Special Feature

The Rise and Decline of the Big Bookstores

From the mid-1990s until sometime in the mid-2000s, in the midst of the changing urban landscape that is sweeping across the metropolis, Manila went through what can be considered as a “golden age” as far as the bookstore industry is concerned with the rise of the so-called “big bookstores” in the metropolis.

At the forefront of this golden age were two giant bookstores: Powerbooks and Fully Booked. Competition aside, these two bookstore giants that have managed to transform not only the bookstore business, but also the landscape of the metropolis as well. After years of being used to the traditional “bookstore” that retailers like National Book Store has to offer, denizens began to discover what a true blue bookstore can be. Suffice to say, it was a fortunate era for the city’s bookworms, especially those belonging to my generation.

Powerbooks enters the scene

It is interesting to note that one of those who helmed this bookstore revolution is actually related to the ones behind the giant that is National Book Store. Established in 1996, Powerbooks was conceived to be a specialty bookstore carrying mostly premium commercial titles that have been published here and abroad (which meant no textbooks or school/office supplies that National Book Store sells). It was also conceived to be a literary salon of sorts, with a cozy ambience and laidback atmosphere that makes for conducive reading.

It opened its first branch along Arnaiz Avenue, the former Pasay Road, just across the Greenbelt area. It was a two-level branch, something that is a rarity for a bookstore to have even in those days. Despite the inconspicuous beginnings, it soon began to earn a following as many were discovering this literary haven. Soon enough, Powerbooks began to expand and opened other branches, particularly one in SM Megamall which also had a spacious floor area.

the former site of Powerbooks SM Megamall

The birth of Fully Booked

While some appreciate that Powerbooks is bringing a new type of experience in bookstores, the fact that it is still related to the “NBS monopoly” has made some feel uneasy about it. With this newfound bookstore experience in full swing, the time seemed ripe for a new player to shake things up, so to speak. In the midst of such sentiments, a small specialty bookstore called Bibliarch entered the scene in the late 1990s. Its initial branches only had a small floor area, selling mainly international book titles. While Bibliarch admittedly did not make much of an impact, it served as the blueprint for the disruption that was to come.

In 2001, Bibliarch’s founder Jaime Daez opened a new bookstore venture, this time with a bigger floor area and more titles to offer. Opening its initial branch in the then newly-opened Power Plant Mall, this venture, then known as Page One, gained a following and, in time, became an established player in the bookstore industry. Not to mention an emerging serious competitor to Powerbooks, at the very least. Page One soon became an anchor tenant of the Power Plant Mall, helping the mall gain considerable foot traffic in the process, despite not being an Ayala Mall nor being based in the main Makati business district.

The original site of the first Page One/Fully Booked in Power Plant Mall, Makati

Page One would eventually make a name change in 2003 into what we know the bookstore today: Fully Booked.

Expansion…and the start of a decline

In the same year, 2003, Powerbooks closed down its Arnaiz branch to relocate to a more prime location: the then-newly built Greenbelt 4. With a wider 2-level floor area compared to the old Arnaiz branch and a space to hold events such as talks and book signing events, it served as one of the anchor stores of the newly-built Greenbelt wing. The opening of Powerbooks Greenbelt was considered to be the hallmark of Powerbooks’ growth and success in the industry.

Powerbooks Greenbelt 4 (image courtesy of lipsticksxlenses.com)

However, something was lost in the process, at least as far as this roamer was concerned. The old atmosphere and ambience that made the old Powerbooks in Arnaiz a joy to visit each time was no longer there. It was mostly replaced with commercialist fluff which did little to enrich the literary experience a bookstore was supposed to have. It could just be my own sentiments which may make little sense, but that was what I felt. And it was sad to realize it cannot be brought back anymore. Looking back, maybe that moment could have been the start of the long decline. Then again, this is just an opinion.

Meanwhile, Fully Booked was on an expansion binge as it opened a number of branches. Of particular note were the 4-level branch that opened in The Promenade at Greenhills Shopping Center and a 6-level branch in Bonifacio High Street. The latter, which opened in 2007, would become the flagship branch of the bookstore as it not only sold books but also have provisions for an indoor theater and events venues, both small and big ones. While Fully Booked still managed to maintain its ambience, for the most part at least, the landscape was beginning to change by then. And it did not bode well for bookstore industry.

The decline

By the mid-2000s, the winds of change were being felt in the bookstore industry, adversely affecting it in the process. While there are a number of factors behind this phenomenon, the main culprit being pointed at here was technology. The growth of the internet and the introduction of faster internet speeds made it possible for more people to opt going online rather than visit a bookstore to read stuff, at least. There is also the advances in technology which helped foster the idea of reading online as a more viable option. Now, people can read on their phones, tablets, or, in some rare cases, ebook readers, letting them store hundreds of titles in their virtual libraries, saving space and money as well. At the same time, the lifestyles and habits of people have changed as well, thanks to the influence of technology and other factors in place. Reading took a backseat in favor of other ventures, especially the trends that are popular in their respective circles.

It was a gradual decline that soon became apparent by the 2010s. The titles being sold were fewer than before. The space for books became smaller as the bookstores began to explore other options to keep customers coming in.  Powerbooks in Greenbelt 4 began to offer its lower level to school supplies, duplicating the marketing tactics of its sibling National Book Store. Fully Booked in Bonifacio High Street gave some of its space for other ventures such as a boutique furniture shop (at one point) and a food stall.

Originally a space for magazines and other items in Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street, this was converted into a Tintin Shop and eventually to this one, separating it from the main Fully Booked space

Eventually, many of the big bookstores had to take the bitter pill of giving up their large floor space and move into smaller spaces, as in the case of Powerbooks in SM Megamall and of the original Fully Booked in Power Plant Mall. But there were some who fared worse, such as the unfortunate fate of Powerbooks Greenbelt 4 which closed for good by January 2017, ending its more than 20 year presence in Makati.

The current Powerbooks SM Megamall, relocated and downsized (image courtesy of Ortigas and Co.)
The closed down Powerbooks Greenbelt 4, January 2017

On a more positive note, the Fully Booked Bonifacio High Street and Greenhills branches still remain in operation despite the downsizing. While their selections may not be as vast as it once had, they still remain literary havens and now serve as remnants of the big bookstore era the city once enjoyed.

The future

Despite these developments, let these matters not be mistaken as a decline of the bookstores and reading in general. There may be fewer titles sold and the downsized floor areas, but reading remains alive and will continue to be so. It is just that it is in what is called a “transition phase” as the future of what the industry will take is still being planned out.


Acknowledgements as well to Powerbooks and PinoyExchange

One Comment

  • Malot

    What really turned me off was when they started sealing with plastic cover the books they’re selling, regardless if you’re allowed you to unwrap them. To me, that translated to ” just buy it if you really want to know what’s inside then get out”. I’m sure other bookworms can relate; after all, that’s what attracted us to these bookstores in the first place, not to mention reading areas (now replaced with rows of merchandise) were even provided before to encourage more readers to both read and buy books. However, I also can’t blame these bookstores because some readers would just stay there for hours, reading, and not buy anything at all.

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