How to survive a retail shopping crisis? Have something unique to offer. With something that you can’t find elsewhere, you’ll be surprised how many people will endure faulty air conditioning and crumbling concrete walls: an impressive daily foot traffic of 19,000 people peaking to 26,000 on weekends.
Makati Cinema Square had all the makings of a “ghost mall” with its bad maintenance. That’s in the past now. The Pasong Tamo-Amorsolo landmark has been renamed into a more apt Makati Central Square. Its four cineplexes--the first in Makati--that opened in September 1981 haven’t operated for decades. The mall opened in April 1982 and withstood the decline of retail shopping and dwindling cinema goers to the bigger, glossier supermalls nearby. With this rebrand was a complete facelift and ongoing renovations. Retro mall architecture from its heyday is replaced by plain, boxy wraparound exterior cladding in color-blocks of gray, blue and red.
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The new exterior belies what’s inside: a variety of owner-driven specialized shops catering to specific interests and hobbies. Pre-social media, it was one of those best-kept-secrets. A true hobbyists’ haven amid an atmosphere of faded splendor. Think Hidalgo Street in Quiapo for photography or Gilmore for gadgetry. But Makati Cinema Square holds a wealth of curiosities under one roof in a central location.
New and old
Mang Andy at his unassuming Arnesto Swiss Watch Repair shop gathers Manila’s watch community for over three decades now as the trusted guy to repair exquisite timepieces, from Swiss to Japanese, newer models to vintage. Lots of horology chitchat while you wait. Some nostalgia at times. Next door is Unique Bisyo’s array of used Rolexes and Pateks. Stalls for pirated DVDs were once all over. Makati Cinema Square is the crack in the system that allows you to buy both in one place.
By no means a chain super mall imposing strict codes about its interiors, the mall has a grassroots feel. You think Aida’s Chicken, specializing in Bacolod inasal, would be able to replicate its unique atmosphere and display sculptures and paintings of naked women in a typical supermall? There’s also the unchanging wooden window facade of tenants like Emer’s Food Center which has been around for as long as the mall with its bestselling cuapao.
The mall’s thrift and bargain shops, especially ukay-ukay overtook pirated things as the bigger attraction in recent years. Vintage enthusiasts like photographer Shaira Luna and the time-traveling guys of Four of Spades shop here. A lucky friend unearthed a worn Baracuta G9 Harrington jacket, a Steve McQueen essential for the price of a Jollibee meal right around the corner; it’s not a Filipino mall without it.
Bargain shopping really drew in the crowd, bored of the usual malls and its high prices. It opened up interest in the mall’s other offerings. Book Sale is a local chain of second-hand books, but the Makati Central Square branch is worth visiting. It carries the most used coffee tables, some by Assouline or Phaidon, and back issues of magazines. Both are in the same area as antique shops with crystal chandeliers that do not know their worth.
It’s easy to pop in and pop out with ample parking on the Amorsolo side, public transportation terminals on Pasong Tamo, and easy access to commute routes. It’s the mall you go to not for idle “malling,” not for aimlessly wandering for nothing really, but with a checklist. The absence of flyering sales people intruding my keen shopping intent is precious.
There’s The Oil Paint Store with artist-grade drawing and painting supplies that you can’t really find elsewhere in the city at competitive prices.
A second wind
Many shops sell sound systems and music instruments throughout the mall, so you can try and compare without distractions. For those who are in the mood to simply listen to music, Bebop in the first basement stands out among the mall’s many record stores for its selection and quality, frequented by old souls and connoisseurs of future classics, focused and quietly sifting through. The mall has 190 units that are leased out to 224 tenants. I feel like I’m missing something…
Sometimes, a gunshot pierces through the music. It’s Armscor Shooting Center or Jethro Shooting Range. Once sandwiched between the show-and-sell gun stores was a boudoir-style lingerie and hosiery store in the front, a sex shop in the back with a variety of related toys and accessories. Aubrey Miles is an influencer now but she was a “bold star” in the nineties and you can find her namesake pawnshop here—an attraction for first-timers. In its own way, this mall has it all for you, too.
Makati Central Square has the only bowling lanes in the CBD in Superbowl, one of the last Puyat Sports establishments. It’s also a billiards center. Specialized fitness facilities like The Black Unicorn Martial Arts Gym, The Kodanda Archery Range, and Republic Fencing are among tiangge. But here, they enjoy ample space for play in a central location that you can’t get in a mainstream mall.
With the overall revamp, it enjoys a second wind that finally gives it the comforts of a modern mall with massive retrofitting upgrades. It no longer fits its nickname, Manila’s Chungking Mansions.
Dogged by eviction rumors for years by association to the Rufino-Prieto-owned Mile Long and Sunvar establishments it is bound by, we heave a collective sigh of relief that it didn’t suffer the same fate as another retro-era mall, Harrison Plaza in Manila.
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Aida’s Chicken House in MCS is the first Manila branch of the Bacolod Manokan Country staple.
Aida’s owner is Toto Tarroza loves art, and his collection can be seen around the MCS branch.
While the Aida’s in Bacolod has a more kubo aesthetic, the MCS branch is more like a canteen.
Tiu Theater was established by Toshihiku Uriu as a sister facility of Creative Image Foundation.
The facility serves as an avenue for children of Payatas and Smoky Mountain to nurture talent in the creative arts.
Armscor Shooting Center offers target practice, and sells gun accessories and paraphernalia.
Vintage enthusiasts like photographer Shaira Luna and Four of Spades shop at MCS tiangges.
Wabi-Sabi Noodle House and Vegetarian Grocery is one of the more recently added tenants within MCS.
A custom made frame shop sits across a wedding dress boutique.
Vintage audio equipment are on display in one of MCS’s hobby stores.
The lanes at the topmost floor is the only bowling lane in the CBD.
Bebop is one of many shops in MCS that sells vintage albums.
Dancing Queen Dance Studio specializes in ballroom dancing.
YThe studio also offers classes in other disciplines such as ballet and hip-hop.
At Unique Bisyo, an array of Rolexes and Pateks line the walls.
The bad news is that rent prices will likely rise. Lower rent allows good places like wagyu steakhouse Manpuku—easy to miss beside Bingo Bonanza—to carry on with value for money price points. Now, a Samgyupsalamat attracts lines upon lines of people in the Makati Central Square expansion.
Here’s hoping the specialized stores will always find a place to stay.
Photographs by Chris Clemente