Soon after finishing her MBA from Northwestern University in Chicago, Xandra Ramos-Padilla found herself smack dab in the peripheral south.
“I looked for a job, and the job I got was in Bentonville, Arkansas,” she recalls. “I was maybe the only Pinoy for miles.” The job was for the retail megachain Walmart, and Bentonville was its birthplace and headquarters.
“It was a great experience. They were the standard for retail, they were cutting-edge when it came to technology and distribution centers. So it was good to be there. At the heart of it, it was about leadership and, you know, running the store. I learned a lot from them.”
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The National Book Store managing director shares this in the fourth episode of Heroes & Titans coming out this weekend. Heroes and Titans is ANCX’s video conversation series on making the world a better place. In the episode, she also talks about all the learnings she’s collected from being at the helm of her family’s humongous business.
“Well I guess you can’t apply everything [I learned in the US] here because not all of the elements are present. But slowly I learned about building the supply chain, creating the store experience, creating merchandise assortment,” says Xandra. “We had fun Saturday morning meetings in Walmart, with the team cheering. I’m still trying to get our National Bookstore people to cheer or do a dance or something. You know, just to create that kind of culture. Walmart had a very strong culture.”
National Book Store, on the other hand, is an icon of Philippine culture, being the go-to place for school and office supplies and every kind of book imaginable for countless Filipinos. Now seventy-seven years old, the chain was built by Ramos-Padilla’s grandparents Jose and Socorro Ramos, the latter more affectionately known as Nanay Coring.
The NBS matriarch is a big believer in customer care, and creating an experience for anyone who visits any of its 245 branches. “We try to make it as experiential as possible so we improve things with better signage, better layout according to how people shop. Not every store can, and should have the same assortment,” Ramos-Padilla says.
With the store being a major source of published works for over seven decades, Ramos-Padilla and her family have seen how the Filipino reader has evolved. To adapt to these changes, they have had to ask and answer many questions: “Are people buying books? So far they are. But we know that reading habits are changing. People can access information and stories in different formats so we have to have that wide range of choices,” she explains. “We are still trying to make reading relevant, and we create events around authors.”
And, of course, they are mindful of local content. “I think we should have more authors. We support Filipino authors whether here in the Philippines or around the world.”
So what are people reading? “I guess people want to improve their lives because self-help sells,” she shares. “Leadership sells. There’s even this book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, and for some reason that’s selling.”
The younger generation are particularly gravitating toward books on idealism, and about discovering who they are. “They are looking for ideas, finding their purpose. They are searching for meaning,” Ramos-Padilla explains.
Another genre that is high on that list? Poetry. “Lang Leav. We recently had her in the Philippines, and she had three events and all of them were packed.”
Who else? “Aside from Mitch Albom, I think Nicholas Sparks really knows his brand of fiction, so he just sticks to it. I really admire him. We have this annual Philippine Readers and Writers Festival so this year we’re going to have Viet Tang Nguyen and Gina Apostol, who is a Filipino based in New York. It’s a confluence of authors.”
In the past decade, one trend that arose is that of online authors breaking into print. “I’m also launching Wattpad titles, so there are titles from different publishers and they’re all selling,” Ramos-Padilla says. “I’m surprised at the fan following of different Wattpad authors. It’s really amazing.”
She describes this as an online to offline connection; authors who have online presence can interact with their audiences. “And a lot of authors have said that Filipino audiences are one of the most active members of their communities,” she says. “Like when we had Cassandra Clare or Holly Black over. There were fans here who have followed those titles for years. People were even dressed in costumes and so on. It makes me happy to see fans of different types of books.”
Lessons and values
Ramos-Padilla says she and NBS believes in lifelong learning, and wants to support it in the lives of Filipinos by paying it forward. “My grandmother still reads newspapers cover-to-cover. She sends me physical clippings of those that she reads,” she shares. “My version is that I send people pictures of those clippings.”
And National Book Store continues with its aim to live up to their role of supporting children’s education in all aspects. “We want kids to stay in school. We want to make sure we have what kids need to make it in school.”
They have launched several programs to equip kids who have limited resources to jumpstart and sustain lifelong learning. “Right now our campaign is for school supplies so we have Project Aral. Every year, we maybe collect about 700,000 to 750,000, and we deploy them in different schools around the country. We also have Project Aklat, where people can purchase and donate a set of books.” They also provide notebooks, pencils, erasers, and even a kit with tsinelas. “You can’t go to school with bare feet. We make sure that the kid can go to school.”
They also maintain free libraries in the country, even in war-torn places such as Marawi where they maintain 18. Ramos-Padilla thinks that libraries are great for communities, and helps jumpstart the learning process for kids.
“I think my role is to be the keeper of Nanay Coring’s legacy as well as having an eye toward the future. We’re defining what things we’re selling, what activities we’re offering to customers, while remembering that Lola always focused on understanding, giving value to the customer, and learning from them,” she says. “I always share her story whenever I meet our managers, and her values of hard work and perseverance. She says there’s no elevator to success; you have to take the stairs. I think I learn that every day.”
For more on Xandra Ramos-Padilla’s thoughts on success, and the Filipino reader, check out the fourth episode of Heroes & Titans this Friday.