Saturday, February 28, 2009


A RECENT visit to a favorite secondhand shop downtown delivered these rewards: 10 dark-as-soot fingers and 11 copies of “The Economist.”

Known in the 1980s as the Music House, the shop has long moved from its old location beside the creek running past Jakosalem St. to somewhere down V. Gullas.

While the fumes rising from the poison gagging the creek never stopped diehard readers and cheapskates from rooting for books among the vintage LPs and 45 rpms in the old Music House, the current address is a definite step or two up the ladder of mobility.

But don’t crane your neck for any latte. This is Colon, where the establishments still don’t believe in pretentious airs, just selling: bowls of batchoy (ordinary, special with one egg, or superspecial with still one egg but two yolks for the price of one), lotto dreams, religious articles, and meat to fit all budgets.

As far as I can remember, the secondhand shop, whose new name I have never been able to retain, draws only committed browsers, with the occasional buyer. (Since some of my students have searched in vain for a store displaying used books, tramping up and down V. Gullas St. enough times to warrant being mistaken for streetwalkers, I am tipping you off that the books cannot be seen from the street. You have to go past hulking narra furniture and faded china heirlooms before you catch a whiff of the paperbacks. As they say in the secondhand business, looks always deceive.)

On the day I dropped by, the competition was thin: just a couple of romance hunters and two men who cornered the piles of “Times” and “Newsweek” of past decades. One of them had planted his shoeless self in front of the “Economist” batches so while waiting, I orbited with Venusian adventurers among the scifi piles for an hour or two.

Weirdness is not a category in reading, one of the reasons why I find it so comforting. Some like to read about star ships; some think they are star ships. My companions did not think shoes and a bath were necessary for browsing; I seek “The Economist” for its “Obituary” section, tales about dead people, featuring the most alive writing I’ve seen in any news medium.

The shop derives many of its “The Economist” issues, oftentimes mummy-sealed in its plastic cover, from a subscriber who probably needs the magazine to weigh down his other mail or dress up his waiting room. I don’t want to say anything more because I benefit from his inattention. A new issue at a bookstore commands nearly P300; stale by a few months or a couple of years, the shop’s copies sell for P10, P2 more than the dog-eared “Time” and “Newsweek” that students and hobos favor.

For the P2 difference, you get much fewer photos and drawings and more grey columns of text—wit so mordant, one laughs and then checks to see if any body part has been pierced by the sarcasm; writing so vibrant, the lean lines still pulse quicksilver, their insights bluish and discernible, you expect the sentences to shiver and swim away before your eyes.

“The Economist” does not believe in bylines. Even in the “Obituary,” where the craft reaches a pinnacle that keeps up with expectations for each issue’s final section, as well as a finale tackling terminal transitions, there are still no writing credits, no distractions, just the writing.

Of Kurt Waldheim, former secretary-general of the United Nations and closet Nazi, the magazine wrote: “a diplomat with a selective memory.” When two grandes dames of New York society passed away in 2007, signaling the end of two different streams of philanthropy, the magazine commented: “Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley, who died within a few days of each other, gave millions of dollars away. And their similarities ended there.”

Far from a snob, the “Obituary” distills lives of passion, considering politicians and celebrities the equals of a western clothing tailor, Gaelic musician or gardener (Christopher Lloyd, wrote “The Economist,” was an “iconoclastic English gardener” who “believed that plants should go their own way in gardens. If a yellow spike of mullein decided to grow in a clump of bright pink phlox, he welcomed it. (‘Hurrah for vulgarity!’, as he wrote once.)”

In the present, distinctions do exist, with not writing but agenda and budgets creating media events and the pseudo news story.

That explains the enduring attraction of this secondhand bookshop, where there are always readers to tend the fire of writing, with or without a bath.

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s “Matamata” column, published on March 1, 2009

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