Friday, September 01, 2006

Philippine Book Culture

It's a bit of an extravagance to travel all the way to Manila for the sole purpose of attending a book fair, but that's exactly what I've done. The 27th Manila International Book Fair is running from August 30 to September 3 at the World Trade Center in Pasay City, and it's a temptation too strong to resist. So, yes, it's going to burn a substantial hole in the pocket, and we haven't even started on the book purchases that I'm going to make; but I'm justifying it against all the time that I didn't spend in a proper bookstore in Dumaguete.

But there's also another purpose: it's entered into my head that maybe, just maybe, it's possible to open a bookstore along my tastes in Dumaguete. This trip is as much an attempt to make contacts and understand the local bookselling industry as it is a shopping spree. Either that, or it would disabuse me of my bookstore notions before I got in too deep and spent any real money on the project.

When you talk about opening a bookstore in Dumaguete, a little skepticism and a lot of caution is in order. Up to now, I'm still mourning the Village Bookstore which my friends the Fortunatos finally decided to close earlier this year. And like another omen, my fellow passenger on the trip to Manila was Dr. Crispin Maslog, first director of the School of Communications of Silliman University. When I mentioned my plans, his eyebrows shot up instinctively: "Do you think there's a market in Dumaguete?"

It's an oft-repeated comment of lament and surprise that the viability of a bookstore should be in question in a university town, but there you have it.

This is not to say that there are no bookstores in Dumaguete because there are. There's the Capitol Bookstore (formerly the Old San Francisco Bookstore) which sells used books; and there's the PCBS Christian bookstore which specializes in Bibles and Christian literature. On occasion, even Lee Plaza offers used books out of which I've picked up a gem or two. But right there and then, you have a commentary on the reading fare offered to Dumaguetenos: gossip and fashion magazines, tawdry pornography, tattered pre-owned pocketbooks, technical manuals several years out of date, and self-help and religious literature.

What about art? What about science fiction? What about fantasy? What about crime thrillers? What about poetry? What about classics? What about philosophy? What about history? What about (gasp!) erotica?

The situation in the rest of the country isn't so much better, either. The theme for this year's book fair is "Make it a Habit," ostensibly chosen to rectify the poor reading habits of Filipinos. Right at the entrance are banners with choice excerpts of studies done on the subject, and they're quite discouraging. Apparently, while 91% of Filipinos can read, only 9% read for for fun. The local publishing industry isn't helping much, either: 90% of local publications are textbooks.

I'm not certain how the International Book Fair plans to achieve its lofty stated goal, either. I went into the fair with the mindset not just of a book lover but also of a prospective independent bookseller in the provinces. I found a little dismaying to learn that I was outside the demographic of a big event like this. The book fair is meant, foremost, as a venue to sell to school libraries. No, not much room for small bookstores, unfortunately; after all, it's in the libraries where the big bucks are.

That's a bit of a shame, really. I have no doubt that librarians love books, otherwise they wouldn't be in that profession. But I feel that other people who love books just as much but are outside the confines of academe can be more active catalysts for improving the Filipinos' reading habits.

Even the personnel in the book fair can be a little daunting. I've found that there are two kinds of people manning the stalls at the book fair. There are your jobbers who treat books just as they would any other merchandise; in other words, people out to make a simple living. And then there are the literature majors who have found employment with a major book chain or publisher. You can recognize them quickly because they're so snooty, trying to cow you with their command of English (at which point you bare your fangs and cow them with your English); you just know they'd rather be writing their poetry and their short stories, but unfortunately, it's the job at the bookstore that pays the bills. Ah, yes, the book fair can be a very lonely place.

I’m beginning to think that the book fair is the Philippine literary world in a microcosm: too many people interested in writing their own stuff, not enough readers to sustain the market.

Faced with this kind of general company, you just have to treasure the few people you meet who really love and care for books. I found a few bright lights myself. The purchaser for a large chain who loves fantasy and science fiction. The storyteller who joyously punctuates each and every sentence with expressive rolls of the eyes and gestures of the hands. The wonderful people from the Philippine Reading Association whose passion it is is to teach children and adolescents the love of reading. It was these people who saved the day for me.

For all the skepticism about the lack of interest for books of the imagination in Dumaguete, I’m willing to bet that there are other kindred spirits in the city. In fact, I’ve already met quite a few of them, so the wager is that there are more.

In a couple of days, I'll be heading back to Dumaguete with those publisher and distributor contacts. Along with that will be some serious thinking. I'll still be asking myself -- as I am right now -- whether such an idea is wise. I hear that National Bookstore is going to open in Silliman's Portal West. Though it will make its money less from books than from office supplies, I wonder if, between National and the perceived lack of a market in Dumaguete, an independent bookstore has any chance at all. Still, I'm not completely disabused of the notion yet; it's just too romantic.

Ah, well, even if I do come to my senses, I'll still have a whole stash of new books with me.