Sunday Lifestyle

Books in the time of COVID

THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau - The Philippine Star
Books in the time of COVID
National Book Store managing director Xandra Ramos-Padilla

You can’t say that Filipinos haven’t been inventive with their lockdown time. They’ve been baking at home, learning to brew beer, taking online classes, doing yoga and Zumba every day.

What about reading?

We checked in with local booksellers to get a sense of what sort of reading habits survive in the middle of a pandemic. (Spoiler: people aren’t reaching for books about deadly viruses so much.)

National book store

For NBS managing director Xandra Ramos-Padilla, quarantine has seen a big shift towards home delivery and e-book downloads. While they’ve been online for over a decade, they activated several more ecommerce platforms on NationalBookStore.com, Shopee, Lazada and MetroMart by mid-May during  lockdown. It led to instant sales. “We were kind of overwhelmed at first. What we would do in sales in months, we had in a week, so we had to learn. Even with limited staff, we had to catch up on orders.”

That’s encouraging. While she admits “it doesn’t make up for” the drop in physical book sales after 230 NBS branches had to close due to COVID, most of those branches have since reopened (though Cebu and NAIA remain shut) with new safety protocols, including limited in-store capacity, plastic covering for the cashier stations, and staff to help you hunt down titles. “When people go to a branch, they're kind of on a mission, so we try to assist them with taking their order in advance while they're waiting in the queue.”

Xandra says NBS had to pivot more towards bringing the customer what they need, even to their doorstep. “It's like being the personal shopper of customers,” she says. “I think customers are shopping where they are in their community, so if somebody wants to have, say, Kevin Kwan’s new book Sex and Vanity transferred to the Sta. Mesa branch, we would do that for them.” Each branch has a text order number to check on titles, or you can go their Facebook page, or use their hotline number (8888-8627) to hunt down your book and possibly have it delivered.

I asked if, along with all the Netflix and other distractions during lockdown, people were actually finding time to read more books. Xandra thinks that they are, based on the online sales they’ve had, but joked, “They’re probably also watching Netflix!” Personally, in addition to several book titles she mentions (her husband is enjoying Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones), Xandra’s also been watching some K-drama, but adds, “I also thought it would be fun to watch something book-related, then read along with it.” (I suggest HBO’s I Know This Much Is True with Mark Ruffalo, based on Wally Lamb’s bestseller, if you’re up for tragedy; or Amazon Prime’s Modern Love, based on New York Times real-life dating stories.)

As for the kinds of books people have been devouring during lockdown, it’s not always what you think. Some people prefer non-fiction and science, but escapist reading rules: “Wattpad romances are big” for download, Xandra says. “They’re also turning to classics, mythology. I think they're re-reading things like Harry Potter a lot.”

While July’s big draw has been the latest Kevin Kwan bestseller, last month it was Suzanne Collins’ latest dystopian fiction, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. And yes, people want physical copies. “It's quite challenging, logistically, to bring in and launch new titles,” says Xandra, because of fewer flights, customs, paperwork and limited staff, “but we were proud to bring that in.”

Cookbooks have been a huge hit too, including titles by local chef RV Manabat, Baking Secrets and More Baking Secrets. (“People buy his books to get recipes on what to sell during lockdown,” she notes.)

Xandra also heads Anvil Books, the NBS publishing arm, and she mentions they’ve converted over 100 local titles to e-book platforms like Amazon and Kobo. Local publishing still goes on, without the crowded mall book launches. Anvil is also considering an “e-book first” launch for the upcoming local cookbook by chef Reggie Aspiras.

I point out that NBS started right after WWII — another period of “world crisis” — when Nanay Coring Ramos and her family found an opportunity to give people what they needed. “They really bartered and sold whatever they could — whatever was available that customers were looking for, like slippers, whiskey, and they happened to be selling books — which they couldn't sell during the war because the Japanese censored the books.”

Being resilient — being in tune with the community — has been a constant for NBS. “Recently, we’ve actually been selling medical supplies, masks, alcohol, air purifiers,” she says. Also home office supplies — bond paper, printers, laminators, shredders — as more people are now working from home.

Another big boost came from games sales — chess, card games — as well as starter art kits — with canvas, paints and brushes — because some people in lockdown want to tap their inner artist.

Fully Booked's Chris Daez

Fully booked

People still crave escapism, adventure, a bit of magic. ‘We love how people still seek Edith Hamilton's 75th anniversary edition of Mythology.’ says Chris Daez.

Their 31 branches have long been hubs for browsing, drinking coffee or even hunting down vinyl along with the latest book titles. But COVID-19 meant those Fully Booked stores had to shut down. Now they’ve all reopened and, according to Chris Daez — the PR half of Fully Booked with CEO husband Jaime — “We were fortunate to have had our ecommerce operations in place even before the lockdown.” That means book sales stayed “stable” during lockdown. “We’ve translated a lot of our retail efforts online, from highlighting bestsellers, to providing sneak peeks into the hottest new titles.” Customers can also order e-books online at www.fullybookedonline.com, or visit their official stores on Lazada and Shopee.

Chris says the age of COVID has led to some surprising changes in ecommerce purchasing habits. “We’ve noticed that people now purchase more than usual, both in quantity and value in a single transaction.” Could be that people just prefer to stock up on everything for the long lockdown haul, but Chris also hopes “this is indicative of literature and arts as a preference on how to spend their time.”

For Fully Booked, the above-mentioned Sex and Vanity and Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes have been obvious bestsellers, but Marie Kondo’s latest, Joy at Work, has been quite popular, too. Guess people are trying to “spark joy” while working from home during lockdown.

She says people still crave “escapism, adventure, or a bit of magic,” so sci-fi, fiction and Young Adult titles sell a lot, but also classics and mythology. “We love how people still seek Edith Hamilton’s 75th anniversary edition of Mythology.” Also, sports and art titles have been quite popular, such as Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Mentality.

It’s a challenging time in general for book publishing and selling, but adding all the COVID measures makes it even more so. Reopening their physical stores meant a slew of new safety protocols, including temperature checks, disinfecting and social-distancing measures upon entry. Books are wrapped with plastic “for easier sanitization.” Gone, for now, are the launch events and workshops.

Yet, she says, “We’ve noticed that readers are still keen on visiting our retail stores and staying awhile to browse through shelves.” Bookstores have always been magnets for a certain type of customer, and Chris says “We’re happy that Fully Booked is viewed as a lifestyle destination and considered a welcoming safe space for readers.”

As new titles and publishing dates are pushed back for months until things return to whatever counts as “normal,” e-books fill some of the gap, but Chris sees this as most readers’ last resort. “Most avid Filipino readers are looking to build their own collections, and book shopping is something most of our customers prefer to experience tactilely.”

Even in the time of COVID, there are chapters left for booksellers and book lovers out there. “The biggest challenge is definitely the unpredictability of it all,” Chris notes. “From the pandemic, to the state of the country, to consumers’ ever-changing behaviors, there’s really no telling what the future holds.” But she adds: “Fully Booked has always been about discovery. As long as there are stories to be told, and readers seeking out stories, we hope that there will always be a place for us.”

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