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If people don’t read anymore, then why does this Makati bookshop exist?

If people don’t read anymore, then why does this Makati bookshop exist?

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  • For starters, to make local publishing equitable for authors and because younger people are actually buying more books than ever, from TikTok at that

We met local press Everything’s Fine co-founder Katrina Stuart Santiago in the same week that the hottest day ever was recorded. Even walking along the tree-lined path to its Tordesillas St. location, the humidity was punishing. Thankfully, she had cranked up the air conditioning when we entered the shop. 

Set against a green wall are modular shelves where the books are displayed. Santiago has a system. Each shelf corresponds to a genre: history, queer literature, and foreign titles, to name a few. There are special nooks for Fitzcarraldo Editions, as well as for the works of Nobel Prize in Literature winner Annie Ernaux and National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts Ricky Lee.

The scrap wood from these shelves comprise the matching table and benches. That day, some of the 150 titles that Everything’s Fine has lay on that table. 20 of those, the press has put out since its inception in 2018, half of which were published last year alone. Santiago said the table will be emptied out for an exhibit opening the following day: photographer JL Javier and filmmaker and writer Apa Agbayani’s 2020 series called “Tenderness.” Varying size prints of black and white photographs of men in various degrees of undress were held by magnetic pins against the white wall.

Publishing as an art practice

It has always been in Santiago and co-founder Oliver Ortega’s plans to have a physical store that doubles as a gallery. This is part of their exploration of publishing as an art practice. “For us, books are not, in the traditional sense, what we consider a book is,” Ortega said. “We treat it as an art project and is, therefore, an exhibitable material. Or ‘yong idea din ng knowledge as art.”

[READ: How Grindr sunset profiles swiped into a queer community-based art initiative]

“Tenderness” is the first of their monthly programming that will either revolve around an existing publication or generate a print output after.

Javier’s photobook, first printed in 2022, was among the press’ direct acquisitions. Santiago and Ortega bought its last copies to bring to the Singapore Art Book Fair in April alongside reprints of art books by artists Dina Gadia, Lena Cobangbang, and Allan Balisi.

The launch was attended by Javier, Agbayani, and the subjects’ circles, which extend online, where they each have a sizable following. All Everything’s Fine had to do, per their request, was serve beer. There were only 20 copies of the accompanying reprinted photobook. Very limited but not unusual for the publisher, which runs a limited quantity of every book, and stocks even fewer copies of foreign titles.

“Para din may excitement,” Santiago said. “But also because we found that the more titles [we have], the more excited people are [compared to] having a lot of just one title.”

The numbered run was rather odd considering Javier and Agbayani’s audience: creatives who understand the value of and appreciate well-thought-out print. By Santiago’s standards, this should sell out fast. And it did. Javier said most copies were sold that night. “Oliver [just] messaged us that there’s only one copy remaining at the store,” he wrote in an email. “I’m super surprised but happy, of course.”

Generally, Santiago observed, the fast-moving ones are the ones whose author has a public face.

Jaucian’s memoir next to Everything’s Fine’s queer shelf

Take for example, “Brief Histories,” a gay awakening memoir by editor Don Jaucian. The book is a bestseller, something Santiago attributes to how active its author is in selling the book. Jaucian also had a book launch with beers in Escolta. 

[READ: New local press Exploding Galaxies brings forgotten Filipino literary stars back to life]

The week prior, Jaucian had an impromptu book signing at the new store. “Even here, when people realize I’m here and they see my book, they want their copies signed,” said Santiago, who is a published author herself. 

Her book “Of Love and Other Lemons” was the third title that Everything’s Fine published after “Pro Bernal Anti Bio” by her mother Angela Stuart Santiago, a tell-all based on National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts Ishmael Bernal’s archive, and “Break It to Me Gently,” a book of essays on film criticism by Richard Bolisay.

“It’s very unconventional ‘yong telling of the story kasi it’s mostly conversations between Tito Ishma and Tito Jorge [Arago], his best friend,” Santiago said of “Pro Bernal Anti Bio.” ”[My mom] put them together first as a conversation between the best friends and then decided to beef it up with research and so parang three different voices siya parati. I think it’s a great way to show that history can be written in many ways.”

A younger generation of readers

At first, she worried about printing her 2012 book because she felt it was “an old voice that worried too much about love.” But just like some of the works on their shelves, which were published years if not decades earlier, it eventually found an audience. 

Oo naman, nagbabasa pa ang mga tao. The younger generation is reading more books than ever.

Katrina Stuart Santiago

Her book’s second coming was thanks in part to #booktok. Sales picked up after a TikTok user raved about it. “Grabe ‘yong #booktok actually and they are all young girls. So imagine if we had more local books to talk about?” This demographic, she said, has immense purchasing power amplified by how easy it is to shop on Tiktok even without leaving the app.

It helps too that Everything’s Fine quickly adopted an online storefront on a prominent shopping platform, an adjustment they made in the absence of a physical store in the beginning—not that they ever doubted they’ll have one. 

“We always imagined having a bookshop from the start. We needed an office and so parang gagastos ka na rin lang for real office space, make it something na can earn you some cash.”

Santiago and Ortega co-founded Everything’s Fine in 2018.
To date, they stock some 150 titles, 20 of which they published in the last five years.

If anything, she is surprised nobody is doing it because she thought it was doable at any scale. “I can’t imagine that we’re the only ones who have the cash for it. Siguro may mga ayaw lang mag-invest.” The scarcity of independent bookshops, she believes, is tied to an apocryphal belief that people don’t read books anymore.

“We hear that all the time, to which I say, ‘Oo naman, nagbabasa pa ang mga tao. The younger generation is reading more books than ever.’” Case in point: #booktok.

There is also a tendency, she added, to underestimate younger readers’ capacity to understand more complex narratives. “[But] I believe in this set of readers even when few seem to believe in them.”

”‘Lemons,’ I came up with that in 2012 and when it was carried na by the generation of booktokers, ‘yong framing nila is present tense. Sometimes, that’s all you really need: i-frame mo lang siya in the present and you realize that really good books will be relevant forever.

“Lemons” along with “How to Grieve,” a “fictional self-help guide for when your world breaks apart because of love” by Davao-based prize-winning writer Jade Mark Capiñanes, are Gen Z and Gen Alpha favorites. 

“It’s one of the simpler ones kasi [it’s about a] broken heart so it seems less serious than the others,” Santiago said of Capiñanes’ book. “But actually, may depth ‘yang stories niya. And okay lang if the first reading is mababaw. Maybe you come back to it later on and you’ll read it differently.”

Making publishing kinder

More than advocating for younger readers, Everything’s Fine’s core mission is to make publishing equitable and more sustainable for local authors.

The independent press buys books upfront versus consignment. “We buy outright because it’s kinder,” Santiago said. Most of the titles they have are from other small independent publishers, university presses, and self-published local authors.

Everything’s Fine has been helping young writers believe that there is, in fact, more than enough space for a multitude of narratives, perspectives, and preoccupations.

Zea Asis

These include writer Zea Asis, whose chapbook “Strange Intimacies” Everything’s Fine is reprinting later this year. For her, the press offers an avenue for new voices that might otherwise find the “higher echelons” of university or academic publishing impenetrable.

Asis self-published her book of essays on dressing up and consumption during the pandemic. The new edition will include six new essays from the past two years.

For some time, she struggled to believe that her writing deserved to be read because it didn’t grapple with historical and political narratives of national import and urgency. “I think a lot of young writers feel this way to some degree and Everything’s Fine has been helping them believe that there is, in fact, more than enough space for a multitude of narratives, perspectives, and preoccupations.”

“I feel like it was important for us to publish this at this point in time,” Santiago said, referring to her mother’s book, “EDSA Uno.” “This is technically her fourth EDSA book. The first one was a chronology in 1996, there was a Tagalog essay one in 2000, and then there was an ‘EDSA Uno’ one during PNoy’s time. This one is framed for the present. It already takes into consideration how we have lost and how EDSA has been discredited.”

Javier’s photobook, first printed in 2022, was also among the press’ direct acquisitions. Santiago and Ortega bought its last copies to bring to the Singapore Art Book Fair in April alongside reprints of art books by artists Dina Gadia, Lena Cobangbang, and Allan Balisi. It was this commitment to make space for diverse creative outputs that made Javier agree to have “Tenderness” reprinted in a limited and exclusive run. “It’s great that they’ve expanded their offering to [include] other artists’ works that aren’t necessarily written like zines and prints.”

Only buying books also allows Everything’s Fine to curate their shelves, Santiago said. “I wanted to have control over the whole thing.” Ultimately, it boils down to books that they want to read themselves, “because Oliver and I are both readers and they’re authors that we feel people should read.”

The only exception to their no consignment policy is Lee, who gave them a box of some of his earlier and obscure titles but refused to be paid outright.

Santiago reading “The Demo Versions” by Aldus Santos. “I think Aldus’ [book] is one of our best books because it experiments with the form of the essay. He writes essays and poetry. He’s also a composer and a musician. I think those experiences come together not just in the form but also in just his thinking, in his sentiment.

Other than minding the shelves in-store, Everything’s Fine also has a proxy shelf at The Hub in Escolta. For Pride Month, they filled it with local queer titles that also exist in the Makati shop. Santiago and Ortega want to continue this initiative and expand it to more places, “so we can keep supplying ‘yong gustong magbenta ng libro with a very distinct, curated set of books,” she said.

The duo also plans to explore a circular business model, where owners can sell preloved books to them.

In the meantime, Santiago and Ortega are happy to carve their own physical space even if it means doing everything by themselves as they have yet to hire additional staff. “Right now, we’re also the ones manning the store just because you also kind of want to know how it goes.”

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