AJ Laberinto at Books From Underground. Photograph by Krishna Ariola
Culture Books

Why this underpass bookstore, a casualty of Mayor Isko’s cleanup drive, will be missed

This bookstore sa ilalim ng tulay is not just a bookstore, say its fans. It’s a community. And now it’s also gone. 
Jerome Gomez | Jul 18 2019

“Buhay ang Maynila pero di ka kasama.”

This was just a sentence in a long, emotional Facebook status posted Tuesday by AJ Laberinto, after Manila city government personnel removed the stalls in the City Hall Underpass—including his little store of books, Books from Underground, which has been in business in Lagusnilad for ten years now. As part of new Mayor Isko Moreno’s aggressive cleanup drive for the city—first it was Divisoria, then Quiapo, and then the Bonifacio monument in nearby Lawton— the underpass is now freshly-scrubbed, the erring stalls dismantled, leaving the vendors without a place to do business and earn a living.

Upon reading Laberinto’s lament on social media, fans of his bookstore stormed his Facebook page with statements of support.

The Lagusnilad tiangges, this bookshop included, was a project of former Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim.

“Nakakaiyak, AJ. Pero tuloy lang! Malaking parte ka ng college life ko - mula sa mga kwento, hanggang sa book suggestions. Dahil sa'yo kaya ako nagbasa ng Foucault. Niregaluhan mo pa ako ng Siri Hustvedt,” wrote one. “Magsabi ka kung saan ka lilipat. Siguradong dadayuhin kita.”

“Nadismaya ako sa kanila at nalungkot ako sa 'yo, sa inyo, Kuya sa ginawa nila. Balitaan mo ako kung saan ka na lilipat Kuya. Kapit lang!” wrote another. 

Meanwhile there are those sympathetic to the stall-owner’s displacement but express their support for Moreno’s cleanup efforts. 

“Ganyan talaga sir. sa gitna ng pagsasaayos ng siyudad may matatapakan talagang mga tao lalo na kung nasa illegal na posisyon kayo.. kailangan kayong banggain ng tagapasunod sapagkat yun ang nararapat. nakakalungkot mang isipin pero on the brightside naman is para sa atin din naman ang ginagawa nila. kung hindi tayo mag tutulungan walang mangyayaring pagbabago sa lungsod o kahit saan mang sulok nitong inang bayan,” said one commenter. 

“Pansariling interest lang po kasi ang gusto mo, maganda naman hangarin mo ang kaso mali po kau na anjan , maaari po kau maghanap ng magandang pwesto. pag bawal po bawal. pag mali po mali,” said another. 

According to Laberinto, the Lagusnilad tiangge was a special project begun by former mayor Alfredo Lim when he was still in office. The permits were supposed to expire December 31 this year but the contract was revoked because of nonpayment of electricity and taxes.

 

A community 

After a decade of holding court in Lagusnilad, where hundreds of students from neighboring schools pass by every day, it’s not surprising the store has established a following. “Books from Underground was not just a store,” Laberinto told ANCX. “It created a community.” (The stall name was actually adapted from a page created by Winter Gabayron, says Laberinto.) 

One of its fans is Krishna Arriola from Bacolod. “Hindi pa paalam ‘to, Kuya AJ,” she wrote on Facebook after sharing Laberinto’s status on her page Tuesday. “Marami kang napasaya. Napahanga. Salamat sa ilang taon, at sa mga mahiwagang pahina.”

It is not unusual to chance upon literary discussions in the stall.

Arriola visits Manila at least once a month for her advocacy work. The first time she chanced upon Books from Underground, she and her friends were just killing time before her flight back to Negros. They decided to museum-hop in the area, and on her way back to the National Museum, after buying a memory card for her camera in SM Manila, they chanced upon Laberinto’s store in the Lagusnilad underpass. They found themselves staying for hours, leaving the stall only when it was time to head for the airport.  

“They had titles you can't even find in bookstores anymore,” Arriola told ANCX. 

But it wasn’t just the books that had the group glued to their seats. “The books were priceless, but I think the hidden gem was actually Kuya AJ. He asked us to name a genre or a subject of interest, then he'd go around for ten minutes or so, climbing ladders, almost crawling on his belly, and he'd come back with an armful of books on the topic of your choice!”

The book designer Karl Castro echoes Arriola’s observation. “It's a bookstore that really tries to match the book to the reader. The owner is always ready to discuss and engage, and so are many of its customers,” said Castro whose visits to the store has yielded him gems of old out-of-print Filipiniana titles that he would most likely not find anywhere else. “AJ really looks through old personal collections etc and scours for good titles.”

“He knew the titles and the content by heart,” recalls Arriola of Laberinto during their first encounter. “We were looking for books on philosophy, politics, and social movements, and he knew exactly what to recommend. We left with around 14 titles —a satirical commentary on PH governance, a compilation of Timearticles on the Occupy Movement, and published journals on women's movements, to name a few. He had copies of books that weren't in print anymore, ones you can't find on online shops. He was also telling us about small events they'd hold, with the help of a few friends, like book fairs and small group discussions. He'd tell us students from universities would often go there, ask for a book title, and if he can't find it on the day, he'll have it the next day for sure.”

Laberinto is known to take pains just to find a title.

“I am certain I am not alone in mourning the loss of this unique bookshop, whose setup is possible precisely because⁠—or perhaps, even emblematic of⁠—Manila’s crazy landscape of underdevelopment,” Castro wrote on Facebook. “It is a dusty jewel hidden among racks of denim and gadgets, humbly blending with its neighbors but running on a different tempo altogether. Books from Underground has quickly become a kind of cultural destination in the University Belt; it is a trove for rare and out of print books, Filipiniana, and even indie and self-published titles. It also carries classics and mass market titles at very accessible prices.

“Every time I visit, there’s always an ongoing conversation, people searching for particular texts, discussing their value. It’s not just for literary types; I see moms looking for their kid’s next book report, old-timers reminiscing about the past lives attached to old titles, young students just looking for the next good read (or bestsellers at prices their wallets can better withstand).” 

Now that Books from Underground has closed shop in Lagusnilad, there is talk of relocating—but AJ doesn’t mention prospects for now. The hurt is still fresh, as can be gleaned from the final words on his Facebook post. “Pero huwag kalimutan na minsan sa underpass pagtawid ng Manila City Hall at Intramuros nagkaroon ng espesyal na espasyo, isang munting tindahan ng aklat na pumukaw at nakapagambag sa kultura at kamalayan ng mga napadaang Manilenyo, kapwa Pilipino at mga dayuhan." 

For many, Mayor Isko is no doubt breathing new life to Manila with his cleanup drives, but with the displaced vendors of Divisoria, and now of Lagusnilad, it looks like it’s not only feces the good mayor is stepping on.

 

Photographs by Krishna Ariola