When the University of the Philippines Shopping Center went up in flames in 2018, there was a collective gasp online, particularly from former students and others who used to frequent its halls. For many, the simple structure that housed everything they needed is now but a memory, a reference to date a story in your past.
The shopping center was simply designed, almost devoid of any effort to dress up, update, or even make competitive against the commercial clusters outside the campus. The main strip had what looked and felt like plain concrete flooring, either sprinkled with dust or a smearing of mud on rainy days. The comfort rooms were for the adventurous. It had its own charm in the assortment of vendors lining both sides of the sparsely lit corridors—barbers, beauty salons, bookstores, school supplies shops, novelty shops, restaurants, and fruits. With the exception of probably book binding, theirs weren’t services and products that can’t be found elsewhere and a lot of their staff seemed not to care about customer service. But three unique selling points kept around for years and year: proximity, convenience, and value for money.
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Today, the area where the SC used to stand remains a boarded-up lot. Not far from it—at the tennis court area—is a cluster of its former tenants, some old reliables that have apparently refused to throw in the towel.
Edward Fernando, who represents the association of vendors who have rebuilt their businesses at the tennis court area, owns and operates one of the busiest printing services, ‘Tara Lets.” Fernando, a former student in UP, has been running his business for 22 years. “While studying, I was also working during my free time to shoulder my school expenses. It was a cozy place to do business in,” he says. “It being in a well-known, strategic location gave an extra boost to my business. I was just a short walk away from both the school and from where I live.”
Until a decision to rebuild the UPSC was being sorted out, the tenants were offered options. The University’s Business Concession Office, which is under current vice chancellor Dr. Raquel Florendo, drew lots for the business owners. If they got picked, they would be allowed to reopen in different other locations on campus: Vinzon’s Hall, which houses the students services and some organizations; the Food Hub located beside the Fine Arts Building on E. Jacinto street; the Centennial Building at the corner of C.P. Garcia; and at the relatively-modern Acacia Building across the charred remains of the former SC. “Kung mapili ka, swerte, if hindi. floating ka,” Fernando says.
Although the fire damaged about 80 to 90 percent of his business, Fernando opted to re-open and stay on the campus, almost immediately. Together with other former tenants—three barber shops, the bookstore and school supplies shop, the Maroons novelty shop, a couple of food and beverage businesses—he set up at the empty tennis courts because it was an abandoned and unused space. “It’s right beside the place where we were doing our business, making it is very easy for our customers and students to locate us,” he shares.
Despite having to walk on roof-less cracked concrete, overgrown weeds, and dust, students and other visitors don’t appear too inconvenienced about doing business at the new, open-air venue. The tenants that have decided to set-up at the tennis courts have put in a lot of effort to make their new space a better place for the students, faculty members, and customers from outside the university. “We’re coping, trying to stand on our feet again. We have no electricity up to now; kanya-kanya ang kuryente,” he says, adding that he uses a gen-set for his printing business.
“Everyone who decided to set up here did so at his or her own expense,” shares Roma Enriquez, who manages the popular Roma & Charlie’s General Merchandise. Their stall at the UPSC was frequently filled with customers shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables amidst the buzzing and whirring of blenders producing their refreshing healthy fruit shakes. Roma & Charlie’s used to be Enriquez Fruits & Vegetables, set up by Enriquez’s mother-in-law Concordia in the 1970s. She and her husband Charlie took on the reins after the matriarch retired. “Linakad talaga naming yung pagkabit ng utilities dito sa bagong location. Magastos, pero kasama talaga yan,” she adds. She decided to relocate to the abandoned tennis courts because they didn’t need to pay rent.
Other business owners opted to re-open in Area 2, the residential area surrounding the block of the former UPSC, like beauty parlor owner Edith Traballo. Traballo used to work in Remy’s, one of the classic destinations at the old SC, but decided to venture on her own several months after the fire.
Enriquez found the rates in Area 2 expensive. “It’s been two years since the fire. Nearly all that time, we were down. I’m glad that our business has started to pick up. Our customers—old and new—like students, faculty, and members of the UP Diliman community, have started to come here for the products we offer. Until we get an update on our status, we’re staying here,” she says.
Despite the imposing, monotonous buzz of the generators, the people minding the shops at the tennis court area seem more relaxed and a tad jollier. The old barber shops from the former SC have relocated here, each just maintaining a couple of chairs in each door-less au-naturel stall, with simplest poster print-outs as signage. Yet the barbers themselves seem cheerful, happily snipping away at Stall 21. “Eto na kasi ang pwede. Eto na lang kasi ang source of income namin,” explains Enriquez, who has had to handle business on her own since her husband suffered two heart attacks.
Those that have been picked to re-open in campus halls with regular and higher customer traffic count can afford to wait a bit longer for business to pick up because most of them have branched out beyond the university. That includes popular tapsilog diner Rodic’s, whose food and original staff can be found next to Shake Shack in a building with parking reserved for the Maroons, along Jacinto Street. For the smaller entrepreneurs who have been left to find a space where they can continue operating, including One Digital Place and D’ Holy Book Arts & Crafts, staying as close to where they used to be seems the most practical choice.
“Mabubuhay ka, mag-work ka lang talaga. Dahil karamihan sa amin, ito ang bread-and-butter, dito sa UP nakatira lang, dito rin nag-aaral mga anak, at dito din nag-aral ang ilan sa amin, aside from dito kami nakatira,” Fernando says.
The shopping center may be gone, but the businesses have found a way to endure, rise from the ashes, and stay relevant. But what is a university without its own little commercial center? While commercial behemoths grow around the campus, there is merit in having a center that understands the needs and means of the community that surrounds it. I say rebuild.