My Jakarta: Asmad, Used Book Seller
Mark Vincent Sindhunata
What changes in a book if it’s put on a shelf for decades, gets dusty or has slightly crumpled pages? Enter Asemka, a second-hand book market in Glodok, West Jakarta, to find out. There, 67-year-old Asmad ages with the books he sells, helping out commuters with something to read in the crippling traffic and students with significantly cheaper textbooks. He also shares his knowledge and entertains customers while making his living.
Today, Asmad explains why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
How do you view popular and established book stores like Gramedia? How’s the competition?
It’s no problem. It doesn’t affect me. Second-hand books have their own market. It suits middle and low-class society. It also suits book collectors, because they have a better chance to find their desired items and with a lower prices.
What kind of books do you focus on selling, and which ones are the best sellers?
I sell many kind of books, such as magazines, comics, dictionaries, school textbooks, books about business, health and old Chinese books.
People might not expect this answer, but the best sellers are dictionaries. Specifically, ‘The English-Indonesian & Indonesian-English Dictionary’ by John M. Echols and Hassan Sadily. You may have your own favorite reading, but I guess everyone needs a dictionary.
Do people mostly sell or buy books when they visit your stall?
Instead of getting my stuff from individuals selling their old books like most people think, I mostly get them from my own supplier. But some people do come here and ask if I want to buy their books. I will buy it only if it’s unique and can be sold back. One day, I bought this old Chinese book for only Rp 30,000 [$3.20] and I sold it for Rp 150,000. That was my selling record.
How much do you sell usually?
It ranges from Rp 5,000 to Rp 150,000. The cheapest are comics or other small-sized books. Women, usually office workers, often buy magazines to accompany them during work. The expensive ones are the big and thick books, sometimes with hardcovers, like the Bible, Koran, large dictionaries and old Chinese books.
Working everyday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., I can get between five and 20 buyers and make between Rp 50,000 to Rp 150,000 a day. It sounds like it’s good, but it’s not really. We have to pay the security, rent for my space and the rest goes to my family. My stall uses the front area of my friend’s shophouse, so he doesn’t charge me much.
Did your hobby in reading start before or after you started your business?
Reading has been my hobby since 1960. Back then, I loved to read comics, magazines and story books. My schooling stopped after primary school, so in 1970, I started selling books door to door. Once I had enough money, I opened the stall in Asemka and have been here for 30 years.
Because I couldn’t finish my education, I want my family to have a better life. They often come here to accompany me while I’m working, and all they do is read instead of help out [laughs]. Now all four of my sons have their own jobs and families, and now I have seven grandsons.
Do you accept book orders?
Not always. It depends on availability. If the supplier can provide it, I can give the requested items to the buyer on the next day. Otherwise, I will have to search for it myself and buy it from a wholesale book seller. If that is the case, then the cost will be higher than usual.
Do people complain when they realize that they’re buying used books?
Yes, many people complain about the condition of the book. It seems that they forget that these are all second-hand books, which is why there’s a cheaper price. But if they complain too much I will just give them a better copy.
How has Asemka changed in 30 years?
It’s the government. During the administration of Governor Haji Ali Sadikin, the security was rude and used harsh methods to curb road side stalls. They closed my stall and seized my books.
Now, the security here is kind. They only curb things here if this place gets too crowded with buyers. They have been my friends for 30 years.
Asmad was talkingto Mark Vincent Sindhunata.