Arts and Culture

Mother of Philippine bookstores

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

‘We called it National Book Store for no special reason except that it was the brand of our cash register and it sounded like a good name.’ Socorro Ramos served as manager, buyer, salesgirl, cashier and janitor of the start-up venture!

Laudable is the move of Summit Media to come up with the “Dream Big Books.” The series “is a collection of inspiring stories written for children that will kindle within them a desire to aim for the sky, do their best and meet the challenge of helping change the world we live in for the better.”

Part of the initial salvo is the book Nanay Coring: The Story of National Book Store’s Socorro Ramos written by Yvette Fernandez and illustrated by Liza Flores.  Nanay is almost 90 years old, and in that life of almost a century she has built our total bookstore.

But things were not so bright at the beginning. A poor child, Coring was always into selling, first with her Lola Lelang in the market. Her lola had overripe bananas (that could not be sold anymore), so the young Coring ate them at day’s end. Later, she worked at a candy factory to earn some money for summer, curled other people’s hair in a beauty parlor, and sewed buttons on shirts at a factory. She also unwrapped tobacco from old, moldy paper. All these odd jobs paid for her school needs when classes opened in June.

She did finish high school, but there was no more money for college, so the young Coring worked as a salesgirl at a bookstore. She met a man named Jose, whom she would marry, and the bookstore business began. “We called it National Book Store for no special reason except that it was the brand of our cash register and it sounded like a good name.” She served as manager, buyer, salesgirl, cashier and janitor of the start-up venture!

When the Japanese came, the Ramos couple hid the thick, American books the Japanese didn’t like and sold instead pencils, pens, paper and soap. The bestsellers, curiously enough, were slippers that the tired Japanese soldiers bought in such large quantities that Nanay Coring then wanted to rename her store “National Slipper Store.”

The twins Alfredo and Benjamin came, and one Japanese soldier liked them so much he gifted Nanay with matching red flannels for the twins. In turn, Nanay gave bocayo to the Japanese soldier. Someone also offered many bottles of whiskey to Nanay, which she bought and hid in her mother’s house. Their store later burned down during the Battle of Manila — and they lost everything.

In the midst of gloom they remembered the inventory of books they had kept at home — and the bottles of whiskey, of course. And so, fueled by words and by Scottish malt, the postwar National Book Store was born again.

But soon enough, when business was just turning brisk, a typhoon came and blew away the store. “Many of our books and school supplies were soaked and destroyed by the rain. Ling and I looked at each other and sighed. We were tired and we were sad and we were angry. But we had been through all this before and we knew what we had to do. We knew we would get through the hardship. We just needed to work hard and trust in God and rebuild.”

And so the hardworking couple did, working at the bookstore until the wee hours of the morning. But the Ramos couple also made sure they had time for their growing family. A beautiful baby girl, Cecilia, was later born. “We knew that despite all our past troubles, we were definitely very blessed,” mused Nanay Coring.

And so National Book Store expanded, printing postcards and greeting cards, reprinting licensed Philippine editions of foreign textbooks so they could be sold cheaply to Filipino students. “We helped many students spend many years studying, doing what I had always wanted to do myself. In a way, I’ve helped others fulfill my own childhood dream — to keep on studying. That’s the dream I’ve always had for my children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren as well.”

Like a bonus track, this book ends with “12 tips from Nanay Coring about business and life.” These nuggets work, and in true and naughty Nanay Coring fashion, this is the one I like best. “7. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Speak out when you have to. All people are the same. They all have stinky farts.”

Yvette Fernandez captures the tone and the voice of Nanay Coring, while Liza Flores gives us delightful drawings that show the vivid colors in the life and times of Socorro Ramos, the grand dame of National Book Store. This book can be translated into Filipino so it can reach more young readers in the country, so they can also learn of the brave Filipina who looked at a world war, a fire and a typhoon in the eye — and never gave up.

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Comments can be sent to danton_ph@yahoo.com.

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