Among the ranks of books on my bookshelf, some weary veterans stand out. An ancient copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart informs you that it could be yours, for the reasonable price of fourteen pesos and ninety-five centavos, and that National Bookstore, Incorporated is proud to serve you in all four of its stores. Linda Casper’s The Transparent Sun is older still. The thin anthology sold for a peso in 1963, and the one staple holding it together has all but rusted away. I’m afraid to open the book for fear it will disintegrate completely, but the stories are so fascinating.
I have spent far more time than perhaps is healthy trawling through UP’s secondhand bookshops. These places peddle plays, folklore, short stories, novels, and other weird and wonderful permutations of the written word. Nothing in their collections, from postwar dramas to self-published poetry, slim essay collections to tomes of theater history, is quite like anything else. They are manned by nigh-omniscient booksellers, who know everything about every part of their collection and snicker ominously when you decide on a purchase. The shops are, as a rule, cramped, musty, and impossible to fully explore in a single visit.
And indeed, every visit is different, not least because these shops visit you, on their terms. They pop in and out of existence seemingly at random, materializing at AS Walk or random spots on campus. No matter how many times my walk to class is interrupted by Zeitgeist Books and the smell of old paper, I never get used to it. Maybe it’s because I secretly don’t want to. It’s a convenient rationalization for walking home with a bag full of books to say, “Well, it was on the way…”
In order to avoid getting completely lost in their claustrophobic labyrinths, I go to a bookstore with a clear plan in mind. Each time I visit, I first get over the initial glee of a new set of titles to pore over (harder than it sounds), then immediately start looking for the survivors. These are the oldest, most beat-up books in the collection, whose condition sometimes makes me wonder if their previous owners actively hated them. Despite the dual ravages of time and careless reading, these books manage to hold themselves together. Perhaps knowing that these volumes are made of sterner stuff than the rest of their collection, the booksellers never fail to tuck them away in the most hard-to-access nooks of their shops.
It takes a lot of work to find these survivors. Somehow, I don’t seem to mind, as my search inevitably takes me across the bookstore several times over. Looking for the oldest book they have on offer, I can come across intriguing and often hilarious titles. I bought Tony Perez’s Eros, Thanatos, Cubao because of its strange design—it’s a reversible book. One side is Eros, full of works themed around love, and the other side is the grittier, death-themed Thanatos. It is a delightfully weird book, containing short stories, plays, and poems but also knitting instructions and entire pages written backwards. It even lapses into Spanish at one point.
Sometimes I’ll never find one, and I’ll settle for whatever most captures my interest. After all, fresh publications are always interesting! UP Press is just over at E. delos Santos Street. Anvil Publishing and Ateneo Press set up shop in the Main Lib or at NISMED once in a blue moon, bringing some of the newest products of the Philippine academe to my fingertips. Seeing titles by writers like Ambeth Ocampo or Leloy Claudio gives me a strange sense of pride. I feel connected, somehow, to my favorite academic writers, and it makes me happy to see them continually coming up with new, interesting ideas.
But occasionally, I find a book with a yellowed spine and a dusty cover that has survived decades to land into my hands. It’s an experience for all the senses (except, obviously, taste). I look it over, inspecting it for damage and trying to determine the year it was printed. If it’s not too worn, I gingerly flip through, feeling for moisture (which means mold) and relishing the crisp snap of a turned page. Then, of course, I take a whiff of the sneeze-inducing, utterly unique aroma every old book develops. I bring it home, and reverently place it among its contemporaries.
If the bookstore I visit is not there the next day, it is probably for the best—I wouldn’t have time to read anything otherwise. ■
(This article was originally published in the Philippine Collegian Volume 96, Issue 1, 19 October 2018. Illustration by James Atillo.)