For some, bookstores are simply irreplaceable. Though online shops are easily accessible and e-books can be downloaded at our convenience, these cannot match the excitement of being surrounded by physical books and running your fingers along the spines to find your old favorites or discover a new escape.

The smell of a freshly opened book can be compelling as well.

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has forced numerous bookstores in Indonesia to temporarily halt their operations since March, leaving bibliophiles longing for their havens.

“I certainly miss bookstores,” managing editor of Kata Depan publishing Hestia Istiviani told The Jakarta Post. “Scrolling through an online catalogue isn’t as fun as traversing a bookstore’s aisles and stumbling upon ‘hidden gems’. Looking at book covers arranged on the shelves is enjoyable.”

As Jakarta entered the “new normal” period and the transitional large-scale social restrictions (PSBB) stage in June, numerous bookshops gradually resumed their operations.

Jakarta-based teacher Shinta Wisnugupta is among those who visited Gramedia bookstore at Grand Indonesia shopping mall, Central Jakarta, during this period. “I wanted to look for magazines or books to fill my working-from-home break time,” Shinta said. “I usually search for nonfiction or language books, which are easier to peruse physically compared with the online versions.”

Gaining popularity: Having a strong online presence since 1996 with an online catalog and selling non-book items, Gramedia only started to implement the e-commerce model to sell books in 2007. (Courtesy of Shutterstock/File)

Gramedia’s public relations manager Rezza Patria Wibowo said the company had seen a decline in the number of visitors after its reopening in early June . “It is understandable as people are still afraid to go outside and be involved in social interaction,” Rezza told the Post via e-mail.

Established in 1970, the bookstore has its e-commerce platform Gramedia.com featuring its Order-Pay-Deliver service where customers can use WhatsApp to order books. However, despite its online platform, Gramedia will still run its offline promotion programs based on the scheduled marketing agenda.

“We will reduce the number of events at which people gather in large groups. Talk-shows and book launches are held virtually via Gramediabooks on Instagram and each publisher’s social media account,” he said, adding that Gramedia still focused on carrying out health protocols, informing staff about Covid-19 handling and promoting its e-commerce platform .

Similar to Gramedia, Periplus bookstore has reopened several of its outlets in shopping malls while abiding by health protocols, including limiting the number of visitors and requiring its staff to wear face masks and face shields.Read AlsoLeading Singaporean bookstore chain Popular closes all 16 branches across Hong Kong

In an email to the Post, Periplus’ marketing team stated that following the reopening, its visitor numbers had declined significantly compared with the pre-pandemic days.

“We’re still focusing on offline business in our outlets while also strengthening our online presence via Periplus.com , social media and e-commerce platforms that have increased during the pandemic,” the email stated. “We will also add more features on our website and provide limited titles.”

The bookstore, which was founded in 1999, has experienced several changes as a result of the outbreak. “We’ve taken more pre-orders as numerous publishers have postponed their publishing,” read the statement. “But imports from the United Kingdom and the United States had returned to normal by mid-June.”

The pandemic has affected independent bookstores in the city as well.

For financial auditor Gita Swasti, visiting an indie bookshop offers her the chance of interacting with other readers. “As the outlets are small, I could chat with the staff or other visitors,” Gita said. “When a visitor held a book that I’ve read, for instance, I’d say, ‘The author’s background is interesting’ or ‘This book has had a thorough research process’, and he or she would respond. That’s happened a lot.”

Similar to Gita, Jakarta-based tax official Onut also prefers to visit indie bookshops. She recently paid a visit to Aksara bookstore in South Jakarta after being unable to travel anywhere for three months. “The nearest stores [to my workplace] are Aksara and POST [Bookshop]. Their book collections are fascinating and they suit my taste,” Onut said. “Bookstores are where I can search for and find interesting books I’ve never seen.”

Nestled on the upper floor of Pasar Santa, a revitalized traditional market, in South Jakarta, POST Bookshop was established in July 2014 by husband and wife Teddy W. Kusuma and Maesy Ang.

The bookstore’s temporary closure in mid-March has made both more active on Instagram . They saw a slight decrease in sales at first, as their visitors usually buy a book after looking at the store’s window display, asking for recommendations from the staff or other readers, as well as joining discussions often held in the bookstore.

“But it returned to normal in the second month as readers who are from outside of the city and unable to visit the market bought books online,” Teddy and Maesy said in an email.

Though they provide an online service, they have decided to focus on developing their physical outlet as it is aligned with its main aim to be an alternative public space where readers and writers interact about high-quality books and authorship.

On its online platform, POST Bookshop still maintains a close relationship with its readers, especially through direct messaging. It has also held various events on Instagram Live.

Regarding the shop’s reopening, Teddy and Maesy said they would decide the date based on the situation and conditions in August. Standard health protocols will be applied when they do reopen, including postponing regular offline discussions and limiting the number of visitors.

Online operations on Instagram have also become the focus of indie bookstore Transit after temporarily closing its store in Pasar Santa on March 20 . Opened in late 2018 by Indra Soaloon Situmorang and Aliendheasja “Alien” Fawilia, it is known for featuring various themes in its collections, with “Resist” being the latest one.

“We are grateful that our readers’ interest has not subsided following the pandemic,” wrote Alien in an email. “By operating online, we’re able to interact with people who haven’t visited our stores because of time and distance restrictions.”

Alien added that they saw potential in combining “online and offline offerings” in the future to increase readers’ engagement. “We feel that bookstores need to enhance online features to complement the readers’ needs. Honestly, we’re still brainstorming about the patterns for our reopening,” she said, adding that the shop was still waiting until the situation improved before resuming operations.

The outbreak has also greatly affected supplies as the shop orders books from direct distributors abroad. “For now, most of them only operate partially because of Covid-19, so the books will take longer to reach Indonesia,” Alien said. “It’s quite difficult as book deliveries can be unpredictable. Hence, we always inform our readers about the expected arrival or any delay. Thankfully, they understand.”