AJ Laberinto is busy arranging stacks and stacks of books inside a narrow space next to his family home in Tondo, Manila. A few days ago, these were all in his tiangge, Books from Underground at the Lagusnilad underpass. He is wearing a pair of thick eyeglasses and cargo shorts, his shoulder-length wavy hair partly hidden by a fedora. Just like in the pictures that came out of him online, the bookseller is shirtless, and he makes no excuses for being so. His mother tells him to put a shirt on but he pays the request no mind.
The guy has bigger things to worry about. Earlier that week, AJ was in a state of shock. Books from Underground was demolished from its 10-year underpass location as part of new Mayor Isko Moreno’s aggressive clearing operations in Manila. Although Books from Underground also does business online, the physical store was a personal refuge for the 39-year old AJ.
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In the Facebook posts that followed the displacement, patrons of the bookstore sent messages of regret and sadness. While some understood the Mayor’s move, many of the bookstore’s fans expressed unending support for AJ who to them was more than just a guy who sold books—he took pains looking for a title inside his small, cramped space, and offered his customers information and insight on a wide range of tomes from all genres, from Archie to Tolstoy.
“Nakakaiyak, AJ. Pero tuloy lang!” wrote one fan. “Malaking parte ka ng college life ko - mula sa mga kwento, hanggang sa book suggestions. Dahil sa'yo kaya ako nagbasa ng Foucault...Magsabi ka kung saan ka lilipat. Siguradong dadayuhin kita.”
“Hindi pa paalam ‘to, Kuya AJ,” wrote Krishna Ariola on Facebook after sharing the news of the store demolition. “Marami kang napasaya. Napahanga. Salamat sa ilang taon, at sa mga mahiwagang pahina.”
As AJ speaks of the demolition during our visit, there's a calm in his voice despite his unsure situation. “Parang okay na malinis, pero ’yong reality kasi ng kahirapan...May rason kaya nagtitinda. Kasi kung skilled sila, may mga tinapos sila, hindi naman magtitinda sa kalye. Wala silang choice,” he says, explaining the plight he shares with his comrades in the underpass.
In an earlier message, he told us the Lagusnilad tiangge was a special project started by former mayor Alfredo Lim when he was still in office. The vendors' permits were supposed to expire December 31 this year but the contract was revoked because of nonpayment of electricity and taxes.
Of Joma and James Joyce
AJ lives near the end of a line of contiguous houses in barangay Tondo. He lives here with his mother and two younger siblings. They occupy the ground floor of a two-storey structure, the facade of which is painted yellow.
The son of an overseas Filipino worker and his housewife, AJ says he has always loved books. During his grade school years at Dominican School Manila, he was a fixture in the library. “May contest pa no’n, paramihan ng nahiram na libro,” he recalls, laughing. He’s serious, actually; he once won second place.
AJ would get his hands on any book a boy his age was allowed to read: titles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells come to mind, as well as the Hardy Boys series. When he would go on vacation at his cousins’ house in Cavite, he would spend the long summer days indulging in their Sweet Valley collection.
While AJ often appears serious and guarded during our interview, he lights up when talk comes to books. His parents are not book lovers. None of his neighbors influenced him to read—it wasn’t that type of environment. “Hilig ko lang talaga siya, ever since,” he tells us.
AJ’s taste in books began to mature in high school. During those years, while enrolled in Mapua University’s campus in Doroteo Jose, Manila, he discovered the works of John Steinbeck and local novelist Lualhati Bautista. He also got interested in the characters created by Marvel Comics and DC. When college came, he turned his attention to James Joyce and Jose Maria “Joma” Sison. “Mostly humanities ang hilig ko, pero broad, e,” AJ says.
The Tondo boy didn’t get to finish a college degree, however. He is not made for a rigid lifestyle. He didn’t like school and skipped many of his classes. He took up four different courses from four different schools. His last attempt was Political Science at the Far Eastern University.
The beginnings of Books
Earlier in what he jokingly calls his “campus tour,” when he was at the Philippine Normal University (where he took up Secondary Education, Major in Social Science), he met a guy named Winter Gabayron. Also a dropout, Winter would eventually become one of AJ’s business partners for the book shop. It was Winter who made the Facebook Page of Books from Underground.
“Voracious readers kaming lahat,” AJ says of the team behind the enterprise. Little did they know their hobby would spring a charming spot where students and clients-turned-friends would hang out and share insights on their latest reads. At Books from Underground, every day felt like being in a new book club.
Apart from selling books, AJ has tried his hand at other endeavors—he was a salesman for a real estate company, and a call center agent at one point. But he always found himself going back to books. The store now has around 20,000 titles in its collection—gathered from donations, book sales, thrift stores, and commercial bookstores. AJ has lost count of how many of these he’s read. “May ibang libro kasing iba-browse mo lang,” he says. And there are books that will leave an impact: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon is one; and The Rosales Saga by F. Sionil Jose. “Basta may mga insights sa human condition, may impact ’yan,” he tells us.
Not one to think far into the future, AJ says he has yet to figure out his plans after the demolition. “Hindi ako yumaman sa libro,” he notes of the his years selling books. “Pero guaranteed income ka sa mga susunod na araw.” It is the bookstore that helps pay some of the bills at home. And he believes printed books will always have a market. “Ang mga news, trivia, puwedeng online. Pero ’yong novels, na napakahabang exposition,napakahabang kuwento, dapat physical book. Kung may chance na nakaharap sa ’yo ang libro, bilhin mo.”
As he crams a few more titles in a makeshift shelf, he tells us that, fortunately, many of the books have already been reserved by loyal customers. He’s hoping to sell a few more in the next few days.
The meeting with the Mayor
A few weeks after our conversation with AJ, we find out Mayor Isko had heard of his situation. AJ tells us it was artist and former actor Dranreb "Reb" Belleza who paved the way for a meeting.
But first a brief history: A few years ago, while AJ and Winter were selling books at the University of the Philippines (UP)-Diliman in Quezon City, they “won over a customer.” His name was Karl Castro, an artist, book designer and former editor-in-chief of UP’s official student publication, Philippine Collegian. “He would buy many books from us during those latag days,” AJ says, referring to the time when the books for sale would be sold from a spread on the campus floor. The two men lost contact for some years, until Karl chanced upon Books from Underground at Lagusnilad.
When Karl read about the displacement, he posted about the incident on his Facebook account, in the process introducing netizens to AJ and his stall, and explaining the bookstore’s importance.
“It is a dusty jewel hidden among racks of denim and gadgets, humbly blending with its neighbors but running on a different tempo altogether. Books from Underground has quickly become a kind of cultural destination in the University Belt; it is a trove for rare and out of print books, Filipiniana, and even indie and self-published titles. It also carries classics and mass market titles at very accessible prices,” Karl wrote. “Every time I visit, there’s always an ongoing conversation, people searching for particular texts, discussing their value. It’s not just for literary types; I see moms looking for their kid’s next book report, old-timers reminiscing about the past lives attached to old titles, young students just looking for the next good read (or bestsellers at prices their wallets can better withstand).”
Karl’s post was shared many times online, and it got the attention of Reb who happens to be an old friend of Mayor Isko. Reb and Isko are That’s Entertainment alums. The show’s impresario, German “Kuya Germs” Moreno, was mentor and father figure to both of them.
Reb sent Karl a message after reading his post, expressing his concern and support for the bookstore. He arranged a meeting between Karl and Mayor Isko.
On July 29, Mayor Isko, Karl, AJ, and the mayor’s chief of staff Cesar Chavez, finally met. According to AJ, it was a way for the mayor to “explain his side, his good intentions, and that he’s out to change Manila for the better.”
A few days before, on July 26, ANCX executive editor Ces Drilon also brought up the issue of AJ with Mayor Isko during the taping of the first episode of the series Ces and The City. The mayor acknowledged that he did want to meet with AJ.
AJ’s meeting with the mayor turned out to be a pleasant one, and would produce a very positive turnout. AJ’s mother even tagged along. “May Manila, My Manila ka ba? Nawala kasi kopya ko,” Mayor Isko asked AJ about an elusive book he’s been trying to look for. The book is an out of print classic by the late National Artist for Literature, Nick Joaquin.
We asked AJ if his opinion of the mayor changed after the meeting. “Yes,” he answered. “He seems to know what he’s doing, unlike the President.”
Following the meeting, AJ and his team drafted their letter of intent, which will be sent to the Office of the Mayor soon. ANXC received a copy of the draft which, in part, recaps the “resolutions and agreements” reached during the discussion. First, that the Books from Underground may reopen after the rehabilitation of the Lagusnilad Undperpass. Second, the bookstore may occupy four existing stalls “already incorporated in the design of the Underpass.” Books from Underground will now get a space bigger than their original 1.5-square-meter stall. Third, the bookstore—with the help of the Manila City Hall—will be responsible for their “business registration and other requirements for operations and logistics.” Fourth, the bookstore must take care of the maintenance of the space, making sure that they don’t impede on pedestrian traffic. Fifth, the bookstore must pay for their monthly electric bill, based on an electricity meter that will be installed in the store. And sixth, the Books from Underground will be paying a rental fee of PhP 100 per day, “subject to a Memorandum of Agreement.” The letter is dated, August 1, 2019.
When last we checked on AJ, it seems his mood has changed: the man is in better spirits. In the process of getting updated with his situation, we found out he believes in the wrath of Mercury Retrograde, where the planet Mercury appears to move backwards, a bringer of unwanted delays and bad juju—and the past weeks have been just that, if you ask AJ. The guy lost his shirt and is now on his way to getting it back. “Just when the so-called Mercury Retrograde has come to a halt,” AJ wrote to us FB Messenger, “then came the alignment of the stars.”