Illustration by Grace Danico
Book Bound is a section where book professionals write about what it’s like to make a living from books. For this issue, the owner of the much-loved Mt Cloud Bookshop in Baguio answers the question people often ask: “What is it like to be living the dream
“I have this fantasy of spending days on end in the bookshop, reading and writing fiction. I suppose on some days it will feel like a dungeon and I’ll be sitting there with costs and income holding me down like a ball and chain.”
I scribbled this on the Ingres paper of a lovely, leather-bound notebook on Feb. 1, 2010. I had dedicated this notebook to documenting the steps we were taking toward making a bookshop dream come true.
The notebook contains lists of publishing houses, contact persons and their phone numbers, names of friends we hoped to approach for advice, book titles, a list of furniture, questions on logistics, a few Dear Diary-type entries. All on 11 pages. The rest of the notebook remains blank to this day, four years since I started it. In retrospect, I think this might be because the real, nitty-gritty work of creating Mt Cloud Bookshop very quickly overtook the dream.
Mt Cloud Bookshop’s paper trail, should anyone care to look through its innards, continues from there in a morass of emails, receipts, forms from the Bureau of Internal Revenue, invoices, contracts, long Skype threads of instant messages, Facebook messages, Excel files, hurriedly scribbled and barely legible notes and reminders written in various notebooks, logbooks, and pieces of scrap paper.
Poet Ramon Sunico once said that talking about the making of a book is like telling people how sausages are made. This couldn’t be truer of Mt Cloud Bookshop. My sister and co-owner Feliz and I are comparable to clueless food lovers who think they can run a restaurant just because they love food.
Several people have asked, “What is it like to be living the dream of owning a bookshop?” And when they say “the dream” I suspect they have the same happy images with warm fuzzy feelings that we had in our heads at the very beginning: days of contentment surrounded by books, the sunlight streaming in through the window, or the rain pouring outside while we are warm and dry inside with a cup of hot chocolate, long chats with fellow book-lovers, meeting authors, sipping coffee in the mornings, and wine or beer in the evenings before closing.
There are days like this, but there are also difficult days that are anything but fun, dreamy, or romantic. These are the days in which we deal with the mundane, unpleasant bits of running a business, when we have to crunch numbers and the numbers don’t add up. Or the days when we have to pay our bills and the rent and we worry about low sales and a dwindling bank account. We also have those awful moments when somebody might come in with a wish list of books, and we won’t have a single one. Or a day when we get people who come in looking for photocopying services, ball pens, or intermediate pads and then are irate with us for not having any school or office supplies.
On a good day, a parent and a child might settle into one of our corners and read stories together all afternoon. On a good day, someone with dark eye bags under her eyes will approach the counter looking for a book she needs for her thesis and we will have the book, or if not, we’re confident we can order it for her and call her when it arrives, and she leaves with a mad glint in her eye that has become familiar to us. It is that determined look of a person that is close, oh so close, to acquiring an object of desire. On a good day, we could get an email from one of our favorite authors announcing a new book and asking, “Would we be interested in carrying it and holding an event around it?” On a good day, the cash count and the change fund reconcile with the receipts and we can fill in a daily sales report form without errors.
We also get extraordinarily bad days. The Bureau of Customs might hold hostage for months a box containing eight copies of Eric Anderson’s In the Shape of Tradition, shipped from the publisher in the Netherlands. And then after a long wait, we learn that we have to pay a stiff tariff of several thousand pesos when we claim the parcel at the post office. Or, we might learn that we have to wait a year, or worse that we may never carry a book we want, because larger bookstores have such a thing as a contract of exclusive distribution. Shelf count days are always painful. This is when we count all the books in the shop and attempt to reconcile the physical count with our database. We have not had a single shelf count where the database matches the shelves perfectly and this is the number one cause of hyperacidity, headaches, and heartaches in our team.
And then there are the lonely days when nobody comes at all.
On extraordinarily good days, we have a full house for authors’ talks, book launches, poetry slams, open mic evenings on Third Mondays, or storytelling afternoons on Fifth Saturdays. On these days, we all share in the thrill of spoken word, a scintillating exchange between an author and a reader, the appearance of a new and promising poet, or the joy of a story read out loud in a crowd that is all ears. On an extraordinarily good day a friend might come in and consign with us a rare copy of Masferre’s book of photographs on the Cordillera, and on that same day, somebody will gleefully snap up this treasure. On extraordinary days, the bookshop is positively buzzing with customers, and almost every person that comes in leaves with a purchase; some of them clutching books of poetry to their breast, others beaming with joy over their finds in the children’s section or the fiction shelves.
There are times when it feels like the difficult days outweigh the good ones. So what keeps Mt Cloud Bookshop afloat? People do.
The romance of the bookshop is kept vibrant by a team of quirky, intelligent, hard-working and book-loving individuals. If you walk into Mt Cloud Bookshop and feel at home, or a surge of excitement, or the happiness of finding a book for yourself, then it’s because of the work put in by our very first book geek Andene, followed by the archer Eugene, the comics lover and accountant Kristine, the spoken word artist Faye, the poet and all-around events manager Angge, and the cheery accountant and law student Reg. They have since moved on to bigger things in their lives, and we were lucky to have them share our fierce love for Mt Cloud. And now we have on our team Kervin, one of the promising young poets of Baguio who is conversant on many of the books we carry, Rachel, a budding accountant who is as meticulous a book-keeper as any bungling business owner could ever hope to have, and Marisol, our constant source of positive energy whose every move in the shop is geared towards making a sale or getting more people in.
There’s another set of people who keep the bookshop going.
On the first week of January in 2014, a gift-wrapped set of cards with paintings of Philippine wildlife was left in the shop with a note that read, “Thank you so much for Mt Cloud. It’s what we look forward to the most whenever we’re in Baguio. Happy New Year!”
Printed on the gift-card were the names Kazumi, Mei-tzi, and Giulia.
Dear Kazumi, Mei-tzi, Guilia, and every person that has ever professed love for Mt Cloud Bookshop or supported any independent bookshop as a friend or a regular customer: Thank you. We exist for and because of people like you.