Monday, October 07, 2013

Graveyard of books

I CAN tell the history of downtown Cebu by the bookstores that have come and gone.

In the 1970s, my mother bought my first Nancy Drew mystery novels and a few classics from Paul’s Bookstore. This was located near Junquera St., a short walk from the original branch of a well-known funeral parlor.

My memory of this brightly it bookstore is suffused with the cloying odor of rotting wreaths and the steaming smell of horse manure scraped on the streets by passing vehicles. In those days, horse-drawn “tartanilya” clip-clopped past the funeral parlor, the biggest of its kind in the city.

Paul’s Bookstore closed without my knowing. It left me with a lifelong habit of taking a deep breath when I step inside a bookstore or open a book for the first time. Anticipating escape is, first, an olfactory reflex with me.

My father passed on to me nearly all his books. In a rare mood, he brought my sister and I to Alemar’s Bookstore at the corner of P. del Rosario and Junquera Sts. In the 1980s, this high-ceilinged store was full of fiction. Limited to buy only one title at every visit, my sister and I became specialists at browsing.

In the mid-1980s, I noticed when Alemar’s fortunes dwindled as its fiction was replaced by textbooks, probably more dependable in sales, and later by knickknacks until it finally closed.

In the 1990s, my college allowance and earnings from the odd magazine article only entitled me to “free browsing” of the covers of the imported titles carried by the Oriental Book Store, across Alemar’s, and the Filipiniana coffeetable books at Bookmark, along OsmeƱa Blvd.

Before and ebooks, books for sale were wrapped tightly, perhaps to keep away deranged browsers who obsessed over the first and last pages but never bought a copy. Now that mall-based booksellers have relaxed browsing rules, some book-borne forms of insanity may also be on the wane.

Oriental and Bookmark were good for fantasizing or playing hide-and-seek (a newsroom colleague often hid a coveted literary title behind academic tomes in the Oriental bookshelves). Bargain bin aficionados had only one temple to burn their precious pesos: the old Music House in Colon St.

It was originally housed beside a creek that stank but never quite drove away the seekers. Perhaps once upon a time, the LPs and 45 rpms did outnumber the books and magazines. When I knew it in the 1980s, the browsers outnumbered the old books, old records, old clothes, old furniture, and old thingamajigs. It’s a wonder we didn’t fall through the old wooden floor and poisoned ourselves in the polluted creek.

After a fire, the store resurfaced nearby under a different name I’ve never been able to remember. Heavy wooden furniture dominated the space, and the mini-towers of bestsellers were faded echoes of those days when a Dumaguete poetess took a six-hour land-trip to the old Music House and went home with bragging rights at finding not one but two novels of South American magic realism for less than P50.

Last summer, the outlet-that-used-to-be-the-Music-House had a “closing-out sale” streamer. I don’t know which was sadder, the passage of another bookstore into memory or the cabinets and tables that blocked the storefront.

Yet real mourning I reserved for the Old San Francisco Bookstore, which gave a new spin to P. del Rosario as a pick-up street in the decade beginning 2000. Across the strip where pimps and their girls hailed cars, the store stocked on literature that would have felt at home in libraries. Despite that earnest air, it had a lot in common with the crazy shabbiness of the old Music House: namely, that every kind of reader could find a book or books in the pile.

When I learned that the Junquera branch of La Belle Aurore Bookshop was closing this October, I wondered again why so many bookstores sink downtown.

Facebook (FB) and the rest of the social network keep an online community of readers plugged to the traffic of traditional books in La Belle Aurore, Hungry Bookaholics,, and other sellers. I found a P50 copy of Kate Atkinson’s “Emotionally Weird” by scrutinizing an FB photo of bargain books, where it was nearly obscured by several titles of “Advent and Christmas”.

Yet trawling the Net for titles is not the same as walking in a book shop, taking a deep breath before diving into depths you hope will not have a bottom. If the abominable fate of downtown booksellers does not improve, such an exploration will become, for Netizens, simply one for the books.

( 09173226131)

* First published in the Oct. 6, 2013 issue of Sun.Star Cebu's Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

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