The smell of wood and pages

The following post is a recollection of my visit to Baguio, which concluded a two-week business trip in Northern Luzon.

I have a very predictable personality: I love cats, books, and rustic sceneries. So, when the opportunity of coming to Baguio arose back in 2019 after a two-week sprint visiting Jollibee stores across Northern Luzon (I started in Dagupan, Pangasinan, then worked my way up to San Fernando, La Union, to Vigan, before finally coming up to Baguio), the first destination I had at the top of my mind was the Mt. Cloud Bookshop over at Yangco Road.

Sign leading to the Mt. Cloud Bookshop, Baguio. Photo credit: Dominic Dayta (2019).

Before this, I had never been to Baguio. I had often heard from friends and colleagues (who back then seemed to go there on the regular) about the cold air, the pine trees, the swan boats at Burnham Park, and the stunning view at Mines View Park, yet I never actually felt the impulse to come and visit. At Vigan, however, over drinks with coworkers at the very vintage Cafe Leona, Baguio just felt so close that I could no longer resist.

At the hotel, I immediately called up my parents to come meet me at the city. We booked a hotel room for three people that offered a nice rate for being at a close distance to Burnham Park and the center of action in Baguio. They arrived early in the evening, and we had an early dinner while we waited for the night market to open. The throng of people literally coursing through the narrow spaces between stalls selling leathers, discount clothes, souvenirs, and other odds and ends is of a kind I doubt we will ever again be comfortable at having at least for a time after this pandemic. We were literally neck and neck with each other. At each stall, I was breathing over the shoulders of some random unnamed person whist haggling for prices to some shirt selling at fifty, a hundred a piece.

The following morning was much more quiet. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, during which we met the owner who had come by to converse with his guests, we took a jeep going to Mines View Park to have a look at the mountains. For Baguio regulars, Mines View may be a cliche, but on seeing it for the first time I was beyond elated to be breathing the light mountain air, fresh and cool in lungs, and looking over the misty summits of the Cordillera. I remembered that scene near the end of Tarrog’s Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral (2018) where an elite guard points towards the mountains and tells Goyo (Gregorio del Pilar, played by the babyfaced Paulo Avelino) and says the poetic line:

“Kapag bumagsak si Aguinaldo, may panibagong titindig. Pero ito, hindi ito napapalitan.” (“If Aguinaldo falls, another will rise. But this can never be replaced.”)

Really my first thought upon seeing this was: Damn, I want a bookshelf with a ladder. Photo credit: Dominic Dayta (2019).

From Mine’s View, Mt. Cloud Bookshop is just a stone’s throw away (then again, pretty much everything is, when you’re that high up), and we decided to get off the jeep halfway on its descent past Wright Park. The bookshop is situated at a corner lot in what appeared to be a quiet residential area. The bookshop itself is no more than a house set at the edge of a short cliff, built in a strikingly mountain architectural aesthetic. Nothing except for the signages that have been put up on the street and on the front porch is suggestive of commercial activity. Walking past the front door, you get the feeling of having intruded into the quiet dwellings of an astute collector. The walls are lined with wooden shelves, full to the brim with books. Two long tables on what would have otherwise been the house’s living and dining rooms carry new editions and discounted items for easy visibility.

The bookshop is a far cry from harsh, antiseptic florescence of National Bookstore and Powerbooks outlets that one comes across in Manila. The trinkets and novel gewgaws that decorate the shelves and tables wouldn’t look too foreign in some artsy teenager’s bedroom. The smell of wood and pages fills the rooms of this house of books. It wouldn’t be surprising to come inside one room and suddenly find an old man in a beret and round glasses (think, F. Sionil Jose – God bless his soul – minus the Duterte fanboyism), brewing coffee to drink while reading poetry. And their collection puts even Fully Booked to shame. Mt. Cloud carries a wide assortment of Filipiniana books, both new and old. Books that have gone out of print, or those that are known only by Literature professors. Little known editions of classics by Bienvenido Santos, chapbooks and small press publications by emerging writers and other long-time local authors that don’t always make the cut of Filipino textbooks.

Sunlight peeking over books on dainty wooden shelves. Photo credit: Dominic Dayta (2019).

I spent probably more than a full hour at the bookstore, and left only when I remembered that I had come in with my parents, who at that point had probably tired of all the walking we’d done that morning. I bought two books: N.V.M. Gonzalez’s The Bamboo Dancers, and a collection of stories by Geraldine Maayo. To write a little more about Maayo: this is one author I’ve never heard of, and I fancy myself as a serious reader of Philippine literature. She writes stories with an acute attention to detail, never missing an opportunity to load a scene with meaning and imagery even when the characters themselves say little of the situations they keep finding themselves in. The collection contains an introduction by national artist for literature Francisco Arcellana, who has more than a few praises to sing for Maayo’s “almost artless” storytelling.

More than anything, it’s the fine collection of local books that Mt. Cloud has going for it. Books you’ll hardly find in the tiny “Filipiniana” shelves at the bigger bookstores. Photo credit: Dominic Dayta (2019).

Above anything, what Mt. Cloud Bookshop reminded me of was culture in retreat. Here is a safe house for our poetry to come and take a breath, where they have been banished by the continued invasion by movie tie-ins and New York Times bestsellers. Philippine literature, despite all appearances, isn’t dead. The corpse you see encased behind glass displays at NBS is a myth. Our poetry continues to thrive, you just have to know where to look.

Mt. Cloud Bookshop is certainly one place to look.

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