02 August 2017

How to run an Independent Bookstore: Artbooks Founders share their thoughts

There's a certain amount of unexplainable bliss that a book carries. With every turn of a page, you get transported to yet another time and place where nothing is impossible. Never mind the fact that technology has taken over in a wider scale, the book will always retain its time-honored charm. It's a shame, however, that we don't have much independent bookstores to begin with. The term "bookstore" in the local sense seems to carry with it an unperturbed notion of the faddish, the popular, and the trendy. Think mainstream bookstores dotting malls left and right. Only a select few have the audacity to hold titles that are obscure and bereft of much gloss.

Such is the plight of Artbooks and their foray into the arts in book form. The offerings here are diverse, with the Philippine art scene as the general topic of choice—be it film, music, architecture, visual arts, and crafts. The auspicious venture is a brainchild of Ringo Bunoan and Katya Guerrero. The dynamic tag team has been friends since the '90s and hailed from the UP Fine Arts school of thinking. Soon after graduation, they set up an alternative space in Quezon City. The then gallery cafe also doubles as a multi-disciplinary hangout for people to get together. After many years and different dreams, Ringo and Katya's paths crossed again and Artbooks was born.

We took some time to talk with them about their humble beginnings, the process that goes into curating their selection, if bookshops can thrive in the local scene, and more of their musings on the matter at hand.

Ringo Bunoan & Katya Guerrero, Artbooks Founders
Photography by Gio Cruz

"People are always complaining that most people know more about these Western artists, but they don’t know much about Philippine art history. So it’s important to have a space for that, to gather the books and to have a platform to distribute it."

Can you tell us about Artbooks’ humble beginnings? What inspired you to start a venture like this in the first place?

KATYA: So basically, there were many things that happened in between, but Artbooks was kind of like a meeting point, where we both intersect our lives again somehow. The physical space of Artbooks – we started as a rental studio, so our main business was photography. I got into photography for various reasons, and so did my husband who was a visual artist. But after x number of years, as we matured, we realized that the rental business was a very neutral venture. For me, there were several factors that made me shift. One was maturity. As you grow old, you don’t want to be just serving a neutral thing right? You want to be able to express yourself more and do something more meaningful, like addressing an advocacy. Number two, we reached a plateau for the studio rental business that no matter how good we made the service, the industry doesn’t want to pay for it. Moving forward, we get together again, going back to something we’re passionate about, contributing to something. So this is kind of an expression of that. 

RINGO: Before we opened the bookstore, I was working for Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong. In there, you were meant to actively document the contemporary art scene. Here, there’s a lot of documentation to do, but then the problem was the books. They were hard to come by, you know? Part of my job for AAA was to gather the books. So, it was really kind of tedious because they’re not in the bookstores, there are several places. You had to go from one museum, one gallery to another. When my contract finished at AAA, we decided a bookstore is really important. We don’t have a bookstore that is really focused on Philippine art. We don’t even have a bookstore focusing on art period, you know? Philippine art is really so small, but then it’s growing. It’s important for people to get access to the books and to keep people informed. People are always complaining that most people know more about these Western artists, but they don’t know much about Philippine art history. So it’s important to have a space for that, to gather the books and to have a platform to distribute it. It’s not just about selling books. It’s really more about this advocacy to raise cultural awareness.  


Could you tell us your business model for this endeavor? What does your bookstore take after?

RINGO: Well, we were looking at a lot of independent bookstores abroad, something like Printed Matter in New York. It’s different, you can’t really compare. They produce a lot of books. Here, the production is a bit limited and the audience is also small. But hopefully, it will grow. We don’t really have a "model-model", because we really have to work with our local context, our local needs. There are stores out there that sort of inspire you but you can’t copy them.

KATYA: It’s hard when you subscribe to a model or a peg. But I think, if you’re really in tune with what’s going on, then you’re good. The decision to do an online component, I felt was very important. You have to use technology to your advantage and we also really need to reach the global market. It would’ve been a very different business if we didn’t have an online arm. At the beginning, I felt that the physical shop wasn’t as relevant. It’s not like a typical retail. The way I see it, I consider the physical shop as the home base, so this is where everything happens, where everything is produced. It’s like a production space really, but has a component that is open to the public. It’s a plus as well for people to see what’s producing the thing. I think that’s also key and it’s also an entry point. Let’s say any random person comes here, you strike a conversation. It’s an opportunity to also create connections. The books are just the beginning.

RINGO: I think it’s important to have a space where people can meet. We’re facilitating that process. It could’ve been simpler if we were online but having a physical space also makes a difference. It’s equal, it’s like a parallel world. You have the real one and you have the virtual one. Especially for really rare books, they want to browse the copy first before they commit to it. Or if they don’t have a specific title in mind, they just browse through books or the topics they want.

You opened Artbooks in 2014, which gives you a solid experience on the concept of the independent bookstore. Would you say that the Philippines is a place where independent bookstores can flourish in the long run?

RINGO: I think so because there will always be readers, people who are curious about things. I think it’s growing. Now you have more independent stores popping up in different neighborhoods, like Mt. Cloud in Baguio and Uno in Morato. So it’s not just National Bookstore. I hope that more shops like this open to give people a choice because before, when you need to go to a bookstore, you only really go to National. The small bookstores, they have their own niche. It’s good to have diversity of materials.

KATYA: I think it can flourish but there should be a limit. The reality is that there’s also a crisis, so you can’t be too excited to get into books, right? Like in New York, there are a lot of bookstores closing shop. No one ever says it’s easy. Well, usually, the whole consigned-consignee framework. Let’s say, you’re a self-published author, don’t be too excited that it will become a blockbuster hit. It’s not an easy business, and I think there’s really a threshold because the Pinoy’s tendency is sugod. For instance, whatever’s trending, they tend to lean towards it. But I really encourage entrepreneurship and creatives because I believe in the message of empowering yourself. These days, it’s easier to reach your audience. The books could serve as an opportunity. So for me, it’s exciting. It’s not easy, but it’s exciting. 


What is a normal day like in the bookstore for you?

KATYA: I’m the business person, supposedly. I’m more of the admin work and she is the one mostly handling the books. I invited Ringo along because I believe her strength is really content. I do the framework, and she fills it up.

RINGO: Other bookstores, they just put the books on the shelves and it ends when someone buys the books. But for us, a lot of effort goes into putting the book out there. It’s not just on the shelf, it’s online. We document each and every single book that we carry here, even if it’s just one copy. Each and every book is catalogued and documented. We have a write-up, then we shoot it. Everything that goes behind the scene is done here. Looking for the books is another thing. Actually, we don’t have a lot of mainstream publishers that do art, but there are small publications from really small independent presses. We deal with a lot of museums and galleries also who normally don’t distribute their catalogs outside their space. Sourcing the books is important. Also, you know, we just can’t take in any book. We also curate it a bit. We have several categories so if you’re not part of our scope, we can’t carry the book. A normal day here, is like this. It’s a fairly quiet place. We don’t get a lot of walk-ins because it’s not that kind of environment. The people who come here, a lot of them know what they’re looking for. 

KATYA: Mixed, it’s really mixed. But surprisingly, the visual artists themselves don’t really come here.

RINGO: The artists come here to consign books, not to buy them. 

KATYA: I don’t think it’s a surprise because people have to understand that visual artists don’t like to read other books on visual arts. They like to read other genres because reading visual arts for them is too self-referential. Unless they have an idol.

RINGO: We also get a lot of artists who are doing research. More professional researchers or curators – a lot of them foreigners. This is like their one-stop shop for information on Philippine art. 

Can you tell us more about the books in your collection? What is the process that goes into curating it?

RINGO: We’ve been in the art scene for quite some time already, so we’ve established relationships with museums and galleries. We know who’s producing what and publishing stuff. So we write to them and invite them if they want to consign books here. Some people also come out of nowhere and propose their books to us. They write to us and they send samples here. If it fits within our scope, then okay. If not, then we try to refer them to other stores. We also buy books from abroad. As long as it has Philippine content, then we will carry it.


Do you have any titles that are personal favorites? Any recommendations?

RINGO: A lot. Well, of course I like the Chabet books. I made them. As for the recommendations, we don’t really have intro books if you generally just love art. Our books are more specific here because it’s not just visual arts. We carry architecture, design, music, whatever. Well, there’s a few books like the “Tuklas Sining” by CCP, it’s like an intro to different Philippine arts. But it’s published in the late ‘80’s. I think it could be updated. 

KATYA: If you want a survey of contemporary art, there are those like “No Chaos No Party”. There’s also a book set available here for learning about each style of art that’s more established. 

RINGO: There’s a lot of material available. I mean, this is less than a thousand titles but still, it’s more than compared to what we see in regular bookstores. We carry select titles on history, and some food and travel. We also have something like that, something that’s more popular like lifestyle. We also have very rare books as well, like cultural heritage titles. 

What titles are you eyeing to be part of your growing collection?

RINGO: A lot as well. People email us all the time asking us for this title or this book. Most of them are out of print, meaning you can probably get a copy but only with a secondhand market, which you don’t know if you’re still able to get. We have a long list of books that we are on the lookout for. If there’s a new book, we’ll take it. Sometimes, we do special orders.

What are the milestones you’ve achieved so far in your years of operation? And what does the future hold for Artbooks?

RINGO: I think being part of the Art Fair is a big deal for us. So every year, we join Art Fair Philippines because that’s really focused on visual arts. We’ve tried to join other book fairs and pop-ups. Some are better than others in terms of what we get out of it. It’s always good to bring the books out there for it to be visible. But Art Fair Philippines in particular, that’s really our market. It’s our busiest time of the year. We joined Art Dubai also because I curated a show there. It’s also a different struggle when you try to bring the books to the international audience. For one, you have to deal with shipping costs but I think it’s important to really try to get our books out there and not just focus on the local market.

KATYA: Currently, there’s a movement for photo books and artist books. We’ve had this on our minds for a while. One of the goals is to stimulate the production of artist books, like workshops. For me it’s one of those goals that’s a bit hard to do. Well for one thing, artists are very busy and the technicals here are very limited. So far, our efforts on that goal is not that grand yet. I hope in the next two years, it’s achievable. We want to be able to also join more fairs abroad like what Printed Matter has in New York. After we reach that point, we’re all good. 

RINGO: I think we’ve been really trying to create this consciousness around the artist books. It’s not for all artists also if they don’t have this interest for books or thinking of art in book form. I think that’s one way we can try to encourage more options for artists, that they see the medium of books. There’s an outlet for it and there’s a market for it. For one, galleries limit artists to connecting them to bigger collectors that can buy their paintings, but here we can connect them to different types of support systems. 

KATYA: And the shows are very brief. If you’re an artist and you have a show, it’s very brief. Most of the time, it’s a maximum of three weeks. After that it will disappear, right? Through books, they can still live on. The only way it can live on is if you took a picture, documented it, and put it somewhere.

RINGO: Artbooks gives the artists a platform that can enable them to record their work. We’re here, we can help them produce their book or their zine or what. We have this printer here that they can use. And we can sell it for them, so hopefully, that will be more interesting for artists in the long run.

What kind of culture would you want to imbibe here? Is there a philosophy that Artbooks swears by?

RINGO: We want a reading culture – an informed one. We want people to have cultural awareness, not just of what’s happening right now but also to have knowledge of history. 

KATYA: For me, the idea of reading, discovering, and investigation, that’s very important to keep. It’s important to keep asking, to keep pushing, to keep digging. That’s what we’re doing right now with Artbooks. 

"Passion is not enough for business. It’s not project-based. You have to be prepared for the long haul."

In your opinion, what are the things one must consider when going into a venture like this?

RINGO: You really have to know what you’re selling. You gotta have faith in what you’re selling, because how can you convince others to buy your product, if you yourself is not convinced with your product – whatever it is. 

KATYA: Running a business is an all-around job. Many kids I encounter, they only wanna do one thing or have one role, but you really have to be prepared to DIY. There’s so much aspects to figure out. Unfortunately in the Philippines, it’s not easy to run a business. It’s a bit challenging like let’s say online, it’s hard to hook yourself up properly. For example, we wanted to hook up the bank account to the bank accounting system, that wasn't an easy feat. You have to learn a lot of things and new skills. Ringo was also not in Facebook before, but because of Artbooks she has one now. What I’m saying is, you really have to be dynamic. Passion is not enough for business. It’s not project-based. You have to be prepared for the long haul. It can’t be a whimsical thing because the business has to have maturity to ripen. I really encourage small to medium scale business people. We really need more of that because that will create nice neighborhoods. 

Lastly, what are your musings on the publishing scene here in the Philippines? 

RINGO: We’re behind like 20 years or so. We have a lot to go still because here, I think the publishing industry is still very old-fashioned. It needs to be more in tune with contemporary times. It needs to be more looking towards the future. Here, it’s dominated by a lot of mainstream press. We are under represented. I wish publishers can take an interest in not so popular topics like lifestyle, textbooks, or religion-centric ones, and look into other fields.

KATYA: Just to wrap it up, sometimes I’m intrigued with new magazines. It got me thinking if it’s still worth it to venture into magazines like yours these days. The more independent ones are like a written millennial type of magazine. For me, it’s still important to push it but only time will tell, right? I admire the magazines that still attempt to do something at this point in time because other publishers have almost given up. They killed a lot of their titles. They’re downsizing and trying. There is no one formula to make it work. Maybe it’s not just one thing, not just a print thing or a digital thing. Maybe it’s a combo to make it sustainable. Publishing is a hard business to get into because the returns don’t come by fast enough and it’s actually small because it trickles down. In the niche book, the returns sometimes reach up to 5 years. It’s a very challenging market. How can you publish your next book if it takes five years for you to get the returns, right? To publish a book, you need around a minimum of 3 million pesos. To throw that much money up front and not be sure if you’ll be getting back your money’s worth, that’s such a risky thing. 

RINGO: Like for the Chabet book, we knew we weren’t gonna get the returns right away, because we’re also non-profit. Big art books are really not that commercial. For commercial printers, I think that’s too risky for them as well because it’s a very niche market. 

KATYA: Here, the publishing scene is still very shortsighted. Pinoy publishers are not really living in the global world, they’re living in the local sense. And we can still do more about that. 


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