Friday, August 16, 2002

One Last Haven

In a nation where comic adaptations of literature are more sought than the book itself, in a country where most bookstores have the same selection and owned by the same people, a land whose illiterate surpasses that of the educated, there exists a bastion unique to the Philippines. It is called Book Sale, and it is home to the most avid book hunter.

As much as I love purchasing books locally, the Philippines has little to be desired when it comes to book selections. I mean only the most popular books get shelf space at bookstores. Sidney Sheldon, Anne Rice, Tom Clancy? but what about the other great fiction writers of the modern day? And for all the numerous branches of Powerbooks and National Bookstore, once you've seen one, you've seen them all. Only Goodwill comes close to matching National Bookstore's popularity and even then, half of their stock (if not more) is identical to National Bookstore. Of course, there are the other less famous bookstores: Popular Bookstore, Bibliarch, and A Different Bookstore. But even then, their selection is small and their prices tend to be heavier on the wallet.

Perhaps a great dissatisfaction I have with National "Bookstore" is also the fact that they tend to sell more supplies than books. Visit the smallest National Bookstore branch and you'll see them selling paper, plastic, pens, wrappers, videos, magazines, and cassettes. Whatever happened to the book in bookstore?

Book Sale, on the other hand, is true to its name. For one thing, their shop is littered with books. You'd see hardcovers and paperbacks along their shelves, books in both mint and awful conditions. The Book Sale price tag is in every one of them and they're at least half of what you'd normally get them for, if not cheaper. Perhaps the best attribute I find about Book Sale is that when you visit a Book Sale branch, it's different from another Book Sale branch. The books available are just plain diverse.

One quirk of mine is to visit Book Sale every week. That's the rate at which their shipment comes in, in contrast to other bookstores that usually take a month or two. Sometimes, I find a rare find, such as T. H. White's The Once and Future King. At other times, it's a disappointment, but it never ceases to amaze me at the diverse selections that come in.

Both old and new (although don't expect the latest releases to pop up) books can be found and it's something to pay P100 for a book that would elsewhere cost you nearly P400. Of course sometimes, the books are in a sad, sad condition. They're still readable though and that's what's ultimately important. Of course there are books that come in mint condition and I once even saw Dune books that were in better condition than the ones in my bookshelf.

And of course, there's the "sale" part in Book Sale. You don't have to wait for half a month for books to become affordable. I could come in with my weekly allowance and buy a few books without worrying that I can't pay for it. Of course just to be sure that the book I'm buying is the one I want, I can browse through them and read them, unlike the sealed ones found in other bookstores.

That's not to say Book Sale is perfect. One of its strongest points is also its weakness. It's too diverse and too random. What's available today might not be available tomorrow, even if you look for it in another branch. Then again, that's part of the thrill, knowing that something's within reach yet difficult to obtain. The place is also quite accessible as it's scattered all over Metro Manila. The same can't be said for the other specialty bookstores. However, if you want your books to be in perfect condition, Book Sale isn't the place to look for it unless you're feeling lucky. Most books there have a history: they've been read, reread, dropped, soaked, stumbled upon, etc.... They're not one among many. They are as unique as the readers who are looking for them. Books found there are books you can cal your own. And it's a better tale to tell during the rainy storms compared to a book you bought off the shelf at some shop or newsstand.

Yes, I am a frugal book lover. I want to spend less for the best. Sure, I could always borrow a book from someone else, but it's different when you own a book, even if it's in tatters. My books have personality: they have a history, they are hard to find, and they have a price tag of less than one hundred pesos.

Thursday, August 15, 2002

The Day I Was Popular

Nowadays, I'm not anyone remarkable. Unique, yes, but I don't really stand out in a crowd, unless you're really looking for a skinny guy with glasses. Once, though, people envied me. They'd know who I was, what I did, and how they wanted to fill my shoes.

The year was 1999. At the time, Voltes V and Yu Yu Hakusho were being aired on GMA 7. If you wanted to watch an anime screening, you went to Melchor Hall in U.P. once a month. Filbars didn't stock anime VCDs back then. CATS was known for selling anime videos as well as English-translated manga (Japanese comics). Comic Alley was half known for Collectible Card Games (CCGs) and the other half for anime and manga. Anima Anime peddled anime videos more than anything and didn't have a permanent physical shop. Only Pinoy Otaku had an anime-related web ring, mailing list, and chatroom. Questor was nonexistent. The only convention fans were aware of was the Collectibles Convention.

I also had the ideal job for an anime fan: I was working in Comic Alley.

Third year high school had just ended and I opted to stay in the Philippines during the summer break. I desperately wanted a job since time not spent on playing video games in the arcade was time spent saving money. I was too shy to apply at the summer jobs program at school so I had to resort to my own means to look for a part time job. I didn't want to leech on my parents so I didn't ask them about it. The only possible place I knew was the place I hung out at whenever I was at Virramall: Comic Alley.

Being a CCG fan, I played Magic: The Gathering at the tables in Comic Alley. That's where I got to make a lot of friends, one of them the owner of the shop. His name was Teddy and he was actually the half-brother of one of my batchmates. I played against him once during a tournament and we've been testing our decks against each other from time to time. I also buy the items he sells, from Magic cards to anime soundtracks. Thus one day, I asked him if I could work for him.

I don't know why he accepted me. Perhaps it's because I knew his brother from school. Maybe it's just my charisma (yeah right). The fact that we were both Chinese probably plays a role. He might have pitied me. He also might have seen himself when he was my age. Maybe it's because I asked his lovely wife and store manager, Carol, to take me in. They might have been extremely shorthanded. What's most probable though is that I'm an anime fan so I know the merchandise I'm going to sell more than the salesladies, and I'm quite familiar with the anime soundtracks (which are in Japanese, so no one really knows what the tracks contain, except me, who's bought them).

I started out as part time. From Thursdays to Mondays, I was there at the shop. The weekends were days I was needed most since that's when the customers all came in. I worked half-day, after lunch to six in the evening. I got to know the salesladies at the shops and the codes of the items that were sold. And then I had two days of vacation each week. It wasn't bad, except that I usually spent my free days at the shop, lingering for I didn't have much else to do.

Eventually, I asked to be established as a full time employee for the summer. I was working from eleven to seven, Monday to Saturday, and from one to five on Sundays, since I had to go to church. My face was seen every single day in the shop, and I was sometimes working with Teddy's younger brother, Andrew.

My coworkers were great company. They were friendly and quite helpful. Of course, they also complained that I didn't eat. I told them that I already ate at home, which is true, since I didn't want to spend money on buying lunch at the mall. Teddy and Carol were also kind. They'd drop by the shop when they could and entertained the customers. They'd also treat their employees to dinner from time to time and Teddy would show me the latest stuff he'd acquire, from Transformer toys to the latest videos.

I also got to know a lot of the customers. They came from various places and with different backgrounds. There was no limit as people from age seven to thirty seven dropped by, each buying something different: a poster, a wall scroll, a CD, a comic, a card, a toy, a model kit, a figurine, etc.... Since Xavier was an all-boys school, this was also the only time I got to interact with the opposite gender. I saw stunning girls and not-so-stunning ones, mothers as well as daughters, students and employed ones. Some of them came to me since I knew the manga as well as the soundtracks. I could point out where the TV show left off in the manga and what CD contained the opening theme for that series.

At first, I was shy and seldom smiled when I talked to the customers. Carol told me to try to be friendlier. Since she was my boss, I tried. Sometimes though, my zeal gets the better of me. I'd talk to the customers about the anime they like, the characters they have crushes on, and what they wished they had. If I feel quite confident, I'd talk to them about the mailing list I was in and invite them to join. Thus I contributed to Pinoy Otaku's roster and soon, stories of my "dream job" were spread.

I also got to meet a lot of people in the anime industry. Anima Anime, for one, who were then just starting out and did drop by Comic Alley from time to time. Another was Smarty Toys, the supplier of Bandai toys in the Philippines.

A lot of anime fans I met began to envy me. They said that they wish they had my job. As grateful as I am for my employment, it's not as idyllic as it seems.

For one thing, I don't get to read or open the merchandise. They're sealed and the only time I get to touch them is when I'm selling it to the customer or checking inventory. Yes, I don't get to browse through the manga or listen to the various CDs available. If I want them, I have to buy them, same as everyone else. For another, you have to have a lot of patience when it comes to being a salesperson. On the weekends, customers flood in. On other days though, it involves hours of waiting and you're finally rewarded when a customer comes in. He or she might browse around and they might hang around there for several minutes, not buying a single thing. There's also the fact that you have to put up with different kinds of people. I mean right now in the anime industry, there are a lot of annoying people who stalk and pester anime fans. While working in Comic Alley, I have to talk to them whether I want it or not. The best I could do is to pray that they go away, soon. Lastly, there's the occasional person who asks if Comic Alley sells Playstation games or Mobile phone accessories.

I have a lot to be grateful for, considering I got to work in Comic Alley again the year after that. The salary I earned there isn't as valuable as the people I befriended during the entire time I was working there. I still don't smile, but I now interact better with the opposite gender.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

The Science Fiction/Fantasy Dilemma

One of the most difficult genres to collect and get into is Science Fiction or Fantasy (SF&F), especially here in the Philippines. The text in itself can be beautiful, descriptive, and whatever literary praise you can give it. Neither is it too difficult to comprehend; you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand SF&F. So what then is the problem? Collecting them can be a real problem and it's not as easy as buying one book off the shelf. In order to give you a clearer picture, I will explain (and invent some of my own terms along the way) the classifications a SF&F book can fall under.

Stand-alone: These SF&F books are much like any other book. You read them and you're done. They're set in their own world and is self contained. No sequels, no cliffhanger endings. George Orwell's 1984 is an example, as well as Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Grey, Robert Heinlen's Starship Troopers, and Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens. They're a great read and commitment free. (Un)fortunately, not all SF&F books are like these.

Serial: These are several books written in the same setting but each book can stand alone in itself. You don't need to read the previous book or the book before that. It's something people can get into easily and while reading the previous books lets you appreciate the series more, it's by no means a requirement. Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series comes to mind, Isaac Asimov's Foundation series, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series.

Cliffhanger Series: Not only do these books need to be read in a particular order, the story isn't finished until you've read the last book. It's like watching The Empire Strikes Back without seeing Return of the Jedi, or Back to the Future 2 and not Back to the Future 3. For further elaboration, one book I read falling under this category ended with the protagonist meeting the villain. Yes, that was the ending. No fight, no dialogue, just the main character seeing the main villain. How's that for suspense? Nonetheless, reading until the end is well worth it. These epics are worth all the books they're printed on. The reader should just pray that the writer doesn't die on them before the series finishes. Examples are J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time, Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber, and George R. R. Martin's Song of Fire and Ice.

Stand-alone Series: While they do need to be read in a particular order, these books don't leave you suspended during an orgasm. Readers don't have to tear their heart out waiting for the next book to come. It's enjoyable at the reader's pace and still leaves the reader something good to look forward to. Examples are Frank Hebert's Dune, Anne McCaffrey's Pern, Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series, and Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

Of course there are some books that mix these categories. I mean Wizards of the Coast's (formerly TSR) Forgotten Realms series is a blend of serial and stand-alone series. They have one huge setting and different writers contribute to it, each writing their own trilogies or stand-alone novels. You don't need to read the other's work to appreciate the book you're reading now and each has a distinct style. There are also those who switch styles from time to time. Terry Brooks's Shannara trilogy was a stand-alone series but his later books tend to be cliffhangers.

Potential readers should also be wary of the term "trilogy". While this usually means a series comprising of three books, that is not always the case. Some series are labeled as trilogies even though they extend to four or five books. This is probably due to the fact that publishers are trying to cash-in on the popularity of "trilogies" like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. There's also the probability that the writer wants to extend his series more, or made a miscalculation somewhere.

Sometimes, sheer numbers daunt you. I mean the Dragonlance series has more than a hundred books in its collection. It's a mixture of serials and series and it becomes complicated enough that a flowchart was made to show the sequence you should read or not read the books. Mercedes Lackey's Valdemar series is divided into several trilogies, and Terry Pratchett's Discworld series really has a lot of books (it's a good thing that each one can stand alone). Sometimes, you just don't know where to start, or if you do, you don't know if you'll manage to find the rest of the books.

There's also the predicament of out of print books. I mean a lot of SF&F books have been released over the years and some of them are several decades old. Well and good if they're as popular as Tolkien, warranting a reprint. But if they're not, tracking down those books can be a big problem. For example, Asimov's Foundation series has been reprinted, except for the last book, Foundation and Earth. What to do about that? Some of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar series is nearly impossible to find. The biggest issue in SF&F is not finding the newest and latest books but finding the old and "classic" ones. Sure, you might get lucky in a rummage through Book Sale but you can't be lucky every time.

Online shopping has been a boon to SF&F fans... if you have the money. Don't get me wrong, the price deals you get on the Internet is cheap. It's the shipping that becomes the problem since most bookstores like and are based in the West. Ebay is also another alternative for those out of print books but you're not guaranteed unless you want to enter in a bid war.

And of course, the greatest enemy a SF&F can face is the ravages of time. Covers are ruined, pages get torn, spines loose their adhesiveness, whether it's due to loaning it to a friend, reading the book at 180 degrees, or accidentally dropping it somewhere. Considering some of those books don't get reprinted, it's a major loss to the SF&F fan. Sure, ebooks are suddenly popping up but only time can tell if they'll be popular or as "invulnerable" as most people think. I mean the files of a hard drive can "accidentally" get deleted, although recovering just one copy is enough to cater to millions.

Looking at all these problems, you wonder why people still read SF&F, especially here in the Philippines. It's because it's our passion, our craving, our need. We SF&F fans are not only readers but collectors, restorers, bargainers, and bibliophiles all rolled into one.

Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Dedicated to Tin Mandigma with her nice little comment. =)

Fantasy: An Epic Quest

I envy a lot of fiction readers. They don't have to put up with the grueling pain and patience we fantasy (and science fiction) readers have to go through. Perhaps if I were living in the U.S., I'd be on equal footing. But this is the Philippines, a country where the education system fails the masses, and the concept of a book is a thin romance novel being sold for less than P20. The fantasy lover is one of the most deprived readers, and I'm one of them.

Perhaps the first and foremost problem of the fantasy genre here is the fact that it's not mainstream. I mean most bookstores allot a shelf or two for the genre but their selection is quite limited and not as varied. More often than not, the bookstores here acquire the same authors over and over again. Finding popular names like J.R.R. Tolkien or Terry Brooks can be quite easy but whatever happened to the OTHER writers out there? The likes of Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, and Katherine Kerr seldom gets seen in local bookstores, if ever. Simply put, there's a lot of fantasy authors out there and the Philippines sees the same authors over and over again throughout the years. Moreover, great fantasy writers like Ursula le Guin and C.S. Lewis are often shelved at the children's section of the bookstore. The fact that the two largest bookstores, namely National Bookstore and Goodwill, have the same selection in all their branches, doesn't help matters.

The second problem we face is that a good story is rarely contained in one book. I mean the greatest stories ever told usually spans a multitude of books. Tokien's Lord of the Rings encompasses three paperback novels. C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia is divided into seven books. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter is a planned seven-book series. That's not to say that there aren't good standalone fantasy novels. The likes of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell's Animal Farm, and Lois Lowry's The Giver, comes to mind. Fantasy, more often than not, is something told over a span of several books. Unlike fiction fans who only have to be lucky and persevering in a book rummage once, we fantasy fans have to be as fortunate several times over. I mean I might find a copy of Raymond E. Feist's Silverthorn at Book Sale, but in doing so, I'll have to scrounge for the book preceding it, Magician, and the book after it, A Darkness at Sethanon, to complete the trilogy. The worst scenario here is that I end up with a story I have no idea how it began nor how it ends. If it were any other novel, I'd find the book at Book Sale, read it, and be done with it. For the fantasy fan, the problems have only just begun.

The third dilemma we face is obtaining the books we want. I mean National Bookstore and Goodwill only has a limited selection, not to mention that they only stock the latest books. Since fantasy books span several books, a lot of those novels won't be recently published. Unless you had excellent timing and started collecting when the book just came out, acquiring those not-so-recent books can be quite difficult. The real issue isn't about obtaining the new titles; it's about finding old ones. In today's mentality where the newer is the better (or in publication's case, the more recently printed or reprinted, the better), fantasy lovers lose out a lot. To find these books, we resort to non-mainstream shops. A Different Bookstore and Page One can become a boon as they offer an alternative selection, one which stocks both old and new books. However, since these bookstores aren't as mainstream or popular as Goodwill and National Bookstore, their prices can be quite expensive or not as easily accessible. I mean there are several dozen National Bookstores in Metro Manila, but only one A Different Bookstore, which is located in Glorietta. Page One's prices, on the other hand, are nearly double that of Goodwill. The last alternative for us is to buy from second-hand bookstores. Book Sale offers a delicacy of fantasy but you have to either scrounge among a pile of books or have to wait a long time (years) before the title you're looking for becomes available. Let's not get into the perils of ordering online from where shipping costs you more than the book itself.

A fantasy fan is often stereotyped as the person who is "escapist". Nothing could be further from the truth. A lot of fantasy novels contain realistic truth in their stories. Perhaps magic or some other technology is employed in the setting but people's reactions, their feelings and attitudes, are similar, if not more realistic, to the situations people face in life. This illusion probably stems from the conventional fantasy most people are familiar with: that of fairy tales. In the fantasy genre though, everything isn't solved by the wave of a wand or the wish of a witch. If that were the case, the books needn't span hundreds of pages if everything could be solved so easily. I personally read fantasy because it's intriguing. Other genres share a part in it. One just needs to look at the recent Academy Award Winner Lord of the Rings: It has action, suspense, romance, even comedy. Yet at the heart of it all lies a good story. Which is why despite all these problems, I'm a fantasy fan.

Acquiring fantasy novels can sometimes be as difficult as finding the Holy Grail. Yet once this is accomplished, you realize that it's all worth it. There's the interesting read that'll last you a few days at least, the stories you tell of how you obtained the treasure, and lastly, the satisfaction in discovering such a unique find.

Sunday, August 11, 2002


Ever since former president Ramos allowed the franchising of foreign labels, the Philippines has seen numerous businesses popping up. One of the most prolific is Starbucks, the coffee shop which caters to the elite. It's so damn successful that even if the branches are all lined up in one neat line, it would still be filled with people.

My first experience of Starbucks coffee was nine years ago. My parents and I were vacationing in San Francisco. Foreign franchises weren't allowed in the Philippines at that time. If you wanted to taste Starbucks, you had to go abroad. I didn't know what Starbucks was back then. As far as I'm concerned, it was just another coffee shop. My godmother was driving us to Starbucks that afternoon, the last stop before we headed to their house. They ordered coffee and so did I. I never drank coffee before and that day was the first opportunity I got to do so. I was always fascinated with cappuccino. It had an alluring ring to it, a kind of seduction that was similar to chocolate. Of course what it tasted like, I never knew. Guess what I ordered?

Suffice to say, I realized that day that I didn't like coffee. I had tasted mom's Nescafe coffee back at home and I didn't like it. I thought Starbucks would be different. It does taste better than Nescafe but not enough for me to start liking coffee. It was bitter that no matter how much sugar I put in, I could still taste it. Worse, when we were finally in the car, I was dizzy and groggy. I wanted to sleep but couldn't because of the caffeine. I felt sick for the rest of the day.

Years later, I'd see Starbucks a few streets away from our house. It's only then that I realized how pricey their drinks are. There's no way I'd pay P100 for something that you can sip in a matter of minutes. Heck, with P100, that would pay my lunch bill for the entire week (yes, I eat that little for lunch). Not that I'm totally against Starbucks. The ambience is good and I can already smell the coffee when I enter the place. While coffee is something they're known for, people also come there for their frapucinnos, drinks filled with what's usually chocolate and whipped cream. Dozens of people would line up just to get a taste of their fraps, whether it's chocolate, mocha, or whatever else they think of (I once drank a raspberry frapucinno). Unfortunately, it's quite expensive (P95~P115), and I never caught on to it mainly because I'm allergic to chocolate (yes, I know I'm deprived).

It was so popular that my classmates would walk all the way from school to the nearest branch of Starbucks. It was a fifteen-minute walk and some would just take a jeep, if not their cars. When they got there, they'd order their coffee, wait for it, drink it to the last drop, and head back to school. Walking thirty minutes worth of distance just for a drink you'd finish in five minutes just shows you how remarkable Filipinos can be.

A few years later, more branches would pop out. In the Greenhills area alone, there are four branches, each less than a kilometer away. I mean outside my former school, there's a new Starbucks branch set up. One jeep ride away is the next Starbucks branch, which is beside a gas station and behind the bus stop. Across the bus stop is the Greenhills Shopping Center with a Starbucks branch in its new Theater Mall. One street away from the place is another Starbucks branch which is beside Chili's.

Another example would be the case of Makati. In 6750, the parking lot sandwiched between a hotel and the Glorietta mall, there's a Starbucks outlet in its ground floor. Inside Glorietta, there's a Starbucks branch in one of its movie theaters. Across Glorietta is the recently established Greenbelt 2 mall, which has its own Starbucks as well. If I wanted to pass through all these Starbucks branches, it would take me less than ten minutes.

This phenomenon reminds me of the Zagu fad that struck the Philippines. Zagu is a drink that contains blended juices and some sago in it. It was popular that around every corner, there's a branch selling the stuff. Of course unlike Starbucks, it wasn't as expensive (P35 for a drink) but you'd be amazed at how long people would line up just for a taste of the drink. Also unlike Starbucks, Zagu has stopped being a fad and now, it's amazing if you can still manage to find an outlet as most of the branches I know have closed down.

Whenever I'm at school, in the malls, or at the streets. I see plastic cups of Starbucks scattered all over. Gone are the days when you bought coffee at Mister Donut. I rarely even see any people nowadays at Mister Donut, sipping their coffee at the wee hours of the morning.

I'd choose fruit juice over Starbucks any day. I don't need caffeine to keep me awake and I'm already hyper as it is. Besides, think of all the money I'm saving by not purchasing drinks at Starbucks.