Jakarta. A strange scene: a bunch of young hipsters – penny loafers, selvage jeans, tote bags from Shakespeare And Company or MoMA – deep in thoughts browsing books kept on a tall shelf, flipping through pages, checking out the blurbs, reading the opening paragraphs – instead of staring at their smartphones.
This was the opening party of the new ak.'sa.ra, the small bookstore in Kemang, South Jakarta, that was first opened in 2001 and relaunched on July 21.
The bookstore, whose stock of mostly English-language books had been dwindling for years that most people were going there for their cute collection of chic (some book-related) accessories or to go to the excellent mini cinema Kinosaurus at the back of the shop, has now been revamped with a special corner dedicated to local indie books, titles published by the dozens of small presses that are now sprouting up all over Indonesia.
This indie book corner is the result of a collaboration with another small bookstore in Jakarta, Post Bookshop in Pasar Santa, South Jakarta, who also runs a small press called Post Press.
Post Bookshop is run by the husband-and-wife team Teddy Wijaya Kusuma and Maesy Angelina, who were busy scuttling between shelves and giving recommendations to visitors at the new ak.'sa.ra launch.
34-year-old Maesy Ang is an avid reader herself and said she's loved reading ever since she could remember. "I felt like the characters I see in the books made more sense than the people around me," she said.
Although she was already swamped with a full-time job, Maesy wanted to provide alternative choices for readers like her who want to read more titles beyond what the big bookstores offer.
This epiphany came suddenly to her when she was browsing in a small bookshop and found titles she never came across before.
According to her, an independent bookshop not only sells books, but also has its own personality, or even political stance.
"An independent bookstore genuinely offers something different to the readers," Maesy said.
The books that Maesy and her team choose are carefully curated – they don't just stock bestsellers.
Besides handpicking titles when they travel overseas, Maesy and Teddy also ask writers and readers what books are on their reading lists and get in touch with local publishers.
While most of the books sold in the new ak.'sa.ra are still foreign titles (there are some from Singapore's excellent Math Paper Press), 80 percent of the books sold at Post Bookshop are Indonesian titles.
Maesy said this was a conscious effort on their part to bring more Indonesian books and authors to light.
Importing foreign books is also simply too expensive for a small bookstore.
Post Bookshop has also benefited from its location: on the upper floor of a traditional market, Pasar Santa. The tiny space exudes a friendlier vibe compared to a normal retail spot.
"If you treat a bookstore as just a space to display books and sell them, then it's not going to work. But if you really think about crafting an experience, then people will come," Maesy said.
According to ak.'sa.ra director Adinda Simanjuntak, this is also why its new shop is designed to be more of a creative space than a retail space, sharing the building with children's art workshop Ganara Art Studio, artisanal coffee shop Ruang Seduh and Kinosaurus, which in less than three years has become an indie film mecca in Jakarta.
Apart from making rare titles available to more people, a small bookstore can also help create a close-knit community of readers, and also writers.
"Going to a bookstore shouldn’t just be about buying books, it should be about getting to know new authors, maybe chat with new people, meet the writers or connect with other readers," Maesy said.
In contrast with big chain bookstores, independent bookstores usually occupy a smaller space that, perhaps inadvertently, creates a more intimate atmosphere.
Some of them, including Post Bookshop, organize weekly book discussions that feature many young, emerging local talents.
Some writers that have given talks and workshops at Post include poets Dwiputri Pertiwi and Norman Erikson Pasaribu, novelist Azhari Aiyub and young writers from the underground collective Kedubes Bekasi.
Independent bookstores connect with the readers on a personal level. It also offers a home to independent authors who want to promote or sell their books.
Small bookstore owners have more latitude in choosing books they want to sell and tend to rely on their own personal preferences when buying books for their shops.
They also sell rare out-of-print books that the chain bookstores don’t offer.
Toko Buku Cak Tarno, for example, is an independent bookstore that offers a small but focused collection of books on local politics, social issues and history.
The owner, whose real name is Sutarno, also stays true to his love for Indonesian literature.
"I don’t want a general interest bookstore. For me, it’s hard to keep up with that kind of inventory. I also don’t sell foreign books. Indonesian literature is as important as foreign literature," Cak Tarno said.
His own personal favorites are classic works by novelists Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Y.B. Mangunwijaya, and poets Sitor Situmorang, Chairil Anwar and Sapardi Djoko Damono.
Tarno also sells second-hand copies of expensive academic textbooks that college students have grown to love him for.
Located near a canteen in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Indonesia, his bookstore has been the first stop for college students around Depok since the early 2000s.
While small bookstores are often associated with rare out-of-print books or specific literary genres, Kios Ojo Keos takes a different – more engaged and political – approach.
Opened in May this year, Kios Ojo Keos is an independent bookstore owned by local indie rock band Efek Rumah Kaca (ERK) – famous for "Di Udara" ("In the Sky"), their ode to Munir, a human rights activist who was poisoned on a plane on his way to study in the Netherlands in 2004, and its shelves and tables are filled with books on social and political issues.
Not only that, the bookstore also has a music store and a small library where people can join book discussions or watch small, intimate gigs by local singers and bands.
"We want to create a close-knit community where people can feel safe and comfortable to open up a discussion on everything," said one of the owners, Cholil Mahmud, the singer of Efek Rumah Kaca.
"Coming from a music background, we also want to promote local music artists. We hold music workshops once in a while and invite local musicians to our event," he said.
Like many small bookstores, Kios Ojo Keos sources their books from independent publishers and sometimes straight from the writers themselves.
The shelves at Kios Ojo Keos are dominated by works published by local independent presses such as Marjin Kiri, Ultimus, Insist Press, Banana and Post Press.
Keeping It Small to Survive
With the popularity of Instagram shops and massive online marketplace like Tokopedia – where even indie books can often be found at a discount – small brick and mortar bookstores face a huge challenge to survive and many have been forced to shut up shops.
Those who survive, though, say they've been experiencing a small resurgence thanks to a loyal customer base.
They also cleverly use social media to strengthen their brand and communicate directly to their customers.
Toko Buku Cak Tarno, for example, has set up an online discussion forum to keep up with his customers’ literary tastes.
Post Bookshop is famous for its beautifully crafted Instagram posts and carefully considered book recommendations.
Kios Ojo Keos, keeping up with its political focus, also uses its Instagram account to make sharp commentaries on local politics. For example, it once offers free coffee to celebrate the arrest of a corruption suspect.
Small bookstores simply can't rely on big profits.
"To tell you the truth, I don't have that many people come to my bookstore. But the customers that I have are loyal and they always return to my bookshop," Cak Tarno said.
Both Cak Tarno and Cholil also said that independent bookstore owners can make their own decisions and make them quickly. When thing aren’t working, they can just change them.
"We put ourselves out there to find new authors. If they don't sell, then we go out there again to find other new writers," Cholil said.
Additional reporting by Joy Muchtar