Cak Tarno counseling a student at his bookshop in Depok, West Java. (Photo courtesy of Cak Tarno)

Cak Tarno: Ex-Farmer Turned Legendary Bookstore Owner

AUGUST 01, 2018

Jakarta. Cak Tarno is a legend among university students around Depok, West Java, just outside of Jakarta. His small bookstore, nestled in a corner of the University of Indonesia, has been the first stop for many students looking to get their hands on secondhand copies of expensive textbooks or rare out-of-print books for their research projects since the early 2000s.

The man himself, whose real name is Sutarno, never thought he'd be able to help out so many university students, especially since he himself dropped out of school after finishing junior high.

Born into a family of farmers in Jatirejo in East Java, Cak Tarno – "Cak" is an East Javanese appellation for "Mister" – arrived in Jakarta in 1997 looking for a new job and a new life.

After graduating from junior high in 1984, Cak Tarno had worked as a farmer and a construction worker in Mojokerto, near his hometown.

One day in the mid-1990s, he met his old friend Yusuf, who offered him work at his second-hand bookstore in Kwitang, Central Jakarta.

At that time, Kwitang was known as one of the largest book markets in the capital.

On weekends, Cak Tarno would mind his friend's small bookstore in Kwitang, and on weekdays he spent his time managing a new branch of Yusuf’s bookshop on Jalan Margonda in Depok, a stone's throw from the University of Indonesia campus.

His other task was to look for valuable secondhand books at bookshops and book dealers in Pondok Cina and Pasar Minggu.

That was when Cak Tarno started developing a real love for books, and also his now vast network of book dealers, independent publishers and other small bookstore owners from all over Indonesia.

"I wanted to change my life and that was my opportunity. I was just a high school dropout but I love books," he said.

The shelves are never empty at Toko Buku Cak Tarno. (Photo courtesy of Cak Tarno)

Striking Out on His Own

But in 1999, Yusuf decided to close up his shop near the University of Indonesia train station, leaving Cak Tarno without a choice but to find another job.

After doing odd jobs for a year, Cak Tarno worked out his real love is for books and gathered up enough courage, and funds, to open up his own bookshop.

In 2000, Cak Tarno opened his first bookshop, Toko Buku Cak Tarno (Cak Tarno's Bookshop) – that was only a little bigger than a street stall – on Jalan Sawo, near the newly renovated train station.

Two years later, he'd saved enough money to rent a real brick and mortar store near a canteen in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Indonesia.

Cak Tarno sells mostly Indonesian books and textbooks for students in his small bookshop.

His shelves are filled with books from local independent publishers like Marjin Kiri, Insist Press and Ultimus.

Cak Tarno says his shop specializes in books on politics and social issues, which are not necessarily best sellers.

"All the books I sell are special. If you can’t get your hands on books published by independent publishers or rare [local] books that have long gone out of print, then you can come here," he said.

Cak Tarno said his favorite books are historical novels by the legendary leftist writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer and more historical novels by the Jesuit priest turned architect and activist Y.B. Mangunwijaya.

Cak Tarno's idealism does come at a cost.

"I'm not making a lot of money, but this is my thing. I love these books and I think people should read them," he said.

Little Bookstores Doing It Tough

"Running a small bookstore is not easy," Cak Tarno said.

When he said he wanted to open his own bookshop, his friends and even his wife didn't exactly go along with the idea, telling him that he had very little experience as a bookseller.

Cak Tarno puts his eventual success down to a lot of careful planning.

He said being realistic also helps, since small bookshops go hand-in-hand with small profits, especially now with so many booksellers moving online and closing up their brick and mortar shops.

"Most books now come with their e-book versions already. You can basically download almost all the books you want, for free too. This is the biggest challenge for me," he said.

But Cak Tarno is not intimidated. He said people still come to his bookshop, even ex-students from many years ago, for his famously personal approach to customer service.

Cak Tarno said he doesn't just curate books that he likes to read, but he also recommends them to his customers.

Students can also come to him and ask him for advice on what books to read apart from their textbooks.

Cak Tarno knows many of the students' "must read" lists by heart, since he's served so many of them for more than a decade.

"As you get to know your customers, you also work out their taste," he said.

And unlike the staff at big bookstores, Cak Tarno reads most of the books he has on his shelves.

"Running a bookshop comes with huge responsibilities, because it's also my job to educate my customers. I often visit the professors at the faculty to ask them what they think of certain books, or to get them to explain to me things that I don't quite understand," Cak Tarno said.

Cak Tarno Institute

Cak Tarno's little bookstore-that-could has also turned into a place where students, lecturers and the public gather to discuss books and current issues.

The "Cak Tarno Institute" (CTI) was born in 2005, a name given by his customers for the bookshop's weekly discussion event.

"CTI is not a formal institute. It’s a book discussion that I hold every weekend for everyone, including students and professors," Cak Tarno said.

The event has also become a place where postgraduate students from the University of Indonesia and other universities in Depok – Gunadarma University, Pancasila University – "test drive" their thesis before they defend it.

"CTI is open for everyone interested in learning new things. I've always dreamt of a democratic, open discussion group like this, and now I've got one in my own bookshop," Cak Tarno said.

Toko Buku Cak Tarno has been at the same cramped space next to the University of Indonesia canteen for 16 years now, but the ex-farmer has no plan to open a bigger shop.

"I don’t like thinking about the future. I just want to enjoy my journey and do what I like best, which is reading and selling books," Cak Tarno said.