One of the recent news items is that Borders declared bankruptcy, while over at Australia, Angus & Robertson is similarly in danger. I'm not here to discuss what Borders or Angus & Robertson did wrong. What I do want to talk about, however, are Philippine bookstore chains.
Until the mid 1990s, there were two major bookstore chains: National Bookstore and Goodwill Bookstore. That's not to say there weren't independent bookstores at the time: La Solidardid Bookshop is an old independent bookstores, going as far back as 1965. Popular Bookstore is also one of those legacy franchises that didn't quite transition into a major chain. But let's go back to the two prominent bookstores of the time*.
If you were a discerning book lover, you hated both bookstore chains. There are two reasons for this. One is that they were a monopoly: it's not that they had an awful selection of books, but you were pretty much stuck with what they had. This was before the Internet so while they did have book ordering services, who knew what books to order? You pretty much had no choice but to consume what was on the shelves (this is the reason why at one point, I owned several dozen Dragonlance books, simply because there really was nothing else to buy at the time when it came to fantasy). Suffice to say, between the two bookstores, you had a small selection to choose from (pretty much today's independent bookstores have a wider variety compared to what they had back then). The other reason is perhaps more aesthetic. We've all heard of bookstores from abroad, whether it's Barnes & Noble or Kinokuniya. Neither National Bookstore or Goodwill Bookstore fit that image. In fact, foreigners would probably be shocked if they entered a shop called National Bookstore only to discover that the common commodity being sold aren't books but school supplies**. Yes, you heard that right: school supplies. And to a certain extent, only slightly more palatable to the bookworm, text books.
This enmity is arguably undeserving. It's true that at the time, majority of the income of both bookstores stem from sales of school supplies and text books. But if school supplies and text books were such best-sellers, they were also under no (financial) obligation to stock fiction and non-fiction books. This is where the reader's interests conflicts with the business owner. The former wants a store dedicated to all sorts of books while the latter has to pay the bills. The solution? Here's one of my favorite quotes from Socorro Ramos, co-founder of National Bookstore, in an interview conducted by Clinton Palanca published in The 2000 Phlippines Yearbook: "If I didn't sell the pencils, I wouldn't be able to sell the books."
So how effective has this strategy been? At least in the case of National Bookstore, which has been around since the 1930s (surviving fire and war), is able to sell a $9.99 book for $7.78 (and the latter price is already inclusive of taxes. (My point of comparison is Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson's The Gathering Storm) How is this exactly accomplished? Well, I'm not privy to National Bookstore's financial books, but I expect it's a combination of being able to import books in massive quantities (i.e. saving on shipping costs), subsidizing expenses with its other, more profitable business, and government policy that does not charge value added tax on book imports (an entirely different position when compared with Australia's restriction on parallel imports).
Over the years though, the local bookstore chain industry changed. In 1996, Power Books was launched, and what's interesting was that it was started by the heirs of the Ramos line. It was, at least in terms of appearance, what bookworms wanted in a bookstore: it only sold books and had chairs and couches for people to browse and read books. In terms of selection (and price) though, it was entirely identical to that of National Bookstore. A few years ago, that changed. While there is inevitably overlap (and arguably a significant overlap) between the book selection of National Bookstore and Power Books, the two aren't identical. Each franchise has its own set of book buyers. (As an aside, this inter-family development of bookstores is no surprise. Ramos's brother, Manuel Cancio, was the founder of Goodwill Bookstore. Over the years though, National Bookstore and Goodwill Bookstore--and now Power Books--are distinct and different business entities.)
Another bookstore chain that emerged was Fully Booked. Now they didn't enter the field without any previous experience. They operated an independent bookshop, Bibliarch, which specialized in art books and related paraphernalia, back in 1997. Eventually the group decided to try their hand at managing a larger bookstore and did so through the Page One franchise. Suddenly, there was this large bookstore that made the selections from National Bookstore and Power Books look paltry. Unfortunately, this also made the price of books expensive (perhaps to pay off the licensing fee for the franchise). Eventually, the company would lose the franchise--and there was even a few months were it was a nameless bookstore and some of my friends referred to it as "Not Page One" for lack of a label--and was reborn as Fully Booked in 2003. Now Fully Booked wanted to price its books competitively with its rivals. Just yesterday, I bought Jonathan Strahan's Engineering Infinity for $6.92 and this is a book that has a retail price of $7.99. Now what's interesting--and what disturbs--me is Fully Booked's business plan. They seem to be aiming for the long-term as I can't foresee them recouping their expenses in the past few years: ever since 2003, they've established 13 stores nationwide, including a five-story flagship store. I predict that a decade or two down the line, one of two things will happen: Fully Booked will either outsell Power Books, or fold like Borders.
Goodwill Bookstore has had an interesting fate. It's down to five branches whereas in the past, it was ubiquitous. Its selection has also reverted to its old business model, namely school supplies and text books. Again, I'm not privy to the inner workings of the company, but the rumor with regards to this downsizing is due to transition with the ill-health and eventual demise of its founder.
Having said all that, I'm cautiously optimistic when it comes to the state of Philippine bookstores, or at the very least, National Bookstore will weather through the tough times. Power Books, while it has made some mistakes, is adapting. Just last year, it underwent a re-branding (exchanging its old blue and gold colors for blue and orange) and I'd like to think this change is its means of coping. Fully Booked, on the other hand, knows it's playing for the long-term (measured in decades instead of years) so while it's using, in my opinion, a risky strategy, we won't know until far into the future.
*I am leaving out another successful bookstore chain, Book Sale, which specialized in selling used books. The used books industry here is another discussion altogether.
**Another surprise best-seller at the time were greeting cards.