Notes from the underpass: Underground bookstore laments that income depends on politicians

July 18, 2019 - 10:22 AM
This artwork shows well-loved bookstore Books from Underground at the Lagusnilad Underpass in Manila. (Artwork by Uela Altar-Badayos)

A well-loved thrift bookstore called Books from Underground which has been a pitstop for bibliophiles in Manila for a decade now is among the latest casualties of Manila Mayor Isko Moreno’s clean-up drive.

The bookshop, which was visited for its piles of secondhand paperbacks and magazines in the Lagusnilad Underpass, was demolished on Monday along with several other stalls at the tunnel, upon orders from the Manila government.

The local government’s move drew mixed reactions from the public.

Some praised the clearance and new order in the underpass while others mourned the loss of the beloved bookstore and dismissed the clearing operations as “anti-poor.”

For book seller AJ Laberinto, who started the humble non-traditional bookshop on the sidewalk of Manila City Hall before it relocated to the tunnel, the cleanup was a difficult blow to what has been his bread and butter.

Reacting to the demolition of his bookstore, Laberinto lamented how his little store depended on any politician in power.

In lengthy “notes from the underpass” posted on his Facebook account, Laberinto said he received a notice that vendors will be removed from Lagusnilad. Still, he hoped that a dialogue with the new mayor will reconcile the issue on selling rights, citing that the vendors have dealt with several mayors before.

“Umaasa ka pa na kahit papaano pagbaba ng bagong mayor na Isko Moreno sa Lunes sa underpass maantig ang puso hindi ang maso, na may magaganap pang dayalogo,” Laberinto said.

His hopes were crushed on Monday when Moreno’s team removed the stalls and cleaned up the tunnel without prior dialogue.

“Lahat ng may pwesto kay Isko aapela. Lahat pinaalis na. Ang Lagusnilad na lang ang natitira. Sa Lunes kayong lahat na natitira at si Isko takits. Lumipas ang Lunes. Dumating ang Martes,” Laberinto said.

“Wala na. Winasak na. Nakalutang ka pa. Buhay ang Maynila pero di ka kasama,” he added.

This sudden business closure is a realization for Laberinto on how vendors’ lives depend on politicians in position. Despite this, he still reminisced the enthusiasm for books cultivated by his humble shop.

“Di nga kasi lubos na ligal kaya kinulang ang pagiging lehitimong Manileño mo. Masyadong nakadepende ang buhay mo sa kung sinong pulitiko ang nasa pwesto,” Laberinto said.

Abrupt clearing ops raised concern over vendors’ welfare

This is not the first time that vendors in the Philippine capital experienced sudden business closure. Just a week into office, Moreno also removed vendors from the sidewalks of shopping areas Divisoria, Quiapo and Blumentritt.

The numerous clearing operations opened a discourse on the beautification of the city at the expense of the livelihood of the citizens.

Moreno said he made the closure to bring back public spaces.

Kimberly Dela Cruz, a freelance photographer and long-time patron of Books from Underground, however, opposed the closure of the popular Lagusnilad bookstore and expressed concern on the small businesses affected by the clearing operations.

“It breaks my heart that you were asked to leave for the sake of beautifying the city, when the books that you provide made our lives so much more. They said that Manila’s clearing operations is the city hall’s way of giving the city back to the people but how can that be true when many of us depend on informal economies like yours to survive?” Dela Cruz wrote.

“People and businesses trying to make an honest living in public spaces are part of the city too, but most were treated like dirt, dismantled and swept away from view,” she added.

Working class versus working class

Artist and also a loyal Books from Underground client Karl Castro, on the other hand, considered the local executive’s move as “violence” as he said it drives to “pit working class versus fellow working class.”

“City workers are made to take down stalls which they have probably patronized at some point. On social media, the discourse of road clearing frames the issue as pedestrians and commuters versus vendors, and not the car owners who stand to gain the most,” Castro pointed out.

“The underpass is for the “taumbayan,” the mayor declares, as if vendors and their customers are not part of the taumbayan, as if these informal economies are not part of the very pulse and character of Manila,” he added.

Like Dela Cruz, Castro is also concerned about the vendors, who face losing their only source of income.

“The question is, where will these stalls and vendors be relocated? If working-class folk are not allowed to make a living on the last scraps of land that have not yet been cannibalized by gentrification, then where is their place? Whose city is it anyway?” he asked.

Filipino urban planning expert at the University of Melbourne Redento Recio, noted that “amid the euphoric mood and sustained media coverage, there has been limited discussion on the sentiments of the affected street vendors and the impacts of clearing operations on their insecure employment.”

READ: Beyond street clearing, Isko Moreno needs development plan for vendors

An international paper “improving outcomes in development-induced displacement and resettlement projects” compiled by Forced Migration Review’s Chris Dewet also noted that the annual displacement by development projects of millions of people “has immense socio-economic and human rights consequences.”

“Underlying resistance is the perception that the most vulnerable are forced to bear an unfair share of the costs of development–which is seen as a violation of human rights,” Anthony Oliver-Smith wrote on his “Displacement, resistance and the critique of development: from the grassroots to the global” paper.

In his paper, Oliver-Smith suggested that the promotion of the rights of development displacees requires “accessible mechanisms, allowing for the lodging, and following up, of individual complaints.”

Moreno, meanwhile, said the Manila government has plans for the displaced vendors which he vowed will take effect soon.

“Paghahanda naman ng Maynila which mangyayari. Hindi madali, hindi agad… Meron naman kaming lugar base sa infrastructure projects namin na kung saan namin sila ilalagak,” the local chief executive said.

Now left without a physical store, Books from the Underground and other vendors removed from the underpass are in search of new locations.

Even if they left the tunnel which was once a cultural hub for commuters and passersby, Laberinto is confident that his business and his fellow vendors were able to build a legacy that will always be remembered by Manileños.

“Pero huwag kalimutan na minsan sa underpass pagtawid ng Manila City Hall at Intramuros nagkaroon ng espesyal na espasyo, isang munting tindahan ng aklat na pumukaw at nakapagambag sa kultura at kamalayan ng mga napadaang Manilenyo, kapwa Pilipino at mga dayuhan,” Laberinto said.