by Bam Baraguir
Earlier this year, I asked a friend to find me a copy of Alcott’s Little Women. I received a package not soon after and was elated upon seeing my friend’s name on the return address. However, the excitement gave way to instant anxiety when I saw that he sent me a freshly bought copy; its pages crisp and smelling like high-end malls. I was expecting a worn-out copy. Loved and, preferably, not worth more than my daily wage.
Growing up, I always knew I was a library kid. To this day, I prefer the smell of old books to new ones and I gravitate more towards libraries than bookstores. I never thought of this as a quirk until I moved to Davao City for university. I realized then that the reason I felt that way was because I grew up reading books for free. I never had the experience of walking into an aisle with rows and shelves filled with books for sale. If I wanted to read one, I would visit the small public library in the government compound. I never had to buy them new. It was always some hand-me-down cover that my dad borrowed from god-knows-where. The only new books that I had were my two reference books: a large Merriam-Webster Dictionary and a hard-bound geography book titled Circling the Globe. Both books were bought by my grandma from traveling salespeople that was commonplace back in the ‘90s. I had never experienced a paper cut, and a book without dog-eared pages is something new.
Simply put, books are not easily accessible to me. Or any other Cotabato kid who does not have wealthy parents. Sure, the public library exists but it operates like any other government agency—closed on weekends and open only from 8am to 5pm on weekdays (and it’s closed during lunch hours, too). School libraries are another option, but they are only wonderful if you study in a private institution. More often than not, public school libraries here will have more cobwebs than books. To be fair, there was once a tiny rent-a-book stall along Sinsuat Avenue where my friends and I would often borrow Pugad Baboy comics. Sadly, it closed down when I was in my second year of high school.
Today, there are no bookshops in Cotabato.
A few years ago, a new mall opened and, along with it, a school supply store that sold a couple of boxes of books. They would have a dozen or so on display and that would be it. The only other shops that would have books for sale are those run by priests and nuns in each of the private Catholic schools in the city. These were mostly theology-oriented books and prayer pamphlets sold along with other religious trinkets.
Perhaps this is why the reading culture in my city is, in my opinion, pretty terrible. Not a lot of children grew up reading books, primarily because there are no places where they can get and read one. Rowling, Collins, Roth, Tolkien, Martin. These are household names for this current generation but, unfortunately, most public-school teenagers in my city would not recognize them. Unless, of course, you mention the screen adaptations of their books. Not to mention that the boom of social media like Tiktok And YouTube had also made reading an even less preferred hobby.
When I saw an empty store space in our neighborhood a few months ago, an idea came to mind. What if I opened a Book Café? It will have a cozy reading nook with warm lights and comfortable seats. If I make the place pretty enough, people would come visit and eventually take a liking to reading. I will set up a club—a circle where they can share and discuss books.
But I need help. I’m looking for old or preowned books—fiction, especially for children and young adults, preferably—to help set up this Book Café for the future readers of Cotabato. (New books are welcome too, of course, and if you are willing to send books our way, you may do so through #AReaderEveryDay as well). There is something about them that speaks beyond the words imprinted on their pages. The idea that these books were once owned and taken care of by someone who treasured them is a story on its own. Folded pages and curled covers tell tales and, hopefully, the kids who will get to read these books will be able to take a peek into the world that the book has opened for its previous owner.
This is an ambitious project, I am aware, but it is something close to my heart, and I know I will try my best to make this happen. For now, I have Little Women, fairly new and eager to meet would-be readers and lovers of literature, and also waiting for other friends to join her in the Book Café.