Bringing K-pop to Nova Scotia

A new Halifax store celebrates a cultural phenomenon

Sarah Milberry tries to hold the baby still, but he has turned into a noodle. Baby Jake arches his back out of her hands, flailing in quiet, slippery defiance of every attempt to make him sit on her lap. A healthy dollop of drool falls from his mouth. He grips a handful of star-shaped crackers from the coffee table, and smiles as he drops half of them on the floor. Milberry notices the drool stain on her shirt, holds the baby in front of her and rolls her eyes, but smiles.

Milberry co-owns Sarah and Tom gift shop with her husband, Tom Yun. After opening three stores in Toronto and Montreal, the couple opened the first Korean pop music store in Atlantic Canada. While Yun is away on business at the other locations, she looks after their two sons, and the store in Halifax.

Today she’s looking after her eight-month-old son, Jake, while Leo is with grandparents. She doesn’t doubt the ability of staff to run the store on Quinpool Road, but she likes to talk with customers and the occasional reporter, maybe grab a coffee next door.

Business is running smoothly at Sarah and Tom. So smoothly that Milberry’s presence, if it weren’t for the fact that she was looking after one less child that afternoon, would seem extraneous. But Milberry saw an opportunity to bring her son to work. After all, a mixture of family and business is what brought her to Nova Scotia. Originally from New Glasgow, Milberry taught in South Korea where she met her husband. They bought a storefront in downtown Toronto in 2009 but her vision was always to raise her children in Nova Scotia.

Playful, vibrant Korean pop is a global music trend. The groups resemble Western boy and girl bands of the ’90s and burst onto American music charts in 2012, after Psy became internationally known for the hit “Gangnam Style.”

Still, few would expect to find an audience of K-pop fans in Nova Scotia, where folk and indie are the main music exports. But K-pop has broad appeal. Jeff Dallien is flipping through a photobook he bought at Sarah and Tom. It’s by his favourite girl band, Twice. Inside is their latest CD, trading cards, and a small, red, transparent screen for finding hidden drawings behind images.

Korean pop CDs are less like the standard Western album, and more like a toy in a Happy Meal, or a puzzle on a cereal box. Some are made to look like a package sent in the mail. Most are in books or boxes, some even look like VHS tapes. South Korean groups release several CDs in a year, all in unique packages, all with limited-edition collectors’ items inside.

In 2017, one K-pop group beat President Donald Trump and Justin Bieber combined when they gained more than half a billion ‘likes’ and ‘retweets’ on Twitter. Their latest album made BTS the first K-Pop group to debut at number one on the American music charts, and in August their first U.S. stadium show sold out 40,000 seats in less than an hour.

Compared to Western talent, Korean artists portray emotional openness and optimism.

“I don’t always need to hear a song about how you got screwed over,” says Dallien. “There seems to be a lot of that [in North American music].” Like him, many English fans consider K-pop a representation of the end of cynicism, or a return to sincerity. “There are K-pop artists who do not speak any English and I feel like I know their personalities way better than I could know most Western artists,” he adds.

Customers browse the K-pop shelves at Sarah and Tom, which also carries anime merchandise and unique stationary.

Milberry and Yun’s first store had just stationary and plush toys; no K-pop. During an especially slow winter, they started to wonder if they should just “pack up and go.” That day, a regular came in and ranted about how much the store meant to them. “It was a weird, coincidental thing and we had to say, ‘We can’t close!’… She happened to come in on that day, when we were feeling down,” Milberry recalls.

Shortly after, Sarah and Tom started selling K-pop items. “That’s when sales started taking off,” she says. “We used all our money to get ourselves to Toronto. We set goals and worked on them together, and of course there was stress and arguments, but we got through it.”

The Halifax location has seen steady traffic so far. Milberry hopes to open a Vancouver location, too. “We don’t want to stop at Halifax… but this will always be home, and if we have to travel for work [to keep living here], we’ll just do it.”

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