A dying breed
I was an unusual child.
While other preschoolers brought their stuffed toys with them to sleep, I took one volume of an encyclopedia to bed. I’ve loved reading ever since I could remember, but I also had the same problems that most children, even young adults, possess: Simply put, I did not have enough money. Although I did have an allowance, it was barely enough for food. I had to rely on my father taking me to second-hand bookstores as he searched for books to read. My father believed in spending freely on only two things: food and education. He included books in the latter category, and it was in these “shopping sprees” that I discovered Bookshop and my love for stores of used books, as he would buy me a book of my choice if he deemed it all right for my consumption.
Bookshop was one of the most prominent stores for used books in Davao City. Two decades ago it had four or so branches scattered throughout the city, but due to the lack of income from book selling, that number dwindled down. Its last branch was in the city’s oldest mall, Victoria Plaza. I’ve been to different places in the Philippines for the sake of schooling, but I would always come back to that small shop when I’d come home.
It is undeniable that Bookshop had a massive influence on my learning and appreciation of literature as it allowed me to build up on the knowledge I sought without emptying my pockets: Bookshop featured a myriad of books at affordable prices, and that was a central reason I always came back.
But that last branch of Bookshop closed last August. The writing was definitely on the wall: A few months before August, one of the store’s tenants encouraged me to buy the books that I wanted, because it was only a matter of time before Bookshop would finally close.
When I asked her the reason for the closure, she told me simply that the store couldn’t survive with only a handful of paying customers. Aside from me, she confessed, the store regulars could be counted on one hand: We were literally just a handful. She reported that in one weekend, most of the store’s income came from me and another patron. In her experience, fewer people sought physical books nowadays.
Before I left for Australia I came back to the store, thinking that I could bring with me a few airplane novels to read. I was greeted by an art supplies store, and, in the three years that I visited Bookshop, I had never seen as many people.
I arrived in Australia in the first week of September. Aside from looking for work I wanted to visit the shops selling used books and the libraries in Sydney. After I searched Google for lists of the best bookstores to go to, I went to each one, scattered throughout the city, one by one. It took me a long time to go to all the bookstores, because Sydney is approximately six times the largest city in the Philippines in terms of land area. Simply put, Sydney is about six times bigger than Davao City.
Most bookstores were a lot bigger than Bookshop in Davao. Although the prices were significantly higher, there was a more comprehensive selection of good literature, and I spent two hours on average in each bookstore. I was lucky to purchase an 1887 edition of Lord Lytton’s novel, “The Disowned.” Because of this windfall, I concluded that, surely, stores of used books will thrive in an educated, developed nation.
To my surprise, those bookstores still had pretty much the same problem as Bookshop in Davao. In one bookshop in Sydney, Gould’s Book Arcade, the owner confessed that it was hard sustaining such a business as the rent grows higher and higher with each passing year. This was surprising because of the fact that Gould’s is the biggest store of used books in Sydney, featuring two stories of books on shelves crammed full of them.
I surmised that it was probably just a fluke: Maybe Gould’s was just having a bad year of business. But that wasn’t the case. About 30 minutes away by bus from Sydney’s central business district is Manly, a beach town that also has a few shops of used books. One of the most popular bookstores there is Desire Books, a store of second-hand books that also sells vintage vinyl records. After I paid for Lord Lytton’s “Last Days of Pompeii” taken from its classics section, I talked to the cashier and told him that I thought the bookshop had a great ambience and an extensive selection of literature.
He replied, “Yeah, I honestly don’t know how long we can last. You don’t open a second-hand bookstore to get rich, and as the rent grows higher I don’t know for how long we can hold on. Yeah, people don’t read as much nowadays. We may disappear altogether in the future.”
The same phenomenon is happening in a country that’s extremely different from our own, and I think it’s tragic. I’m probably among a few people who love holding a book with my hands: I love smelling the aged paper, and I enjoy the feeling of used pages. Each little fold on the tip of the page is a pleasant reminder that the book has been read before; each small word or note in longhand is a mote of analysis from the book’s previous reader.
The internet is a gift to everyone who uses it. Information is much easier to grasp and obtain compared to the card catalogs of my past. However, a lot of people seem to have forgotten that not all books are electronically available. Many are currently out of print and have not been translated into e-books.
I’ve loved second-hand bookstores because they contain historical documents in the form of used books. While I always want to know more about this world and its current state, I don’t want to forget about what happened in my past. Used books provide me that conduit, and that is why I decry the loss of second-hand bookstores. To me, every time a store of used books closes, another aspect of history becomes forgotten. I want to remember.
Maybe that’s the reason why, among all the books in Gould’s Book Arcade, I only bought Santayana’s “Last Puritan.” The man, after all, wrote that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
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Michael David Sy, 29, is a medical doctor.
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