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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, February 05, 2021

entry arrow3:37 PM | A Personal History of Bookstores in Dumaguete

The most telling observation about bookstores comes from the novelist John Updike who once noted, with such precision of fact and function: “Bookstores are lonely forts, spilling light onto the sidewalk. They civilize their neighborhoods.”

Fact: Bookstores are indeed “lonely forts.” A fort protects the denizens of a place from various barbarian invasions—and that metaphor feels apt for any age. What are bookstores after all except as library and market of knowledge? If there is anything we have learned, with such rough thoroughness, from the past few years, it is that knowledge is surprisingly fragile to keep [like democracy], and truth is easily lost in an avalanche of “alternative facts.” Think about it: we live in an age where the DDS and QAnon/MAGA readily brandish their lies and conspiracy theories—and thousands believe them unironically. To keep a fort of knowledge is indeed the loneliest thing. Add to that the notion that bookstores are hard businesses to sustain in a world that purportedly has no more patience for reading, and the loneliness becomes even more lonelier.

Function: Bookstores indeed “civilize their neighborhoods.” You take the sad notions of the preceding paragraph, and the wisest thing to do is to exclaim, “So what?” Do we dismantle the fort because the barbarians keep coming? No, you fortify its defenses some more. Do we shirk from upholding truth because conspiracy theorists have loud voices and Mocha Uson has thousands of followers? No, you dig your heels in, because in the long, long arc of history, truth prevails. The sustained deflection is the sum of the civilized.

You have probably heard of this truism from the American educational reformer Horace Mann [1796-1859]: “A house without books is like a room without windows.” Windows bring in light, a vista of the world outside. I take that simile further and say that a house without books is like a body without a soul. The soul separates us from automatons, and defines our humanity and our capacity to dream. Books are a microcosm of these functions.

So what then does that make of a city without bookstores?

Draw your own conclusions.

It has always seemed funny to me when Dumaguete started trumpeting itself, back in the mid-1990s, as a “University Town,” and even officially made the tag an inducement for potential investment and tourism. Literally, it’s not a false claim: for a city its size, the presence of major universities made Dumaguete an academic daydream—and businesses who want to cater to its young, educated demographic can have it for a playground. But “University Town” carries with it other important connotations: it implies a place with a fervent cultural scene, a place that’s home to progressive ideas, and a place that provides support to all that and its academic claim. Coffee shops are part of that. Bistros and cafes, too. Museums and galleries as well. Movie theaters and concert halls. Study halls and Internet hubs. And bookstores.

But bookstores in Dumaguete have always been the elusive dream, sometimes coming to fruition, and often foundering to significant loss. Not including National Bookstore, which is really a school supplies store, and not counting the ones in Manila, I’ve always envied bookstores in other Philippine cities with a similar claim to the “University Town” label: Baguio has Mt. Cloud Bookshop and Naga City has Savage Mind.

You’d think Dumaguete with its storied literary pedigree would have a good one equal to these two—but for the longest time it didn’t, enough to laugh at its “University Town” claim. But it’s also not that reductive like what you might think. The best word to describe the history of bookstores in Dumaguete is this “spotty.”

I cannot pinpoint to the exact year Dumaguete had its first business that sold books. Our local history books are silent on that account—but there must have been one, given the strong and influential presence of Silliman Institute [later on, Silliman University] at the turn of the 20th century. Because where would its students buy their reading materials? There used to be a Silliman Bookstore, which closed in the 2000s—and that must have started somewhere, sometime.

Contemporary memories point to Funda Bookstore along Alfonso XIII [now Perdices Street] as the definitive bookstore for Dumaguete in the 1960s until the 1970s. It closed in the early 1980s when its owners decided to relocate to Zamboanga. This was not exactly its end. Santiago Caballes, the Fundas’ bookkeeper, decided to carry on the bookselling business, and together with wife Lily, founded Negros Law Books Supply, selling predominantly textbooks, along the same stretch of Alfonso XIII. They also had a grocery store, but soon fused both businesses to become Lily J. Caballes Bookstore, still in that same exact spot on what is now Perdices. The bookstore still exists today—a small, charming space that caters to textbooks, with the occasional literary title. I have high hopes for its continuing evolution, and considering that it is heritage establishment, it should be able to embrace the fast-changing culture of bookselling and mold it to Dumaguete’s peculiarities.

But the most significant development in the bookselling front in Dumaguete was the establishment of The Village Bookstore along Noblefranca Street, housed in what is now Dumaguete Academy for Culinary Arts or DACA, operated with enterprising gusto by Jong and Danah Fortunato [who were also instrumental in paving the way for Dumaguete to be a host for BPOs]. When The Village Bookstore opened in 2000, it was considered by many in Dumaguete as a breath of fresh air, a much-needed facet to the claim of “University Town.” The National Artist for Literature Edith Lopez Tiempo graced its opening, cutting the symbolic ribbon. [I also had the launch of my first book in TVB, back in 2002.] It was a haven for many, and its inventory of children’s books and Filipiniana made its collection unique.

In the 2000s, you had your fill of Filipino authors in TVB. But if you wanted novels by foreign authors—and on the cheap—you went to our other bookselling haven: Old San Francisco Bookstore, which occupied an entire two-storey house along Calle Maria Cristina in the heart of Cambagroy. Secondhand books crammed every corner, every space in this house, all titles sold in color codes of red, blue, green, and yellow—most in prices in mere double digits. Every summer, it became the mecca for visiting Filipino writers eager to find a rare title or two.

TVB closed in 2006, almost six years since it opened, and the property owners of the house Old San Francisco Bookstore was renting decided to turn over the lease to a lending business, forcing the proprietor to seek another space. They found a spot in front of the Provincial Capitol, and continued on for some time—but the voodoo magic of the old house was gone. Old San Francisco Bookstore finally closed in 2008.

Beside Caballes Bookstore, there was only XIQ Bookstore, founded on Silliman Avenue, and then later on transferring in the bowels of Lu Pega Building along V. Locsin Street—but it is more of a lending/renting library, with a collection leaning towards comic books and commercial bestsellers. In my youth, this was also a haven—and I’m astonished at its longevity. It still exists, renting out books to young bookworms in the city.

When Portal West in Silliman campus was built in 2007, it carried with its establishment the excitement of finally having a National Bookstore branch in Dumaguete. For many, it felt like we’d arrived: here was a flagship store we only associated with bigger cities right in the heart of our locality. For a while, the branch was truly a pulsing center of the community—it became the meet-up points for friends, because how better to pass waiting time than by browsing books? [We bought many books that way.]—until it made the fateful [and for many, a wrong-headed] decision to transfer to the newly-opened Robinsons Place in 2009, ostensibly for better foot traffic. It closed in 2019. What has fared better in Robinsons is BookSale—still a favorite place to go for secondhand books, its stacked tiny quarters tucked away near the food court feeling very much like a bibliophile’s idea of a treasure hunt.

I love bookstores. In many ways, my favorite ones have become markers for milestones in my life—and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. Bookstores, when they become an integral part of the community fabric, gives you that extra charm of personal treatment—the bookseller knowing exactly what you need in the right time. Bookstores open the door to new worlds. Bookstores offer the significant high of the smell of a book—essentially lignin, which is present in all wood-based paper, which in the process of breaking down smells like vanilla. Bookstores, on normal, non-pandemic days, offer you literary activities, because human beings do not live on books alone. And bookstores offer the best space for getting lost in—the way I have at The Strand in New York, or The Haunted Bookshop, the oldest secondhand bookshop in Iowa City, with their resident cat.

In 2020, right in the middle of our COVID-19 lockdown, a new bookstore opened shop in Dumaguete. The brainchild of 19-year-old Natania Shay Du—whose parents, Stella and Ed, are two of the city’s most gregarious entrepreneurs—Ikaduhang Andana [Binisaya for “second floor”] takes its inspiration from its very location in the Solon house [the attic] in the compound right behind the SUMC Medical Specialty Building.

“In the process of building the bookstore and connecting with the community…we realized that, because of the pandemic, there is an immediate need for more accessible education in any way,” Shay told Renz Torres in an interview for MetroPost. But her focus is on Philippine publications, especially taking note of showcasing Dumaguete’s many writers. “It was imperative that we revive and reinvent stories that are meaningful and made for the locals’ experience,” Shay said.

It feels like a true community bookstore that way. Only TVB in the early 2000s made it an important consideration to showcase the local. Which was weird, especially after TVB closed, because most visitors I had gave me this query: “Where can we buy books by Dumaguete authors?” For the longest time, I had no answer to that—until Ikaduhang Andana.

So far, Shay and her business partners have been enterprising, even with the challenges of the pandemic, pursuing assorted online promos, and even opening an online shopping capability where they’d deliver books to your door [if you’re in the vicinity of Metro Dumaguete], or via courier [for any point in the Philippines]. Turns out, they’ve been fielding requests for rare-to-find books by Filipino authors by buyers outside of Dumaguete.

Shay knows the challenges of pursuing a business like this in the age of Amazon. Her ace is the singularity of her inventory, and a young entrepreneur’s sense of what makes the contemporary bookworm tick. “What makes us unique,” Shay told Renz, “is our recognition of the individuality of each reader …and our willingness to cater to their preferred experience. Hopefully, the inevitable happens and they come across the books and fall in love with them.”

So here’s to that, and to Shay, and to bookstores, and for Dumaguete striving still to be the true “university town” it hopes to be.

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