Monday, June 15, 2009

Visiting bookstores

I wish we had our local version of Strand.

For a bibliophile, going to a bookstore feels like coming home. It's where we go to nest, happily contented amidst the pages and pages of bound paper that can be found in the shelves. In Manila, it wasn't always this way. More than 10 years ago, we simply had National Bookstore, the only reliable place to go to for paperbacks which were unfortunately shrink-wrapped. There weren't even chairs or couches for you to use while you browse. NBS was, and still is, a no-nonsense retailer. You don't go there to while away the time checking the shelves; you go there to get the latest novel of your favorite author, pay for it, and leave.

Sidebar: The helpful saleslady
A friend had this funny experience about asking an NBS saleslady if he can remove the wrap to scan the contents. The saleslady replied, "Sir, you can't do that." To which, my friend asked, "But how can I check if this book is any good?" "Sir, I'll just summarize it for you."

Younger generations of booklovers in Manila are lucky. They have PowerBooks, Fully Booked, A Different Bookstore, Bestsellers (a subsidiary of NBS), and the hundreds of Booksale branches. The bigger retailers -- PowerBooks and Fully Booked -- encourage us to spend hours and hours checking out their stocks, hoping that we would eventually purchase something after our visit. They have cafes where we can go to while we read; they have cushioned chairs and ottomans where we can rest our flabby butts; their books aren't wrapped in plastic; the staff is friendly and always willing to help you out (ummm... just as long as you know the exact title and author of the book you're looking for).

Sidebar: The absentminded guy from customer service
Two months ago I was looking for Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go in a recently opened bookstore in Greenbelt. I didn't see the book in their young adult section so I went to the customer service counter (which I seldom do), hoping that the book was just miscategorized.

Me: I was wondering if you have The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. Can you please check your inventory?

Guy: Sir, The Night That Lets Go?

Me: No, The Knife of Never Letting Go. K-N-I-F-E of Never Letting Go.

Guy: Right. Lemme check, sir.

I see him type "knife never goes." I correct him, again, and finally he gets it right. Unfortunately, they don't have it but their branch in Rockwell does. So I asked for the book to be transferred and gave him my mobile number.

After 3 weeks, I received the following text message:
Sir, we are pleased to inform you that the book you have requested, The Killer of Never Letting Go, is available.

We book lovers know that bookstores are a business and that's why we patronize them. But it doesn't mean that we have to buy books every time. For one, books can be pricey, and unless you're a termite or a silverfish, there's no way you can live off of them. While we buy books more frequently than other people, we do take our time reading, scanning, and skimming several titles before we settle on that one book that we want to bring home. This book may just have come fresh out of the box or it may be an old one we've passed several times over during our past visits. It's something unexplainable really; sometimes, a book just speaks to us. We can scour every inch of the bookstore and leave without buying anything. None of the books spoke to us.

It's not unusual for me to browse three to four books in the bookstore for an hour and then deciding at the last minute to buy none of them. Or sometimes, when I'm in a buying mood, I get all of them. Less frequently, I buy a book that I haven't even scanned yet. It just happens. I guess going to a bookstore isn't automatically linked to buying books, which is something that doesn't sit well with booksellers. For us, it's more of the experience -- smelling the paper, touching the spines and feeling their weight, appreciating the artistic book covers, reading the opening paragraphs, and even just being in a place where people read. All these can be exhilarating and, sometimes, frustrating.

I think that one of the reasons bookstores aren't a thriving business here in the Philippines is that booksellers somehow do not understand the behavior of their target group -- the bibliophiles. And much as I'd like to offer my two cents' worth on why we buy books, I simply can't. I don't even understand why I buy books that I have no intention of reading whatsoever. Or why I'll go on a spree for several weeks and then end up with a self-imposed moratorium on buying books for several months. The saying "Don't judge a book by its cover" is something we book lovers laugh at. Good heavens, we don't want to splurge on something that won't look good on our shelves!

Also, another thing going against bookstores is that people have diverse reading preferences. Yes, people still buy several copies of John Grisham's latest thriller, Stephen King's latest horror novel, or J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. But any self-respecting bookseller would not just stock his store with mainstream pop bestsellers. We look for variety and sometimes, we're in the mood to sample something esoteric. This is why there will never be a financially successful bookstore that specializes in mystery/thrillers, horror/SF/fantasy, or young adult books. We don't want to be limited. Let's face it, we're capitalists.

It doesn't take much to please bibliophiles. Most of the time, we're just happy by ourselves. We seldom even ask for help from the staff. And unless we want to have a book reserved, we rarely go to the customer service section. When a bookstore closes shop permanently, we feel saddened and ask ourselves if we ever bought stuff from there. We rejoice when there are discounts and warehouse sales much like any other person, and we literally jump for joy when we receive discount cards. But in the end, bibliophiles are a different kind of consumer altogether. We're difficult to put into categories, in the same way that booksellers find it difficult to classify their stock into genres.

Note: This post is NOT a reaction to a bookseller's categorization of the people who frequent his bookstore. Check his post here. Frankly, I'm appalled.


sumthinblue said...

My boss once went to National and asked for a nuclear reactor, and they said it was out of stock :D

line of flight said...

lol @sumthinblue.

you can lives off of books if you sell them by the pound.

Nobe said...

lol to the absent minded guy from customer service. i hate it when that happens.

Helen said...

Well, thank God you guys have more than just a National Bookstore there in the Philippines. I'm really glad. Maybe someday when I go back there to visit, I will take a gander at the the new bookstore. And you are so right, Peter. Going to a bookstore feels like coming home.

Anonymous said...

Very well written! Bibliophiles can't be categorized, I agree. Our behaviors are erratic and sometimes our tastes may not be pigeonholed. But one thing is sure, a bookstore is our heaven.

zaimu said...

how true! we're a hard type to cast into stereotypes...hahaha! you certainly got the feeling of just browsing in the bookstore, feeling the vibe and all that..but im hoping that more booksellers will open... the more the manyer! hahaha!

you have not discussed Strand bookstore though...

Thomas said...

I love the Strand in New York. But I must say I rarely buy anything. I think because it is always hot and crowded I never quite get into the right book browsing and buying mood.