Saturday, December 07, 2002

Virramall: Same Name, Different Place

When one mentions mall, the first thing that comes to mind isn't Megamall, Robinsons Galleria, or even Glorietta but Virramall. I remember frequenting the place often, going to National Bookstore to buy school supplies or taking the escalators up to the third floor to watch a movie, buying some cheese-flavored popcorn before entering. It was a time when SM stood for Shoe Mart, Robinsons Galleria wasn't existent yet, and who would go all the way to Makati? Of course the Virramall back then isn't the Virramall now.

When I was a kid, Virramall was the one place I thought I could find everything, at least in my eyes at age four or five. I wasn't interested in clothes or shoes, although my parents would take me there in the event that I needed some. To a child, entertainment is everything and Virramall provided that. Aside from the movie theater that used to reside on the third floor, video game stores were everywhere, selling Famicom games at various prices. Soon, I would go to Virramall not just to buy games but to play them there as numerous arcades started popping up. And of course, me being the video game buff that I was, I visited a magazine shop by the fire exit at the second floor whose name I didn't know until several years later despite the fact that I was purchasing computer magazines from them every month.

Eventually, I would pursue other interests like PCs and comics. I would still go to Virramall to pursue my needs. The second floor was where most of the computers shops were, although the ground floor did have a few, including the one where my computer was being serviced. I quickly found out where Filbars and CATS was located, which was vital in my need to collect Marvel Comics and Dragonball comics.

The route I'd take to enter Virramall wasn't via the main door but through the back entrance. It was convenient since closest way from Unimart, where our family bought our groceries, to Virramall was through that route and the car was also parked near that area. What is now a jumble of bazaars and stalls used to be a grocery shop called "Mom and Pop". Eventually, it shut business and a comic shop replaced it but that too didn't last until the area became vacant for quite awhile.

I guess I didn't appreciate Virramall until I was grade seven, when no one was chaperoning me wherever I went. I was free to explore the corners of Virramall without the supervision of maids or drivers. The architecture of the place, especially in comparison with today's malls, might baffle some people but I became acquainted with it, knowing where the shops were, including the obscure ones like the weapons shop on the second floor.

And then Virramall caught on fire, charring the right side of the third floor. It was the talk of the town, something that shocked a lot of people, especially us students who depended on Virramall for leisure. It was some time in 1995 or 1996 and I had just gotten into the Magic: The Gathering craze. People were collecting these cards that you played with skill, strategy, and luck. While most of our hangouts were unscathed, a frequently visited shop, at least by others, was Comic Alley, which was located on the third floor. Despite me roaming around Virramall, I never did explore the third floor much since there were only a few shops not to mention that there wasn't a movie theater anymore. After discovering that Comic Alley was still existent, especially after the fire, I decided to find out just where it was located.

Sure enough, my friend Timothy took me to the place and introduced me to the store manager, Carol. The place became a hangout for me since I could meet fellow Magic players and challenge them to an impromptu game. I basically lived my high school life in that small corner of the third floor where the world seemed to revolve around. Suddenly, network gaming (the evolution of arcades) centers sprouted around the vicinity. With the cellphone craze, stalls were set up selling mobile phone paraphernalia and buying a prepaid card was as easy as stepping out of Comic Alley. And of course, this was the time when CD piracy began. First it was music CDs and Playstation games. Soon, it turned into PC software and VCDs. What used to be empty lanes now was filled with mamke-shift stalls and crowds staring at the wares. The third floor seemed to me the most visited place of Virramall. I never thought it would change.

Last year, it did just that. It took a tragedy to change my outlook of Virramall. A fire sprung and enveloped the left side of Virramall, consuming Jolibee, Comic Alley, and several network gaming centers in the flames. It also affected a few shops on the second floor and Virramall was closed for a time. When it finally did open, the already feeble air conditioner was non-existent and there was a prevalent smell of burnt plastic.

I thought that Virramall would never get rid of that smell. I was wrong. Several months passed and it was back in working order. Granted, the third floor that got burned was closed but a lot of shops were open again and some relocated to the second floor. Of course now, I rarely visit the place. Maybe it's due to the fact that where once you could peacefully browse through the many shops, now you're pestered with men selling pirated VCDs, DVDs, and porn. Nothing drives you away more than a guy uttering "Boss, X, X. Bili na kayo," whenever you pass a staircase or stand idly around.

So is Virramall still the same place I knew? Well, the architecture remains to be one of the most bizarre and I still know the quirks of the place but the atmosphere is different. I mean one of the biggest jokes I saw there was when JV Estrade put out a banner by the main entrance saying "not to buy pirated products" but once you stepped inside, people would be infringing on copyright laws left and right. And of course, there's just something not right when on every floor you are in, someone will begin to nag you (to the point of following you around) to buy their porn for dirt-cheap prices.