Last January 6 this year, the country lost a prolific and distinguished writer and National Artist, Francisco Sionil Jose, or F. Sionil Jose as he identified himself in his works. Controversial his views was at times, he was a respected figure who has helped shape Philippine literature into what it is today.
So yes, this tribute is three months late at the time of its publishing (real life stuff has been getting in the way) but as they say, better late than never. And what better way to give tribute than a feature of one of his other tangible legacies: a bookshop called Solidaridad.
First things first, it’s important to distinguish this as a bookshop and not a bookstore. As WikiDiff puts it: “bookshop is a shop which sells books while bookstore is a store where books are bought and sold.” Since Solidaridad sells only books and some other literary material, that makes it a bookshop, compared to National Bookstore and Fully Booked which sells art supplies, school and office supplies, and (in the case of National Bookstore) office equipment as well.
Now that we got the semantics out of the way, it’s time to continue this story.
Before F. Sionil Jose would write his Rosales novels, he worked at Sri Lanka in the 1950s as an information officer for the Colombo Plan, an organization that aims to foster economic and social development in the Asia-Pacific region. He said in an interview that the job paid well but it bored the hell out of him. And during those strikes of boredom, he first conceived the idea of opening a bookshop.
Around that time, he received an annual grant of $10,000 from the Congress for Cultural Freedom of the United States to set up an arts and humanities journal, which would become Solidarity. Jose took it as an opportunity to return to the Philippines to set up the publishing house that would publish this journal.
He was looking for a place to have an office for his publishing house and journal. His father-in-law told him to check out their (the in-law’s) family house along Padre Faura Street in Ermita, Manila. While he accepted the offer, Jose found the place too big. His wife suggested turning that extra space (which is the ground level area) into a bookshop, so in June 1965, the bookshop was opened and given the name “Solidaridad” a wordplay of sorts not only in reference to the journal he was publishing but also a homage to La Solidaridad (with the matching font to boot) the publication of the Reform Movement during the Spanish colonial period headed by Graciano Lopez Jaena, Marcelo H. Del Pilar, and Jose Rizal, among others.
And yes, until the end of his life, F. Sionil Jose’s home office was the upper level of the bookshop.
As a bookshop, Solidaridad has prided itself for being the bookshop with the most extensive selection from and about the Philippines. It has carried titles from different publishers across the country, even those based outside Metro Manila which makes them a rarity here. It is one of the reasons that has made the bookshop endure to this day, even despite that Filipinos are generally not really book-readers.
It also became a significant landmark in the Ermita district. Despite its unassuming exterior that has remained almost the same all this time, it was frequented by prominent personalities from authors like our very own Nick Joaquin to Germany’s Gunther Grass to political figures like Ninoy Aquino to Indonesia’s Adam Malik and Thailand’s Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. Given its proximity to the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, and the University of the Philippines Manila, many judicial and academic luminaries have dropped by the bookshop as well.
One may think…of course, who else but an author would think about operating a bookshop? But in reality, operating a bookshop is no easy feat. For one, books here are not really selling as much. It’s also not easy securing titles from overseas which require a purchase of a minimum number of copies which, going back to the first point, are painfully slow to sell and make profit out of. As such, being a bookshop owner requires a lot of patience and must have a deep passion for literature. When you look at it that way, the fact that Sionil Jose and his family has managed to run this shop for so long and continues to this day is very admirable.
Another key factor is that Jose and his family are pragmatic business owners. Jose has refused offers early on to open additional branches of Solidaridad as it would be time and resource-consuming and it would take a lot away from his main bread and butter which is writing. More so, he believes Filipinos don’t appreciate specialty bookshops as much so for him, having this one bookshop is enough to keep him occupied.
And at a time when bookstores here are becoming smaller (more so the book section in those stores), with physical books dwindling in favor of online materials and ebooks, we are fortunate to see a bookshop like this one still alive and well, keeping alive the legacy not only of F. Sionil Jose but also of the beloved bookshop and a cultural, intellectual hub of a highly-urban, nowadays congested city with an illustrious cultural past of its own.
You can check out Solidaridad Bookshop on Facebook