NOT all booksellers are created equal.
Years ago, my grandmother came home, empty-handed, from New York. She could not find a copy of a book I implored her to find, Joan Didion’s “A Book of Common Prayer.”
It seemed she trailed behind clerks in two bookstores, peering up and down interminable shelves. Didion was a no-show in the “Religious” section, where my grandmother was invariably led.
Until now, when I discover a bookseller, I give it the Didion test.
Not just in New York but some bookstores in Cebu, Dumaguete, Bacolod, Manila, Bangkok and Chiang Mai did not know what to do with her.
“A Book of Common Prayer,” a novel about an American mother searching for a daughter she loses to Marxism and history in Central America, is almost always shelved under the categories of “Religious,” “Spiritual,” and, once, as “New Age”.
My desire to come upon emporiums of books is partially fueled by the dream of encountering in some shelf categorized as “Christian,” “Travel” or “Health” Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” her New Journalism essays on shooting LSD and the alternative lifestyle in San Francisco.
One weekend granted me this wish, sort of.
Head down and quickly losing oxygen, I was running through a pile when I found “A Book of Common Prayer” sandwiched among some New Testaments and devotionals.
The honor of making it to my personal record belongs to Les Trésors de La Belle Aurore Bookshop.
I’ve had my eye on this bookstore since last year. The sight of a glass display of book covers was so shocking, it got my mind off the usually heavy and trying traffic along Hernan Cortes St.
I grew up in nearby Barangay Tipolo. Some of my memory cells are still suffused with the reek of wet manure (from the two poultries located in the neighborhood), rotting fish guts (courtesy of the fish canneries) and the desperation wafting from the picket lines of striking workers (our homes jostled with factories and warehouses).
On the day we dropped by, there was among the trade books displayed on the show window a yellowing but still mint copy of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” written by Ernesto Guevarra after a journey he and a friend took across South America. The memoir is hard to find; it is coveted by those who know how that travel later transformed the man the world would come to know as the Latin American revolutionary, Che Guevarra.
In this city, one can find other bookstores with better inventories, certainly better filing. But I doubt if you will find a more memorable ambience, within and outside the shop.
My husband, who buys my books usually during business trips, engaged Edmond, the assistant at La Belle Aurore, about the system of filing and finding authors. From him we learn only the science fiction titles are alphabetized. If you cannot find parking space or require a database to simplify a search, first call Edmond.
But if you are superstitious like me, if you believe you are meant to find the book that finds you, you won’t begrudge losing track of time at La Belle Aurore. There is a wooden ladder you can climb to read the titles ranged along the ceiling. The wood creaks under your feet while you discover several Sartres, a few fat Hemingways, Gordimers, Booker Prize awardees, Dahls and several titles devoted to mapping the inner landscape of Middle Earth and its creator, J.R.R. Tolkien.
The door squeaks from time to time. The chimes are lovely to hear until you notice nobody has stepped inside, at least no one you can see. Edmond assures us it is just a quirk of the door lock. The sheathed vintage piano, half-covered by volumes, has been tuned but awaits someone to take time off from browsing.
In my old neighborhood, I saw how it’s not just possible but quite easy to spend one’s life just waking to the chime of the Bundy clock, lying down only to wake anew. To find this place of books, this retreat in such a place, where a young, clean-cut Che Guevarra looks out to a spot that’s seen workers clash with scabs and factory security for a raise of a few pesos is to be handed a morsel that even Didion, clear- and dry-eyed journalist that she is, might lovingly spear.
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* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Feb. 28, 2010 issue of “Matamata”