A half-forgotten Quiapo bookstore

Does anybody above 50 still remember PECO? I do. It was one of my earliest recollections of shopping in Quiapo with my mother.

PECO meant Philippine Educational Company. It was along Arlegui, just a corner away from the north-bound foot of the Quezon bridge, which back then still smelled of fresh river water. A quick search indicates that it was established by one of the Thomasites in the early 20th century, and had become one of the biggest bookstores in the country after World War II. In my vague recollections, it had the feel of a bombed-out building or a huge warehouse, with rough unpainted concrete posts and beams, and would be considered absolutely ugly by today’s Powerbooks standards.

Quiapo in the 1950s and early 1960s
Quiapo in the 1950s and early 1960s

Back in the early 1960s, however, life was much simpler. At least among my kin, people bought books and magazines to actually read them from cover to cover, not to enjoy the intellectual ambience of a bookshop or elicit the cool lifestyle of an avid book reader. And my mother, bless her soul, created my first memories of Quiapo when I was around three or four years old by occasionally bringing me to her gym classes at National University, and after she had taught me to read, by bringing me to PECO. She browsed for books and bought her monthly dose of US magazines, while I marveled at all the children’s books and magazines on display.

Sometimes she would buy a few kiddie mags that I liked, until I settled in for a couple of the mags that I liked best, and of course after that we made sure to get the latest issue, and I would devour each story and article, do every quiz or game activity, connect all the dots and color all the outlined animals, and eventually I became a magazine addict like her.

Of course I had other early memories of Quiapo with my mother: Harassed ones, like the ritual end-of-summer trip to the Quiapo Commercial Center for new sets of school clothes, shoes, and kamisetas. And absolutely glorious ones, like lunch-time sorties to the Quinta Market’s carinderia section, where I would hold on to Mama’s skirt, befuddled at the sight of carinderia servers to our left and to our right who grabbed prospective customers’ hands in their effort to literally force us to surrender to the temptations of their oh-so-sumptuous food offerings. I think it was at Quinta market that I developed a life-long love affair with pancit palabok, thanks to my mother.

Later, in high school, when I could already fend for myself going to Quiapo from our suburban home and prowling for bargain books and carinderia delights along its sidestreets, my horizon of adventurism broaded. It expanded to the whole length of the Raon strip with its electronics and music goods, and to the nearby Avenida Rizal area and its bookstores: Alemars for top-of-the-line, Recto-Oroquieta for second-hand, Popular for radical.

PECO, sadly, faded away without anyone apparently noticing. My mother would have noticed. But then again, she simply had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to pursue her book addiction in other ways. Almost to the end of her days, we her children would watch (often with exasperation) as she spent hundreds of pesos for this or that glitzy book on vitamins or alternative medicine.

But hey, we all took after her in this regard, I think. In varying degrees.

And so, with a bit of sweet nostalgia and deeply felt love and gratitude, may I offer this rambling piece about a half-forgotten Quiapo bookstore as my way of greeting our late mother, Anastasia Sevilla Verzola, on her birthday, May 11. She would have been 97.

I’m sure that somewhere in the Great River of Space-Time, she’s still browsing for books and magazines, although her reading interests must have expanded cosmically since the last time we bid her farewell.  #

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