The Jakarta Post
Visitors browse through books at the Bengkel Deklamasi secondhand bookstore in the Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM) arts center in Central Jakarta. The store was given until March 31 to clear itself out. (The Jakarta Post/P.J. Leo)
Visitors to the Jakarta cultural center, Taman Ismail Marzuki (TIM), are probably familiar with one small corner where the Bengkel Deklamasi secondhand bookstore nestles between two buildings that house the complex’s largest performance halls.
Over the years, the bookstore has become popular, providing the public with rare used books and, in the process, turning the place into a small cultural icon loved by many.
However, the store is to soon become a memory. After 23 years of providing a service to Indonesian bibliophiles, as well as cultural and artistic figures, the store was given until March 31 to clear itself out as part of a program to modernize the cultural center complex.
The bookstore-cum-mini-library was founded, owned by poet and theater icon Jose Rizal Manua in July 1996 and he has operated it ever since.
Jose said the idea for it arose in 1988, when he visited New York City with the late playwright W.S. Rendra’s Bengkel Teater company.
In New York, Jose said he was fascinated by the abundance of secondhand bookstores and the availability of many books on theater and film for good prices.
A book collector himself, Jose said he found a piece of heaven in the secondhand book stores of Broadway. “In the end, Rendra and I brought back a total of eight suitcases full of books from New York. He had five while I had three,” he told The Jakarta Post.
It was after this experience in New York that he said he decided to bring the idea to Jakarta. He said he passed the idea to then Jakarta governor Soerjadi Soedirja in 1994, explaining his notion that secondhand bookstores were vital for developing Indonesian culture and arts since many books sold outside the country were not available to the Indonesian public.
Therefore, he said he suggested it be built on public land, which the TIM complex was.
Its opening ceremony was attended by prominent figures, like Rendra, Taufiq Ismail, Iwan Fals, Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Franky Raden, Leon Agusta, Samuel Wattimena and the governor himself.
Many of the books that Jose brought back from New York were displayed and sold at the store, although some of them still remain there to this day.
Disorganized shelves inside the cramped interior are filled with old books, their covers and pages worn by time.
The books range from vintage travel guides and dictionaries to biographies of Indonesian and world figures, history books, romance novels and even loose comic books from faraway countries.
Books in English, German, Dutch, Mandarin and Portuguese can be found if one looks hard enough. There are even old cassette tapes of dangdut and disco music from the 1970s and 1980s.
Jose said he acquired the books he sold in his store from all corners of Indonesia and the world. When traveling, he purposefully seeks out books and scripture at secondhand bookstores wherever he goes. Sometimes, he said he did immediately realize he had stumbled upon solid gold.
“I recall one time when a British Library representative visited the store and bought dozens and dozens of old poetry scripts because they were incredibly rare in Britain itself,” he says.
Bengkel Deklamasi, he claims, has inspired many other secondhand bookstores to pop up in several Indonesian cities, operating on the same premise that no matter how rare a book is, it must be sold cheaply. “Because by doing so, it allows people easier access to the information they need,” Jose says.
Several legendary literary figures, many of whom have already died, had over the years provided their thoughts on the bookstore – all collected within the store’s guest book.
“This bookstore brings such a lively atmosphere. It is a prime source of information. The used books here bring forth many surprises. But what I’m most amazed about the place is the fact it has become a place where artists are able to casually congregate with a high degree of friendliness and warmth” wrote Rendra.
“[Bengkel Deklamasi] is an important ‘station’ to stop by in the TIM area. Especially with the myriad of rare literary scripts that are available here,” wrote late poet Leon Agusta.
Following the plan for the store’s removal in 2017, Jose wrote a lengthy letter in response, raising hopes that Jakarta’s government would think twice before removing what had become what he claims to be an internationally recognized site for Indonesia’s cultural and artistic figures and societies.
But the plea fell on the government’s deaf ears.
It was after he put posts on Facebook regarding the store’s closure that collectors and artists alike reached out to him, offering to take care of the books, or even to offer their help in trying to keep the store afloat.
“It seems that a lot of people feel deeply about the store. Honestly, I was surprised at the magnitude of the response,” Jose says.
With its days numbered, he said all he could do was accept its fate.
Hundreds of the books that are currently in the store are to be donated to the Watu Lumbung cultural resort in Yogyakarta as part of the resort’s plans to build a library on their grounds.
Looking forward, Jose said he does not know what is to become of the corner he created and managed for the past quarter century.
Over the years, he claimed, it has become a meeting place for Indonesian artists to just sit, talk and hang out, surrounded by priceless walls of books.
“The likes of Taufiq Ismail, Seno Gumira Ajidarma, Remy Sylado and my late friend W.S. Rendra all liked to frequent this place to just hang out. They said my store had become the meeting point for artists to share their thoughts with each other. The books provide for great conversations too,” Jose said.
Proper hangouts for artists, Jose explains, are ironically nowhere to be found in the TIM complex and he is hoping the store’s space would be turned into a place where artists can just be artists and hang out.
“A place where minds share ideas, accompanied by whatever they would need to do it: coffee, books, whatever. That’s what I hope it would become, furthering the spirit of the bookstore today.”
As a tribute to the store, Jose posted a lengthy, visceral poem on his Facebook page on Jan. 20 showing his love for the very institution he had run for the past 23 years.
The accompanying photograph to this poem is an old newspaper shot of Jose sitting on a chair in the corner, looking proud and content, surrounded by the tomes of knowledge around him.
An excerpt reads:
“May you sit surrounded by this forest of books,
Even for a moment, taking them all in.
Let these books that have been read
paint pictures of life,
Let these books,
Whisper to you the message of peace
for every person across this nation,
for Indonesia.” (ste)