Bandung a Leading Light for Bookworms
Avant-garde boutiques in converted old houses, quaint places where you can indulge in tasty treats — these are the things that Bandung is famous for. But not many visitors to the city know that tucked away in the corners of this shoppers paradise are little bookshops just as chic and cozy. And they also have a lot to offer.
At a glance, Reading Lights looks like a cafe, with soft lighting, jazzy background music and bistro-style tables and chairs. That is, until you see the bookshelves lining the walls and smell the telltale musty scent of a secondhand bookstore.
Reading Lights was established in 2006 by husband-and-wife owners Danny Lukita and Helen Lok,
“They both love books and have access to a large number of them,” store manager Riswan said.
At the time, apart from bookstores selling textbooks near the city’s many colleges, there were only two places in Bandung where you could buy imported books. “So they started by selling books from their personal library, so book lovers, especially students, could get quality books at more affordable prices,” Riswan said.
Business was slow at first. “Basically it’s the classic story of secondhand bookstores,” Riswan said. “The market is small, but once a customer buys from us, he’ll come back. Profits have been crawling up very slowly. Back when I joined in 2007 there were about 30 customers coming in every day. Two years later the number had grown to 80 per day, and 80 percent of them walk away with books.”
Reading Lights made a point of treating customers not as kings but as friends, Riswan said. The store opens its doors to groups needing a venue for activities like movie screenings or backpacker gatherings, as well as hobby circles, from knitting to origami to sketching and storytelling.
Customers can also enjoy drinks named after famous authors like Neil Gaiman coffee (“It’s very sweet with a touch of bitter.”) or the David Sedaris mocktail (“It’s rather tart”), while nibbling at a Charles Dickens Sandwich at the store’s cafe.
Reading Lights also allows customers to leave a wish-list of books they want to get, a service mostly used by literature students who are writing their final paper.
“We can find about 60 percent of what the customers wish for,” Riswan said. “But we have trouble getting rarer books, like Salman Rushdie’s first edition of ‘Satanic Verses,’ which was banned for its controversial content.”
The store gets its used books by hunting in Bali and Yogyakarta, places popular with foreign tourists, who often leave behind a trail of summer reading paperbacks in good condition. These are collected by agents who sell them to used bookstores.
“A lot of times the tourists simply leave their books lying on the beach after sunbathing. We have to shake the sand from the pages,” Riswan said.
From Bali the store gets a lot of thrillers and suspense books, drama, and other light reading. The haul from from Yogyakarta tends to offer more poetry, classic novels, anthologies and other more literary fare.
Book prices are based on their condition, the author’s popularity and content, usually Rp 80,000 ($9) or less. Non-fiction fetches higher prices.
“We don’t get many non-fiction books,” said Riswan, “and when we do, they get snatched up pretty quickly.”
Omuniuum looks like the den of a fashion-conscious book lover with bohemian tastes and a weakness for kitschy bric-a-brac. In its narrow confines, bookshelves crammed with books, CDs and DVDs in no particular order stand cheek-by-jowl with racks festooned with jackets and T-shirts from local independent designers. Tables swamped by a riot of colorful nick-nacks and accessories are set in the middle of the room.
“People can call this a bookstore or a boutique or an accessories shop,” said Iit, who opened the store in 2002 with her friends Verdiantoro and Trie. “We don’t separate the three and everything goes together here.”
The three friends opened the store in 2002, when, fresh out of college, they were offered a spot on Jl. Sultan Agung, Bandung. “We had this idea of combining a bookstore with a music and fashion merchandise shop,” Iit said.
Five years later they moved to a second-floor space across from Parahyangan University campus in Ciumbuleuit.
“The proximity to the campus is a bonus,” Iit said. “But basically we love reading and wanted to share this with other people. We believed that once we established the store, people were bound to find it and in time grow to love us.”
Of the three, Iit said she was the one who loved books the most. Most of the books are “those I want to own or read myself, so you can imagine the choice is pretty subjective.”
“When we first opened, I had to sacrifice some of my own collection for the store,” she said. “Now we stock up by hunting in Bandung, Yogyakarta, Jakarta and other cities, always at the flea market, or bargain sale at book fairs. We also ask friends who travel abroad to bring us books. And when I go overseas myself, I make sure to visit secondhand bookshops. It’s always fun. The only drawback is when I’ve bought books and they don’t sell.”
New collections are sometimes advertised on the store’s blog and Web site. People can also make inquiries and place their orders online. Omuniuum does not offer a membership program.
“We go by familiarity. If you’re a frequent customer, you can chat up the cashier and get a 10 percent discount. Prices of new books in Bahasa Indonesia are usually already 10 percent lower than in regular bookstores,” Iit said.
Overall, book sales make up only 40 percent of the store’s income. But Iit said she was not discouraged.
“I still think that secondhand books make good business. But you can’t rely on selling books alone, in case something happens and you’re not making enough sales to cover overhead costs. You can’t let things like that stop you from doing something you like.”
Ciumbuleuit 151b Lt.2
Tel. 0222 203 8279
Jl. Siliwangi No. 16 Bandung
Tel. 0222 203 6515