For lovers of English-language books, Jakarta has to be one of the most frustrating cities on Earth. The selection is atrocious (understandable in a former Dutch colony that has more than 350 languages and dialects of its own to cater to), and if you do manage to strike gold, chances are you won't be able to flip through your selections because they will be shrink-wrapped. But all that looks set to change with the success of Aksara (www.aksara.com). The independent bookseller is zeroing in on the niche markets of Jakarta's middle classes and catering to tastes once served only by retailers in nearby Singapore. With three stores in the Indonesian capital, Aksara (the name means "letter" in Sanskrit) also encourages shoppers to simply hang out and browse a novel experience in Jakarta.
But Aksara is hoping to do more than effect a revolution in local retailing practices. It also sees itself as being on a cultural mission, importing all the accoutrements of 21st century cool, printed or otherwise, to a city that still regards such things as dizzying novelties. Apart from books, Aksara carries Jakarta's best selection of imported music (iPods adorn the walls, allowing listeners to check out music before buying, and CDs can be sampled at listening stations). It also stocks cameras from cult Russian manufacturer Lomo as well as a range of fashionable giftware and stationery. Aksara's founder and ceo, 34-year-old Winfred Hutabarat, compares the store to Collette in Paris, or 10 [an error occurred while processing this directive] Corso Como in Milan. "We are a concept store selling a range of products," he says. "But whereas those stores have fashion as an anchor, ours is books." John McGlynn, publishing director of the Lontar Foundation, which translates Indonesian literature into English, describes Aksara as "a curator, choosing books and other things with a special appeal."
It's a formula that's winning many fans. On any given day at Aksara's biggest branch in South Jakarta, you might chance upon a poetry reading or a performance from a local electronica group. The crowd
is a good-natured mix of students, style mavens and young expats, while the staff shaggy of hair and baggy of trousers is almost entirely made up of college kids from well-off families. Previously, Jakarta's jeunesse dorée shunned service-sector jobs. Now, they're clamoring for a foot in the door.
Aksara's new role as a cultural producer is part of the allure. It recently launched a book on Indonesian architecture under its own imprint, and it's now working on a TV show about the creative process. Aksara Records, an offshoot, is about to release its eighth CD and recently entered into a distribution deal with Universal Music Group Indonesia. None of these works are designed to appeal to a mass audience, but that isn't the point. "Aksara is more about the choice of music, the people and their vision," says Daniel Tumiwa, Universal's marketing director. "We need people who believe in content and fight for their creativity." It also helps if they know a thing or two about marketing. "There is only so much you can sell in Jakarta," says Hutabarat, "but with a little imagination you can bring a lot of good stuff to market." And the market will drink it in, if those beeping cash registers are anything to go by.