Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Essay: A Quick Run-Down on Bookstores in the Philippines Part 1

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Perhaps something my non-Filipino readers are interested in knowing is the dynamic of bookstores in the Philippines. What are the bookstores in the Philippines? What kind of books are available? What books actually get bought? Will the Internet take over the Philippine bookstores?

First, I'd like to start with the fact that there are no easily accessible public libraries in the Philippines. The most readily available library we have is the National Library of the Philippines and unfortunately, aside from being located in Manila (not the easiest place to get to), this is mostly a place for nonfiction research. If you want a library that houses the latest fiction titles--or even a decent-sized fiction collection of any sort--there are unfortunately no public options. Instead, such libraries are private collections, usually from schools and universities. Thus bookstores easily become the best venue to find fiction titles.

Second, in my mind, the various local bookstores can be broken down into four categories: the retail chains, the independent bookstores, the secondhand bookstores, and the publisher-bookstore hybrids. For this essay, I'll be focusing on retail chains (I'll discuss the rest in the future).

Retail Chains

These bookstores are the equivalent of your Barnes & Noble or Page One. They have multiple branches in Metro Manila (sadly, not all the retail chains operate on a nationwide level) and operate with an established system and brand. More often than not, the selection of books is consistent among all the branches. For example, if you find Lord of the Rings in Branch A, there's a good chance that you'll similarly find a copy in Branch B (or have Branch A's copy delivered o Branch B). There are four retail chains I want to talk about: National Bookstore, Goodwill Bookstore, Powerbooks, and Fully Booked.

National Bookstore

One of the oldest retail chains in the country (initially established during the 1930s), National Bookstore is perhaps the most successful bookstore in the business. Here's the peculiarity of National Bookstore--most of their income is derived from selling school supplies and greeting cards. Need paper, ballpen, or envelopes? You went to National Bookstore to buy them. This is also supplemented by their sales of text books. As a reader, I'm frustrated by this fact (can't we have a dedicated bookstore?). However, this business model also enables them to weather economic upheavals and subsidize the cost of their books (making them one of the cheapest places to acquire brand-new books).

Now here's a foreign concept to international readers. The Philippines is an English-speaking country and most of the books that National Bookstore does import come from the US. Price tags are attached to books (bibliophiles have mastered the art of using alcohol and other similar substances to remove price tags) but the biggest stickler is that books are typically shrink-wrapped and in-store browsing is highly discouraged. Their interior design reinforces that mood as well: there are no tables or chairs to read and all you have are shelves.

As far shelf arrangement is concerned, there's usually one shelf (not literally one-shelf and this could be several interconnected shelves depending on the branch and size of the store) for each genre (with science fiction and fantasy sharing the same shelf), with the children/young adult shelf being the exception as its sub-genre s have their own shelves. My personal complaint is that locally published books are only allotted one shelf so whether you're writing fiction, cook books, or poetry, you're all lumped in one place. So in many ways, finding specific local books are about as difficult as finding independently-published international books due to the limited shelf space.

Goodwill Bookstore

Previously, this was National Bookstore's rival and followed a similar business model although with a stronger emphasis on selling text books. In the past few years, they've shut down many branches (to the point where finding a branch is actually difficult) and their fiction section is reduced to a few paltry shelves. The only reason anyone should be dropping by this bookstore nowadays is either to purchase text books or school supplies.


Powerbooks is interesting for me because the owners come from the same family as that of National Bookstore. Initially, they offered the same selection of books as National Bookstore. Where they differed though is their target markets and business plan. Powerbooks is modeled after the large retail chains in the US, with books that can be easily browsed (a few are still shrink-wrapped these days but you should be able to find a copy that's not) and couches and chairs that help reinforce that kind of atmosphere. The main branch even had an in-store cafe. It was also a big leap for "the family business" because Powerbooks's main income derives from actually selling books.

When Powerbooks first debuted in 1996, my initial complaint was that they still carried identical books as National Bookstore albeit having a better ambiance. These days, a good chunk of their inventory is still identical to National Bookstore although there are select titles which are available in Powerbooks but not in National Bookstore (and vice versa). I predict that a few decades down the line, Powerbooks could one day become National Bookstore's rival as their respected families begin to drift apart. (Right now both bookstores operate on a cooperative but separate corporations model.)

Fully Booked

It took some time before Fully Booked began to establish itself. It first began with small, focused independent bookstores like Bibliarch and Sketchbooks (the selling point of both were its design and coffee table books) before the owner tried his hand at a bigger chain (acquiring the Page One license). Eventually, Page One was gone and in its place was Fully Booked which more or less follows the Powerbooks model of doing business except it did things bigger (larger stores, wider selections, etc.). Its flagship store is five stories high and includes a Starbucks branch inside. What endears me to Fully Booked is that they stock some European SF&F books (Millenium's Science Fiction and Fantasy Masterworks line comes to mind, as well as European versions of the Harry Potter titles) --titles which would otherwise be unavailable in the Philippines.

Fully Booked also has made a name for itself selling Copic markers, Moleskine notebooks (although National Bookstore and Powerbooks are started selling them recently), and Lomo cameras, reinforcing its "bookstore for artists" image.

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