Francis Xavier Sutopo sits in his pedicab reading a magazine. He wants people to read books more and has turned his cab into a mobile library. (Photo supplied)
Francis Xavier Sutopo is not like other pedicab drivers plying their trade in Yogyakarta, a major city on the Indonesian island of Java.
The 74-year-old Catholic is not just hoping to pick up passengers at the city’s markets, schools, parks and shopping malls to take them to where they want to go — he wants them to learn a thing or two as well.
Sutopo has installed a bookshelf behind the passenger seat, turning his pedicab into a little mobile library where people can read while heading to their destination.
He says he has at least 200 fiction and non-fiction books and magazines on various topics for his passengers to choose from.
Sutopa, who graduated from the Indonesian Fine Arts Academy in Yogyakarta, said the books were donated by the local government, individuals and organizations including Kanisius Printing and Publishing, a Jesuit-run publishing house.
He says he began stocking his pedicab with up to 150 titles each day about five years ago after noticing fewer people were reading books and were playing games on smartphones instead.
“The younger generation now choose to play games or message each other rather than read books. It’s a worrying trend. They don’t seem to realize how much knowledge they can gain by simply reading a book,” the father of three told UCA News.
He says he wants to help restore a culture of reading and has become so well known in Yogyakarta that he is often called a librarian rather than just a pedicab driver.
“I’m going up against a young generation living in the digital era by advising them to return to books to learn about many topics and basic values in life,” he says.
To attract readers, the retired civil servant has painted his pedicab in bright colors with slogans that say “Let’s read” or simply “Free library.”
People can either read while he takes them on a journey or they can look at a book while he’s parked up somewhere. They can even borrow them and take them home.
“I have a deal with those wishing to borrow them that they return them to me after about four days,” he says.
Sutopo says he provides the service for free but sometimes people give him tips which he uses to buy more books. It’s not a concern to him that he might be earning less than other drivers who pick up more passengers as he says he’s well looked after by his family, who have a restaurant business.
He says he loves providing knowledge to people from various backgrounds, be they students, teachers, business people or scavengers.
“I am proud of what I’m doing, says Sutopo, adding that several students have borrowed his books to help them write coursework essays.
Many have taken advantage of his service and at least 30 people are regular readers.
He has also received help from admirers, with one company giving him an electric-powered pedicab in 2019 to stop him from tiring himself out each day.
Elyandra Widharta, 34, says he often takes the opportunity to read Sutopo’s books.
“It’s an extraordinary thing for the man to do considering he is elderly and the limited means at his disposal. I find it very noble that he still wants to care for and expand the minds of young people. He moves and motivates society into realizing that reading is important,” Widharta told UCA News
“He has some quality books that have certainly helped me broaden my knowledge,” says Widharta, a writer, who says he reads books from Sutopo’s little library at least once a week.
Jesuit Father Francis Xavier Mudji Sutrisno, a professor at the Driyarkara School of Philosophy in Jakarta, says Sutopo should be admired.
“A pedicab driver promoting the reading of books is heart-warming. As a lecturer, I am concerned and ashamed at the way reading is being ignored,” he told UCA News.
The priest says many students cannot write essays. They just copy the work of other people, which is a result of them not reading books. “They want grades without making any effort, which isn’t honest,” he says.
This trend prompted him and some of his colleagues to write a book titled Wandering Through Books by aiming to invite society, particularly the young generation, to read books.
Sutopo really hopes young people will return to books, even if they are on a digital platform, because they offer a window to many opportunities.
"More insight and knowledge will make them better people and improve their prospects," he says.