Those who drink are inevitably company workers or university students," Kang says. "Those of all people suffer the most stress, and what else is there to do to alleviate that stress but drink?"

It's older men who tend to mart the most, though there are groups of younger kids, too. And foreigners. Foreigners, especially English teachers (about a third of whom are Canadian), seem to be permanently fastened to the plastic seats.

"I like being outside and there's not really a lot of options when it comes to relaxing, drinking, hanging out with your friends outside in Korea," says Heather Goldring, 24, an English teacher from Toronto. "Being from Canada, the highlight of my summer used to be drinking with my friends outside on a patio. And it's really nice to be able to mart here in Korea, because I miss that."

There are very few balconies in Korea, and rooftop bars are usually outrageously expensive. At the mart, you're paying less than what you'd pay at the Beer Store back home. And the Beer Store doesn't let you knock back in front of its doors.

"The atmosphere is different, just being outside on the sidewalk, compared to being at a bar," says Eric MacDonald, 35, an office worker from Antigonish, Nova Scotia, who now lives in the posh Seoul district of Gangnam. "It's not dark, you don't have four walls and a ceiling, it's outside."

People watching is another big draw. Korean cities are famously dense, and there are always people moving about, day and night, going about their lives.

Kyle Tapper, 35, is a teacher from Newfoundland. He used to mart all the time, but he's mostly retired now. "I feel like that part of my life has passed," Tapper says. "Every time I go there's a new group of people and I feel like it's just something I shouldn't be doing anymore."

But he remembers his marting days fondly. "Sitting outside on a nice day, it's nice to be out," Tapper says. "It could be complete strangers walking by, I like to just sit down and watch. It could be friends who walk by, they'll just sit at the table abruptly with you and then shoot the shit for the next two or three hours. It's never five minutes."

Tapper says it beats the pants off most bars he went to.

"You go to a bar, it's much more expensive," he says. "And then it's this bar sucks, this bar's great, everybody has their own opinion. Sitting outside the mart, nobody ever talked about how great it was. We just told stories and got along. And it was cheap. So very cheap."

Because it's so public, marting can often lead to more fights than in a bar. There's no need to step outside when you're already outside.

Misunderstandings, often between foreigners and Koreans, can cause friction. "Boys would often get a little too drunk and cause some ruckus," MacDonald says, thinking back to his salad days in the mid 2000s. "It was definitely embarrassing for some of us. You have to just laugh it off. But nothing major ever happened."

Sang says problems arise "When there are inter-table kerfuffles. When customers drag the tables too far out, it stops being Lexy Mart and becomes public space. Then the [city] office people will come give us shit, for having people all the way out in the middle."

But overall, the feeling is chilled. MacDonald, Goldring, and Tapper would all like to see it in Canada, but don't think it would ever happen.

"I definitely wish we could do it back home," MacDonald says, "but I don't believe Canadians are responsible enough to handle it."

Follow Dave Hazzan on Twitter.

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