The bookshop my parents built—growing up at Solidaridad

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When Solidaridad, the bookshop my parents, Frankie and Tessie Jose, set up in 1965 on Padre Faura Street in Ermita, Manila, turned 50, we should have probably thrown a month-long party. Fifty years is a huge accomplishment for any business, all the more a small business, all the more a bookshop. Their entrepreneurial endeavor grew to include a publishing house, a monthly publication, Solidarity, and Solidaridad Galleries. It also became the Philippine center for PEN International, a worldwide organization of poets, essayists, and novelists protecting and celebrating writers and literature.

National Artist for Literature Frank Sionil Jose and wife Tessie: the early days

But how long Solidaridad would survive wasn’t really a question my parents ever wondered about, even if their accountant advised them to sell the land so all their troubles would go away, even when they declined investments, even when all their children had made their own lives in America. And when it was damaged by a fire in the next-door bar on Christmas Eve in 1988, they simply rebuilt with the help of loyal, caring staff and generous friends. They reconfigured the shop, painted all the walls and bookshelves white, and opened up the conference space on the third floor. My mother said this was a happy time in her life. I have a picture of her and my father the day of the launch of Solidaridad, Chapter 2. They are smiling, standing among the books, beside them my mother’s treasured cattleyas.

Frankie and Tessie Jose : Present day

But even before the fire, the postage stamp-sized store, as The New York Times  described it, was already recognized as a cultural institution. It was, and still is, often called Asia’s best little bookstore for its assemblage of English titles that my father personally selects, and for its Filipiniana section which my mother curates. My brothers, sister and I are very proud that my parents have created a space where Philippine books stand alongside foreign books and can be appreciated. For many, many years no one cared, except for university libraries overseas, but my mother persisted. Today, there is not as comprehensive a selection of Filipiniana in any other bookstore in the Philippines.

The word “ambience” wasn’t really a common term in the sixties and seventies, but I suppose the bookshop did have an unusual ambience for its time. It was the first air-conditioned bookstore in Manila, the first to have piped in music, which my father played on a reel-to-reel tape, and the first to proudly serve basi at book launches.

My Auntie Nene, my father’s younger sister, was the lone saleslady. The customers loved her and missed her when she was absent, which was frequently. She knew all the titles by heart, and was always willing to reserve books and accept IOUs from her sukis. She also delighted in matchmaking customers.

We kids were there after school and on weekends, working as janitors, post office runners, and cashiers with eagle eyes scanning the floor for shoplifters. To anyone who was charmed by the little army of Jose children helping out at the bookshop, we declared we were unpaid child labor. But we did get payment beyond measure. We credit our growing up in the bookshop for our respect and love for books and the humanities. Come to think of it, our parents are perhaps also responsible for our work ethic. And because we were surrounded by bright minds and colorful characters, we learned by example to value compassion, commitment, and integrity over brilliance and extravagance.

The Atlantic described my father as “the hub of a network of writers and reformers throughout Asia” and Solidaridad as a “famous salon.” That only seems fitting for a place named after the propaganda movement that Filipino ilustrados set up in Spain to shine a light on the state of the colony. Others too entered Solidaridad—the rich and the powerful, princesses even and Nobel laureates, presidents and presidents’ men, diplomats and business people, priests and nuns, students and teachers, foreign correspondents, backpackers, judges, generals, revolutionaries, artists, mad, mad poets, bon vivants, and illicit lovers. And then there were those, like the ambassador from Israel, who came to soak in the music. I asked my father why all these people gathered at the bookshop. He said they came because of the books.

If you were in the know or were invited upstairs for free-flowing coffee or whisky, a symposium, or a reception for a visiting writer, artist, or scholar, you would climb the narrow stairs to the third floor where a round table still presides to this day. If only this table could talk, my parents say. Around it sat some of the biggest shapers of Philippine thought, history, and art. Many of their discussions, historical now, were actually recorded, and transcribed and published in Solidarity. One day we will reprint some of them, including the series on nationalism, history, and modernization, and the closed meeting between the leaders of the Hukbalahap discussing why they failed and what lessons they could offer for the future.

We kids had our favorites among the Solidaridad regulars—Luis Araneta, Vicente Lopez, Teddy Locsin and his son among them; it was very exciting for us to watch them build piles of books at the cashier’s counter. We also liked Hernando Ocampo, who painted on our faces, Onib Olmedo, who would surprise us with our portraits in pen and ink, and Tiny Nuyda, a forever young artist who also collected butterflies. Then there were the women of letters loaded with joie de vivre—Eggie Apostol, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, and Virgie Moreno—and the journalists Max Soliven, Nestor Mata, Fred Bunao, and Kit Tatad, who were of course great writers but also funny and kind to us. And we loved the very gentle Luis Taruc. We knew he was once a formidable insurgent who truly cared for the farmers. He was aging and had already sacrificed so much that we were always sad to watch him board a jeepney alone to return home.

We have many more memories of other regular visitors and friends of the bookstore, but the story of the bookshop would not be complete without Nick Joaquin. My father didn’t even drink beer, but they were best friends. Nick also had a lot of affection for my mother, trusting her to vet interview requests he was undecided about. I’m not sure we understood this friendship or if we even liked him. He was certainly adored by many, and outrageous when drunk. Every time he came over, we ended up staying late, waiting for their arguing to end. Even the resident ghost wouldn’t stand for it. Once they were yelling at each other so loudly that she flung the records on the shelf at them. But sometimes they would talk in low voices, and Nick would come down the steps looking so somber and sad that it no longer mattered to us that he was responsible for yet another late school night.

The bookshop’s history is not without sadness and fear. One time a man demanded the money from the cash register and held a screw driver to my mother’s throat. Another time, there was a strange break-in. All they did was mess up the contents of the filing cabinets and break my father’s pen. And other times, when my father wrote something unpopular, the bookshop windows or the sign outside would be stoned.

I think though that the saddest time for my parents was when Martial Law created a big divide within the tight-knit community of writers. Loyalty to Marcos drove the false accusations and harassment that ended some of their very deep and long-lasting friendships. But we don’t remember our parents ever bearing grudges though. It was only very recently that my mother talked about how, in the 1970s, some young activists tried to set the bookshop on fire. She confronted them. Why, she asked them, do you want to hurt a small bookstore when you should be marching elsewhere?

Today, people take selfies in front of the Solidaridad sign and the poster on the window that says “Evil prospers where good men are silent.” Young and old come to buy my father’s books and to have them signed. Sometimes they even cry when they meet him for the first time. It was very exciting for us to see a group of 11-to-13-year-old girls, serious Wattpad fans, walk in and spend well over an hour poring over books. And as a Rappler headline reads, “Solidaridad gives Philippine literature a chance,” the Filipiniana books are no longer ignored. In fact, they make up more than fifty percent of sales on any given day.

My mother, nearly ninety and a little more hunched, still oversees the bookshop’s operations and is very up to date on new Filipiniana titles. My father, who will soon hit ninety-five, still climbs up the narrow flight of steps to his office on the third floor, to write and to read, never mind his failing eyesight. The remaining old guard still come, but these days it’s young people who sit at the round table to dream with him about the future of their country.

We are asked often about Solidaridad’s next chapter. Will you turn 531 Padre Faura into a heritage site? No, not yet. Can you bring back Solidaridad Galleries? Yes, soon. Will you publish again? Seriously thinking about it. Will it stay open after your parents are gone? And I answer, it’s not a question we ever wonder about.



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