when the mountains won’t come to muhammad, then muhammad will do well to head to the mountains. for university mates and magazine enthusiasts huong yukiat, yeoh kean yek and ng chee wei, the summit in question was the difficulties they faced in getting hold of independent, design-focused publications that fed their interest.
they banded together to set up bok tjuv in 2011, an online and pop-up magazine store that brings in titles that are hard to come by in malaysia. it’s interesting to note that none of the three friends studied or are working in design-related fields. two of them are multimedia technology graduates and working at two different bookstores, while the other did his degree in e-commerce and is an it programmer. their interest in design only came about after they had completed their studies.
bok tjuv, which is swedish for ‘book thief’, references the trio’s penchant for scandinavian aesthetics and also the idea that readers can ‘steal’ ideas in finding ideas and inspiration from books or magazines. there’s also an amusing anecdote that led to the moniker, and it started with the store’s initial incarnation. “a friend of ours had two floors of empty space above his yoga centre,” says yukiat. “he suggested that, since we had such a big collection of magazines, we should take up that space and run a magazine cafe.”
the three took up the offer, splitting the space with a photographer, and went about setting up what was meant to be a library where people could hang out while browsing through their magazines. “a friend asked us if we were worried someone would steal our collection,” yukiat reveals with a laugh. they knew then that the name was a perfect fit.
that original bok tjuv was at the strand in kota damansara and as all three were holding down full-time jobs (and still do), they only opened on weekends. true to their love for the scandinavians’ characteristic clean and minimalist style, the quaint space was fuss-free but inviting. a small pantry let them roll out baked goods that customers could tuck into while getting lost among the magazines, which were arranged on basic wooden shelves just as one would at home. a small retail section displayed a selection of gift items.
the latter comprised handmade creations by local artisanal labels as well as canvas bags designed and sewed by chee wei on a trusty old sewing machine that his mum, a tailor, had gifted him. contrary to what one may think, he did not always know how to stitch or embroider. “we had brought in some bags from thailand and to our surprise, they sold very well,” yukiat recalls. “chee wei felt that it was something he could do and so he asked his mum for lessons.”
while they are are sold under the bok tjuv name, the bags – there are only one or two pieces of each – carry no labels so as not to distract from the design and quality. their early offerings were simple carry-alls with a pocket in front and another within, made from thick canvas that was chosen for their hardwearing and long-lasting features. chee wei would also create his own prints (big blue polka dots, anyone?) and natural dyes, using unexpected ingredients like coffee. judging from the immaculate handiwork, you wouldn’t have guessed that they were chee wei’s first attempts, and he continuously perfects his work.
the current collection is testament to this: pockets have disappeared into seamless slits, shoulder bags sport asymmetrical colour block and printed fabrics with floral motifs. there’s also an unusual marble design that was created by digital printing. as the collections grow, so too has the involvement of chee wei’s partners. “he does the designing and sewing, but all three of us sit down to discuss ideas and check that every bag is up to standard,” says yukiat.
magazines remain their first love but for them, it’s not so much about owning them as it is to share that love. rather than waiting for people to seek them out, they began participating in art bazaars and flea markets, and stocked up on magazines to sell. but it left them with little time and resources to keep the library (which they fondly nickname space 1.0) going.
at the end of 2012, they moved out and began focusing their efforts on running bok tjuv as an online (they accept orders through their facebook page) and pop-up store. a ‘space 2.0’ materialised last year when a friend offered half his shop, at one south street mall in sri kembangan, but it’s an irregular set up that would open by reservation only.
while ‘space 2.0’ still exists and part of their collection is kept there, bok tjuv’s stock is mostly stored at home. they’ve lost track of the number of magazines in their inventory, and there is no particular criteria to the titles they bring in. “if we feel that it’s a good magazine, we will try to get hold of it,” yukiat explains, adding that because they don’t have a big budget and therefore unable to stock up too much, they can’t always order directly from publishers. sometimes, he’s had to resort to buying just one or two copies from bookstores or online and resell them with a small markup. “it’s not about how many copies we sell or how much we make, we bring in what we can so that others can get access to them.”
as bibliophiles themselves, the trio understand too well that thrill in getting your hands on a new issue of a beloved magazine, or a crisp copy of a title that’s completely new yet exciting. what lies within its pages? what’s the story behind the cover image? from popular volumes like monocle, cereal and kinfolk to cult titles like apartamento and home-grown publications, bok tjuv’s spread is one that wordsmiths and magazine lovers would be happy to bury their noses and thoughts in for hours at end.
their last pop-up appearance was last month’s bok fair, an event they organised that coincided with their third anniversary and brought together eight other vendors whose works reflected a similar passion for design or the written word – and drew a crowd of like-minded folks. small and intimate, the event included sharing sessions by the vendors who spoke about their respective craft. although it lasted just five hours, it was a fine reflection of bok tjuv’s philosophy on the importance of sharing passion and is proof that their decision to stay mobile hits the mark right on it spot.
for now, they are content to keep it that way and are not looking to set up a physical store. as yukiat reasons, “once we make it a full-fledged business, we won’t enjoy it as much.”
follow bok tjuv at their facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/boktjuv) or instagram (@boktjuv) for updates on available magazines and their pop-up dates.
this article was first published in crave, the lifestyle pullout of the sunday mail, and the malay mail online on 6 july 2014