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Opinion

The joy of bookselling

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose - The Philippine Star

In 1965, on my return from a posting in Sri Lanka, my wife decided to transform the old Jovellanos house in Padre Faura into a bookshop. It was my job to order books, a job which I enjoyed very much, going over those catalogues of publishers, foreign and Filipino. When the books arrived, I perused them fondly, like a miser coveting newly minted coins.

Many a time when I wasn’t working in my cubicle upstairs, I’d go down to the bookshop just to review the titles, and as it sometimes happened, I also talked with the customers.

The Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the Department of Justice and the Padre Faura campus of the University of the Philippines are all within walking distance, and so I got to know many of the justices themselves, lawyers and academics, all of them excellent informers.

In time, I could really boast that the bookshop had become an intellectual mecca, heir to Joaquin Po’s Popular Bookstore in Sta. Cruz; it was from him whom I borrowed several titles when the bookshop opened and there weren’t enough to fill the shelves. It was General Carlos P. Romulo who inaugurated the shop, and it was blessed by Fr. Francisco (Frits) Araneta.

Among the Supreme Court Justices, I remember best Chief Justice Enrique Fernando, who was close to Ferdinand Marcos and his wife. We had delightful exchanges on current events and the private lives of several national personalities.

The editor of Philippines Free Press, Teodoro M. Locsin, was a frequent visitor with his son, Teddy Boy, who was then in short pants. Teddy Man was a meticulous collector, he wanted the books in mint condition. I remember telling him once, when he bypassed a very good book because its cover was damaged, I said, it doesn’t matter how old a book is; if you haven’t read it, it is always new.

Rafael Salas, who was then Marcos’ executive secretary, like Ninoy Aquino, was in the bookshop every week. Both were fastidious critical readers. Paeng would get a book and often discussed it with me. He was also a poet, and he was very sensitive and rooted in the realities of Philippine politics. It was from him that I obtained precious insights on the obscure machinations in the corridors of power.

In time, the bookshop also became a literary salon, the headquarters of the Philippine PEN Club, and PEN meetings were held regularly in the shop as well as the launching of new books.

Let me brag and say that three Nobel Prize winners have graced the bookshop with their presence: Wole Soyinka, Gunter Grass and Mario Vargas Llosa. One memorable reception we had was for Norman Mailer during the Marcos regime. I was concerned that he might turn abrasive during the reception so I warned the writers present. I also wanted the meeting to be short, but he was apparently enjoying our company, and he was very candid in his replies to our questions. He said that he had to be productive because he had to pay alimony to the wives he had divorced. He was particularly envious of the Russian dissidents – he said, if he were in Russia, he would have conformed because he liked his comforts.

Many Asian writers were also bookshop visitors. I remember one morning when I had the visitor from Korea, he was Richard Kim, the author of that magnificent novel, The Martyred, which I serialized in my journal, Solidarity. He said he was very anxious to meet the Filipino publisher who obtained the rights to publish his novel for the princely sum of fifty dollars.

On Sundays in those first year of the bookshop, my family would come to the shop to clean it. So, we were in the bookshop that Sunday morning when a black limousine parked in front. I opened the door and my visitor greeted me, “You must be Frankie. Mochtar Lubis, the Indonesian writer, told me to visit your shop.” He was Adam Malik, Indonesia’s foreign minister. Then one afternoon several cars with motorcycle escorts stopped in front of the bookshop. My visitor was Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand. She had won the Ramon Magsaysay Award. She visited the bookshop first before proceeding to Malacañang. We talked about her work, Thai literature and particularly her interest in children’s literature. All these while a crowd gathered outside peering through the shop windows to look at my regal visitor.

Again, at another time, a fleet of cars stopped in front of the bookshop, and about a dozen Filipinos, all of them tall and well-built, came in, apparently, the bodyguards of this American official. I asked one of them who the American was, and they said, he is a friend of the American ambassador. The following day I read in the newspapers and saw this man’s picture and identity; he was the head of the CIA. I looked at the title of the books he bought and all of them were about Mindanao.

Every so often, I get a visitor who came to the bookshop because he read about it in travel books that it is the best bookshop in Southeast Asia. At one time, an American academic was ecstatic with joy for he found in the shelves an old book on Japan that he couldn’t find elsewhere.

It is Solidaridad policy to keep old titles that have permanent value, and at the same time, I rarely order so called fiction bestsellers because they do not really appeal to my finicky readers. I sometimes look at the books that some customers buy. There was one who bought several titles on making movies, writing scripts and directing them. I approached him and said, “you must be a movie producer,” and he said, yes, but not really doing features. He produced advertising commercials. So, I immediately recalled a TV ad and told him, “I hope you didn’t make it. It’s so stupid, this little boy defeating a man in tennis because he drank Alaska milk.” He looked at me, smiled and said, he did produce that commercial. I recovered quickly from my embarrassment and said, “I suppose this is the last time you’ll be in my bookshop.” He laughed, and said he agreed with me; but that was what the customer wanted.

Selling books only isn’t profitable, but this small shop has, through the years, given me joy. I am happy to see more young people visit, full of questions. The answers to these may be in these books for them to discover, and with this discovery, savor the joy of reading.

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