Out of Print

This Must Be the Place

by Erwin Romulo
Photos by Jake Verzosa
In a Cubao bookstore, a man welcomes anyone looking for a good story.

If you visit, you will probably see Bob sitting in the chair he always sits in when he’s inside his book shop. He won’t say a word when you walk in. Bob will look up to acknowledge he sees you, that he is aware you entered and that you are standing there—that you are here, inside Black Cat. That is the name of Bob’s shop. No one calls it that though, not even Bob. No one notices that there is a sticker on the door with the name and a doodle of a black cat. No one remembers it’s there. Many who walk in won’t even know what the place is called. But as soon as you reach the top of the stairs, you know that you have arrived at Bob’s shop. You know this because even before you enter: through the glass windows, you can already see shelves with rows of books and, sitting at his usual place, Bob. 

Don’t think him unfriendly. Ask him for a particular title, and if he’s got it in the shop, he will get up and help you look for it. If he doesn’t he will be ready to recommend other books for you to consider. Not looking for anything in particular? Just talk to Bob and he’ll be happy to talk to you about anything. He likes the company. Bob will spend hours chatting with you and won’t stop the conversation to sell you a book. He will offer you a drink. Gin, coffee. Food if he’s eating himself. Bob is great company. He doesn’t necessarily even have to enjoy yours.

Bob welcomes anyone who comes into the shop. Just don’t expect him to say hello first.

You can be T___, who comes in semi-regularly, not for the books but for the records for which Bob allotts a shelf and a single wall in the shop. T___ has the feel of someone older than Bob. He talks to Bob with affected bonhomie, like an older brother telling unfunny jokes for an audience composed of a younger sibling’s friends. This afternoon, he is haggling with Bob over the price of a Canned Heat double album that he picked off the record shelf and started playing on Bob’s record player. It skips, he says. Bob is charging him 500 pesos; he says he’ll only pay 200 because it’s scratched. It’s just dirty, says Bob, who offers to clean it for him with a cotton swab and alcohol. T__ is incredulous. Says that the proper and safe way to clean a record is with soap, water, and a soft cloth. Rather than tell T___ otherwise, Bob demonstrates how for him: he wets the swab with alcohol and places the tip on the record’s surface, letting it clean away the dust and debris (or kulangots as Bob calls them) while it’s rotating on the turntable. T__ is unconvinced and leaves the shop without buying the record.

Or you could be the lady, who in Bob’s own words “tried mightily to convince” him that the shop should carry romance books. Bob gives her credit for a great effort. She dropped in the shop and asked him what romance titles were available. When he told her that the shop didn’t have any, her immediate reply was to tell him she loved romance novels, perhaps thinking that stating that fact alone was enough of a rebuke to cause him to reconsider his inventory. It was not. Bob is proud that he only sells books he likes. In fact, part of the reason he opened a bookshop was to sell books he accumulated over the years that he himself had read or planned to read and had no more space for in his home. He had no romance novels because he didn’t read them. That is, until the lady informed him that she in fact was writing one and brought out a chapter to offer Bob the chance to peruse a few pages of it. He read about two pages.

He had no romance novels because he didn’t read them. That is, until the lady informed him that she in fact was writing one and brought out a chapter to offer Bob the chance to peruse a few pages of it. He read about two pages.

You could also be a British-born exile and author, who spent a few hours at the shop one Saturday night. Bob’s friends brought him over. They had all just come from a talk that the writer gave at a nearby university. His name is similar to another writer, an American who writes terrible books and who happens to be one of the world’s richest authors. He tells Bob he is often confused with his near-namesake. His first visit to Manila was in the late 1970’s, upon the recommendation of an American helicopter pilot who described it as a “whacky” place. He hated it at first, but kept coming back to the Philippines and spent time living on an island off Marinduque up until the 1990’s. There he stayed in remote communities and lived in a bamboo hut. When writing about this period, he obscures the exact location by using pseudonyms like Tiwarik island and Kansulay. The writer autographs a copy of his book that Bob keeps in the shop. He also signs one of the walls.

Bob remembers that night, mostly because it was the last time a friend visited the shop before she died. She was a writer too and she wrote about that evening. She writes about feeling kindredship towards their expatriate guest when he jots down a name mentioned (“...writers will always have this compulsion to take notes...”), a conversation between him, Bob and another friend about what book to bring to a desert island (“A good crime story is better company than Shakespeare”), his parting words to her after bidding farewell (“I do hope to meet you again”). Two weeks later, she passed on. Yes, you could’ve been her too.

You could be me.

My first visit to the shop was three years ago this month. I wandered in after having dinner with my sister. My sister and I spent the afternoon learning how to surf at a wave pool in Taytay and we went to Cubao to eat at a Korean restaurant. After our meal, she looked for a place to smoke. I had just quit so I told her I would look around and check out the other places. There was a sign at the foot of some stairs. It said that there was a magazine shop on the second floor: not Black Cat, but another shop, the one beside it. I went up and it was closed. That night, I met Bob.

Bob, 59, says he still goes to his bookstore once a week.

Not too long ago, someone suggested to him that he should put up his own sign. Bob worked in advertising for 30 years before opening Black Cat. Surely he had already thought of putting up a sign before. He says in advertising he learned two things: always give your target market credit for brains and don't insult them by beating them over the head through overselling. Bob believes that persuasion rather than the hardsell usually works better.

Bob still opens the shop Saturday afternoons. Since the lockdown was lifted, he comes in every week, even if not many people drop by anymore. I try to visit him every week. 

Bob opened Black Cat in 2015. He feels it’s time he expanded the shop. Put in more bookshelves and of course more books. He hopes his landlord will allow him to get the adjacent spaces around the shop. I suggest having windows and Bob agrees. There are bookshelves where the windows are supposed to be. Once he has more space he will open them.


Bob will welcome you at his shop.

No one visits much these days. But if you do, Bob will be here.

You can be someone famous, like the actress who wandered in one afternoon with her friend, a less famous actress. They didn’t buy any books; Bob didn’t try to sell them any. Instead the more famous one told him it was a dream of hers to have a space like this. Here in Cubao too. But instead of books she would sell pastries. This happened last year. That dream hasn’t come true. Not yet.

Or you could be rather infamous, like the AV star who came in and bought a mystery novel. She said she liked reading mysteries. The one she bought from Bob she picked out in less than 15 minutes. In an interview she gave when she first arrived here in the Philippines she said she would probably have to find a place where the internet didn’t exist to find love. She and Bob didn’t get to chat much. He doesn’t understand Japanese. She couldn’t speak English very well.

You could be the soldier who walked in full battle gear looking for a self help book; you could be the college student who kept asking for bestsellers widely available everywhere else; you could be the chef that only asked about a book that was display-only and when told that it wasn’t  for sale told Bob he shouldn’t have displayed it.  

You could be anyone. Bob will welcome you.

Look him up. Visit the shop.

You won’t see a sign but as long as you see Bob you know you are in the right place.︎

Erwin Romulo produces and composes music for films.