How has the pandemic affected Filipino bookstores?

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We checked in on bookstores, publishers, and industry professionals to talk about the current state of the Philippine book industry. Photo by JL JAVIER

When beloved bookstore chain Fully Booked announced that three of their branches were closing, people mourned. Social media was flooded with memories and anecdotes reminiscent of eulogies. Publications posted headlines that felt like a warning for the end of times. Here was another establishment that we were losing to the pandemic.

The closure of a branch is part of the lifecycle of a retail store. As Jaime Daez, founder and managing director of Fully Booked, clarified to CNN Philippines Life: “One of the stores (in Taft Avenue) has actually been closed since August of 2021. The store is located across La Salle Taft, and with remote learning still in effect, there are hardly any customers visiting the store since March of 2020 as the traffic there is mainly from the student population.” Even before the pandemic, low foot traffic was reasonable grounds for the closure of a branch. If a store doesn’t do well, on to the next. “We are fully committed to always offer the widest range of books possible to our customers. Fully Booked remains where readers can find their next great read.”

But if there’s one thing we’ve gained during the pandemic, it’s the acute sensitivity for loss. Over the course of these two years, people have had to bid goodbyes to their loved ones, move from workplace to workplace, and watch from afar as their favorite establishments close their doors for the last time. So is the loss of these branches really indicative of the state of our bookstores, or have we just lost too much already? To answer this question, we asked bookstores, publishers, and industry professionals for their insights on how the Philippine book industry has coped in the last two years.

Supply and COVID-19the novel coronavirus

Before the vaccines and rapid tests came along, the whole world was at a standstill. The limited knowledge on COVID-19 turned the novel coronavirus into a boogeyman. The workforce stayed at home, logged on to Zoom, and hoarded toilet paper as an attempt to hide from this monster. This was a challenge for an industry that had tangible printed books as their products. How could bookstores continue to fill their shelves in a world that stopped moving?

According to publishers, the demand for books only increased as the letters changed in our community quarantines. Many of them met some difficulty in maintaining a steady supply of stock. “Capacity issues at some of the printing companies have added complexity to meeting the surging demand for print books, which are seeing unprecedented levels of popularity,” says Jennifer Javier, Penguin Random House Associate Sales Director for Southeast Asia. With limited raw materials and downsized presses, the books supply chain was left unprepared for this unexpected demand.

Kristian Sendon Cordero, Deputy Director of the Ateneo de Naga University Press and owner of independent bookstore and art space Savage Mind, used to manually transport books from Manila to his bookstore in Naga. “I really wish to participate in the intellectual and cultural life of Naga, so I would do these things just to make these accessible here. Traveling with books in an eight hour drive gives me some sense of accomplishing this special mission.” But due to the traveling restrictions brought upon by the lockdowns, the bookstore put a halt to their acquisition of books from Manila, and focused their efforts on selling the books from their benefactors that were on-hand.

The second floor of Savage Mind (in the Lirag ancestral house) is a cafe which the bookstore partnered with Tugawe Cove. The cafe offers their signature Pili Macchiato and Bicol Express Cannelloni. Photo by RUSTOM PUJADO

Baguio’s Mt. Cloud Bookshop also found it difficult to acquire books from their suppliers. Located up in the sky within the Cordillera Central mountain range, the bookstore saw major publishing houses in NCR shift to a skeletal workforce, which added to the challenge brought upon by geography. To adjust to this, the independent bookstore sought alternatives. “We found that we were able to attend to and get more books directly from authors or from smaller publications during the lockdowns,” says Mt. Cloud’s co-owner Feliz Perez. “Our local book suppliers were still able to visit the shop or bring their stock to us throughout the pandemic with little changes.“

Support for the business

Despite having ₱62.86 million from their 2020 budget redirected to the government’s COVID response, the National Book Development Board (NBDB) was still able to organize 53 initiatives for the country’s book industry, according to their 2020 State of the Book Publishing Industry report. Their Local Book Publishing Industry Development Program covered all bases, from webinars and workshops to grants and incentives to research and policy development.

“NBDB has been very helpful not only in terms of promoting and championing Filipino authors, but also in making sure that independent bookshops and publishers get financial and moral support from the government,” says Cordero.

The Ateneo de Manila University Press, on the other hand, was able to ease into the new normal through the agency’s webinars. “[NBDB] and the Book Development Association of the Philippines (BDAP) have both been tremendously helpful in providing opportunities for publishers to effectively transition to digital,” says the ADMU press’ Head of Marketing Almira Manduriao.

Even as the country’s economy plummeted, the rent was still due. Here, kindness and generosity persisted — call it the Bayanihan spirit if you will. Located in the Lirag ancestral house, Savage Mind finds its charm in its walls that tell the story of a place well-lived. The Lirag family didn’t hesitate to extend their support to the handicapped bookstore. “The family has been very generous to us that they gave us a huge discount on our monthly rental fee since 2020,” Cordero shares.

Even commercial bookstores share this experience. When word spread that National Book Store would pull out of malls in the latter half of 2020, the bookstore chain was quick to debunk the rumors. In a press release, the bookstore stated, “the support given to us by our mall partners, especially Ayala, Robinsons, and SM, in whose malls most of our stores are located, has given us a chance to focus our energies in trying to overcome this crisis and continue to serve our customers and communities.”

The book industry also knows how to take care of their own. ADMU Press knew that it was imperative to provide holistic care for the employees. “Despite following strict protocols, it is inevitable that people get sick and it is necessary that we provide them with ample time and support for their recovery. Everyone kind of slowed down dealing with the pandemic mentally and emotionally,” Manduriao says.

As a multinational publishing company, Penguin Random House had their own approach. “We established localized coronavirus task forces that are constantly monitoring the situation in their country of operation and regularly meeting to determine how best to keep our employees and authors healthy and safe,” says Javier, “Our top priority is maintaining the health and well-being of our community.”

Distance created a demand for connection and books served as a way to satiate this need. The book communities that emerged out of this pandemic became a strong source of support for the book industry. A quick look at #bookstagramph would lead to a stream of well-crafted flat lays and reviews that range from earnest to unhinged. The #booktokph hashtag on TikTok also yields a very active community that leads to direct sales. Manduriao shares how this act of signal boosting has helped their sales. “I would often read detailed social media posts of random consumers recommending our titles or of people on Twitter, not affiliated with us, answering questions about how and where to buy Ateneo Press books.” Fully Booked’s patrons also found their own nook on the internet with their Bookworm Corner.

Transition to e-commerce and Instagram book auctions

Distribution in the book industry changed drastically during these past two years. “E-commerce has probably accelerated at ten times the pace of what it would have been if the pandemic never happened,“ says Daez. Fully Booked saw the gaps and demands caused by the pandemic and focused their efforts into growing their e-commerce business. “Instead of us expecting the customers to walk into our stores, we need to do everything possible to bring the product directly to the customer in the comforts of their home.” The bookstore chain’s extensive collection is not only available on their website, but on major e-commerce platforms Shopee and Lazada as well.

The rise of e-commerce also gave birth to a new format for ordering books — one that requires thumb dexterity and internet that’s faster than everyone else’s. With rare finds raising the stakes, Instagram book auctions have provided a welcome thrill to the monotony of staying at home. Jessan Miramon’s Barthes & Novels has been selling books within seconds since the beginning of the pandemic. “[Barthes & Novels] was supposed to be a one-time thing, never intended to become a full-blown bookshop. But the first collection sold out overnight, messages kept coming from people loving the curated books and asking how they could get hold of titles that are not available locally.” There’s a level of intimacy that comes with these bookstores. In addition to being hard to find, the books here are personal. “Barthes & Novels is a curated bookstore, one whose collections are carefully selected. I, of course, do not have the time to read every book in the inventory, so the titles you’ll find in the shop are chosen according to intuition — books I think I will enjoy, along with the ones I have already enjoyed.”

A sampling of books from @barthesandnovels. Photo courtesy of JESSAN MIRAMON

And while restrictions had finally eased up, Ateneo Press kept their operations purely online. Manduriao says, “The public won’t need to leave the safety and comfort of their homes to buy books. With a few clicks, they can have the books they want delivered to them. It is also not just Manila-centric. We deliver to other regions in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao, and even abroad.” In addition to safety during the pandemic, e-commerce provides the convenience and access that physical stores may find difficult to provide. Other presses, such as UP Press and Anvil, have also made their collections available on major e-commerce platforms.

On the other hand, the transition to e-commerce poses a unique challenge for brick and mortar stores. In the book industry ecosystem, bookstores serve as the middleman for publishers and consumers. But with publishers themselves setting up their own online stores, brick and mortar stores are thrown out of the equation. “Many of our suppliers have created their own online stores and of course they can afford to put their titles on sale and give discounts. We’re definitely happy that people have more access to the book industry but as I said, it’s been challenging,“ says Perez.

Value of physical spaces

Local second hand bookstore chain Booksale has also suffered some losses during the pandemic. With having to downsize and let go of some of their branches, the bookstore has entered the fray and launched their online store Booksale Digital. However, one thing that e-commerce can’t provide is the feeling of pure unadulterated joy from diving into a pile of secondhand books and resurfacing with a good cheap find. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose, but that hasn’t stopped people from getting lost in their shelves and stacks for hours. This is why Booksale is a national treasure.

Perez shares that online carts and couriers were never really part of their vision for Mt. Cloud. “We started shipping out books more often and even started booking deliveries locally, which prior to the pandemic was not something we offered. Baguio locals would usually come to get their books themselves, but now, we have options for motorcycle or bicycle delivery within the city.” There’s a reason why locals would choose to visit Mt. Cloud and why the rest of the Philippines would travel to reach the bookstore as if they were on a pilgrimage. Inside, books are shelved and piled in a way you wish you had at home. Hardwood floors and wooden shelves are contrasted by playful origami cranes and trinkets that hang on the walls. It's a place where you can find recommendations and good conversations.

“We like to think that the experience of being in the store is part of buying a book from us,” Perez says. A bookstore is more than just a place for transactions.

The pandemic didn’t stop Savage Mind from challenging the notions of what a bookstore can be. In December 2021, the independent bookstore partnered with Cecilia Maggay Magtuto’s Tugawe Cove Café to provide their readers with a comfy respite from the world — good coffee included. The first floor of the ancestral house is home to the bookstore’s translated works and Bikolano-related books while the second floor offers the cafe’s signature Pili Macchiato and Bicol Express Cannelloni. Discourse and the utterance of the written word breathe life into the space during their film screenings and poetry readings — both online and offline. And as we move forward into this pandemic, “the creative heart of Naga City” continues to grow. “This February 2022, we plan to open our art gallery which will highlight works of contemporary Bikol artists and other artists we believe can participate in our continuing paghurop-hurop (contemplation) and paghuron-huron (conversation),” Cordero shares.

Books as essential goods

According to their report at the 2020 Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines Copyright Forum Series, the NBDB conducted a survey on the impact of the pandemic on the book industry workers. Several coping strategies and recommendations were enumerated by the 22 enterprises and 69 individuals that participated in the survey. In addition to alternative work arrangements and free COVID-19 tests, the respondents also made a call for the classification of books as essential goods.

Fully Booked's branch at Bonifacio Global City. Photo by JL JAVIER

In the midst of the hoarding and panic buying, the early days of the pandemic saw debates on what constitutes essential goods. ”Among other things, books, arts, culture are seen by others as nourishment, as food to the souls,” Cordero explains. At the start of the pandemic, Savage Mind immediately got in touch with Community Mart — a digital application developed by Naga-based IT service provider Nueca. This allowed Savage Mind to sell books at a time when a premium was placed on food, personal care products, and medicine. “Living during that time, it gives us some consolation when people started ordering books from us alongside their groceries.”

ADMU Press also noted an increase in the sales of Filipiniana and social sciences books. “I believe this is because the public wants to learn our history so as to better understand our current political and social issues,” Manduriao says. “Education, whether through formal or informal means, is a basic human right and books are among the essential tools to uphold it.”

Our history with COVID-19 is encoded in our reading habits. Javier noticed this in the sales at Penguin Random House. “In Spring 2020, we saw a huge spike in demand for kids’ study guides and workbooks when schools closed and parents were desperately trying to keep their kids learning and entertained. As people hunkered down, they embraced new hobbies and bought books on things like crafting, cooking and gardening.”

That guide on maintaining indoor plants and that tarantadong komik you bought tell the story of how you’ve been surviving in this global pandemic. This is why bookstores are here to stay. We soothe our languishing by buying books.