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Artbooks.ph is an independent bookshop founded by Ringo Bunoan and Katya Guerrero of Pioneer Studios. It is the first bookshop in Manila to focus on Philippine art. We sat down for a talk with Ringo about enhancing awareness about Filipino art, running the shop and what the future holds for Artbooks.
On the story behind Artbooks.ph
Hello Ringo! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Could you walk us through the story of Artbooks.ph from the beginning until today?Ringo: It was sometime last year. I finished my contract with aaa(1), so I had lots of free time. I was talking to Katya, and at that same time she was thinking of reinventing Pioneer Studios because before this was a studio for rent, and she didn’t really want to do that anymore. She wanted a more controlled environment; when you do the rentals, people who rent just take over the space. And Pioneer Studios was doing a lot of commercial shoots, so Katya wanted to do something more, back to art. So we decided to put up a bookstore. That was a new phase—that was a new thing for both of us. We’ve worked together a long time ago, in the 90s, setting up Big Sky Mind(2). So this is like our ‘part two’, you know, a bookstore. Our shop, it’s very straightforward, but at the same time, there is this idea that we need to open up a space. It’s not really just about selling a product but nurturing the community. Something for the community, you know, we have no bookstore here in Manila that supports local art books. If you go to National Bookstore or Fully Booked(3), I mean they have art books, but most likely it’s not local. Or if it is, it’s very few. But you know, we know that those books exist, but it’s just so hard to find them. So just to make it easy, we try to gather the books here and that makes it more accessible to people. It also sort of highlights it because it’s different when you have all these individual books gathered all over, but when it’s together in a collection, the value changes.
A day in the life of Artbooks.ph
What’s a day like in the bookshop?
Ringo: We open quite early, so we’re here early, and some days are really quiet. Just a few people passing by, and with the online orders. It’s different, sometimes we have meetings here. We’re both here, me and Katya, we have all our meetings here so people just drop by. There’s a lot of paperwork actually like I was telling you earlier, we have to check the inventory and monitor all these things. Yeah, it’s pretty tedious. We’re a small team, so we do everything—me and Katya, and we have Melissa. Ken sometimes helps us with pickups and deliveries, and there’s Luis who helps us with the website—we have to shoot the books and edit the pictures. We have to write blurbs, and now we’re working on a catalogue because we’re using Big Cartel for our online. And it has its limitations so we will be outgrowing this soon. We have to migrate to a bigger online platform because we’ve reached our limit so we have to slowly shift to a bigger one.
But that means you’re growing?
Ringo: Yeah, we’re growing. That’s half of the adventure, discovering new books. Not just new titles but old books that have been forgotten, but they’re still around, still available. That’s a big part of the fun.
How do you find these new or old books?
Ringo: We go directly to publishers, pay them a visit and check their warehouse to see what they have. For the rare books, it’s actually from individuals, they come here and say, ‘Oh I have this …’ and they want to consign it here. Sometimes we look for them, or sometimes they just find us.
That means your reputation as an art bookshop is growing too because people come to see you.
Ringo: Yeah. Well, the art scene is not that big—it’s growing, but it’s not that big, and we’ve been around for quite a while. So we know people already. But we’re working with new people now, like publishers and companies, so we just have to go out there. The art fair(4) was quite good for us in terms of promoting the store, and I always believe in word of mouth. People come here, they have a good experience, they’ll tell their friends.
On the what goes onto the shelves
You focus mainly on art books—what do you mean by ‘art book’?Ringo: Well, you have the art books, like say, the Manansala(5) book. It’s really an art book, it’s not just about art, but the book itself is designed in such a way that it’s a visual experience, a visual object. But not all of our books are like that. We also have more text-based books, but we’re trying to broaden the definition of ‘art books’, not just the, let’s say, coffee-table type of book. As long as the subject matter is art, then we carry it.
Do you have things like poetry books?
Ringo: No, we don’t have poetry books or literary books. For one, we really need to focus, and I think they have outlets already. It’s more accessible, the literary books, but these types of books, not so much. Although we’re still considering if we will carry a few, let’s say poetry by independent presses like High Chair. We’re open, but that’s not really our focus.
How about books that are tackling art in terms of history?
Ringo: Yeah, we do have that. Like the Vestiges of War, it’s really about Filipino-American colonial history. But there’s contributions from artists in that book, so we carry that.
I see. Last time I came you had zines as well. There is a growing number of people who produce zines, but what criteria do you consider when choosing which ones to carry?
Ringo: We’re actually open to all kinds of zines, especially the more visual ones like the photography- based zines, or college-based zines. Yeah, we have it. If they want us to carry their book, they can come here and show us a copy.
How about comics?
Ringo: Comics, we haven’t really gotten around to. That’s another one of those in the grey area—you know Uno Morato(6) is already carrying those materials, so there’s an avenue for that already.
So you’re not here to compete with things that are existing, but to provide an avenue for those that don’t.
Ringo: Yep, why duplicate efforts? Like you know, if someone comes here and says they’re looking for this book—if we don’t have it we can refer them to other stores. Like, go to Uno Morato, they might have it there.
What is the difference between an art book and an artist’s book?
Ringo: An artist’s’ book, let’s say, Gerry Tan’s book(7)—it is an artwork in the form of a book.
Do you carry those as well?
Ringo: Yeah, but not a lot. I don’t think a lot of artists here really explore that form. But we like to carry those kinds of books.
With artist’s books, how different are the qualities you look for? In an artist’s book, you don’t really have the same kind of text content sometimes. I understand that this is more of a question about an artwork.
Ringo: No, it’s more image-based. It’s really a case-to-case basis. Like, let’s say, for Gerry’s book—the idea for the book—I found it so interesting, and it’s about books. It’s about foxing things. This is something you really encounter with paper. It’s about paper, about the ageing process of paper. I found that very interesting. I’m familiar with Gerry’s work, so we actually invited him to make that book for us for the art fair because I know he’s the type of artist who’d have ideas for a book. And we have David Grigg’s books, it’s more photo-based and related to his exhibition. So it’s not really a catalogue, but somehow like that as they function the same way. [That] and some of the other zines. Not much, I wish we had more artists books actually. Or there, like MM’s! The tiny ones(8).
Do the art catalogues, the ones they sell at the exhibition, count?
Ringo: Yes, we do carry catalogues. But we have quite a bit from Silverlens, Ateneo [Art Gallery], ccp(9), but not all of the galleries are still open to consigning catalogues. For the galleries, this is not really their main thing, they don’t really push their publications. Or they have very small runs, like a hundred copies, so after the opening they don’t have much to sell. They run out right away. I think it would be good for the galleries to give it more thought because, after their exhibit, this is what remains. So it can go a long way for promoting their exhibitions or their artists and for the historical value because this is primary research material. But maybe they don’t see it that way.
We need to shift that attitude—that, ‘Oh, a catalogue is just something you give away at the opening.’ It can actually have more value. They should publish more; I think they should publish more monographs, not just the catalogues. More substantial research on the artists that they represent.
That could be a whole new community, or resource, that works on something like that. People don’t consider these things, but there are those who would like to write, research, and document for it.
Ringo: They should just fund it. It’s good to have a catalogue, or whatever, at least there’s a form of documentation. But they could take it a little further since the effort is there already. It’s a waste, it could be more. More copies mean more people get to read it, so there’s more awareness.
And now that there’s an avenue like Artbooks.ph, they can also consign if they’re worried about selling.
Ringo: Yeah, but I think slowly. We’re not even a year old; so I think in time people would be more encouraged to publish and to distribute because there’s already a venue.
For the books that you put on your shelves, what are the qualities that you look for?
Ringo: It has to be relevant. One, it has to be within our scope. Sometimes we get offered books like auction catalogues—we don’t carry those things. Or we don’t have those ‘how to paint’ books. The content is number one. Sometimes the books are not that well-made or obviously they didn’t have the budget for the production of the book. But the text is very important or interesting. I noticed a lot of the books made by the university presses, they’re so cheap, like two hundred or three hundred pesos, so, of course, you don’t expect that to be full-coloured and glossy and all that, right? But the text has value so it may not be a pretty book, but if the content is good, then we will still carry it. Or some, they’re very pretty books but no content. I don’t know what to do with those books.
So it’s not enough to just be pretty. It has to be really good stuff.
Ringo: Although, I really wish that some books were, you know, but those are just very technical concerns. The binding could be better? If you want a book to last, and books should last— they’re not disposable things—binding is very important. Because sometimes we have these self-published artist books, and the pages fall apart! How can you sell that, right? It’s a good effort on the artist’s part, but they have to make sure of those kinds of considerations, as well.
About online versus brick-and-mortar, ebooks and print
Between print and technology, what are the repercussions for books in the future?
Ringo: There will always be print books, I don’t think it would go away even with the ebooks. Ebooks are great because it’s cheap and it’s very accessible. But it works for textbooks and novels maybe, but for art books I don’t think it will work. Because as I’ve said, you want the actual book, you want the paper, the whole thing. The tactile quality of the paper, the smell of the book, the gloss of the photos, whatever. All that is missing from an ebook.
Would you still say you’re a brick-and-mortar shop or are you more of an online shop?
Ringo: Both. At first we were thinking of just being online because it’s easier to have just one platform. But since we have the space, why not? It’s also nice because if you have a physical space, it’s something people can actually go to, they can browse through the books. It offers a different kind of experience, especially for books. People are used to the idea of buying from Amazon or something like that, but some really like to look through the pages and check it, to decide before they really buy. Especially for the more expensive books. We carry rare books as well, so people would want to see before spending—the conditions, things like that.
Do you think it’s also because you’re dealing with something like an art book, rather than a literary book, where the visuals are not quite as crucial?
Ringo: Partly, that has an effect. If you just want to read the text, then you can even go for an ebook. But an art book, it’s a visual object, and it’s nice to actually have the object. Wee join a lot of pop-up sales, like in White Space and Intramuros. We go directly to universities, we bring the books there. We’re also online through Facebook and Instagram.
Which one do you feel is more important to you? Is it really necessary to have an online platform?
Ringo: Well, at first I wasn’t so into the whole social media thing. But then you realise it’s a tool, it’s out there, and a lot of people are on it. So it’s a way to communicate to people.For example when we have new arrivals, or when we have events we announce it there. Like if we’re going to join a pop-up sale. Last week, we had an event here, our first one. We were invited to be part of Fotosemana, it’s a festival for contemporary photography. So we hosted a whole day here for a Spanish photographer and his students. We did talks here and we also had slideshows of works by local contemporary artists.
So Artbooks.ph is not divorced from Pioneer Studios, it’s part of the same unit? And Pioneer Studios now are both a photography studio and print shop?
Ringo: Yes, but more print since we don’t really rent out the studio anymore. We can make special exceptions, but it’s kind of a one-on-one thing. It’s really more of the print and the bookshop.
On what the future holds
What do you have in mind for the future?
Ringo: To survive. It is really hard!
Really! I thought people were starting to be more interested in books and in art. People are earning more and the economy is doing better, so I thought it would translate to more buying or supporting these efforts.
Ringo: I think so, but you know, the profit from books is very little. Not like a luxury item that you can make a lot of money selling it. It’s not a lot. So, we could use more sales, and some people they’ll browse but are not sure if they’re willing to spend that much for a book. I think there’s still this mentality, ‘Oh, I can read online.’ Let’s say, if we’re selling a magazine, especially for magazines. They’ll say, ‘Oh I can read that online’ so they’d rather save their 500 bucks and not buy that kind of thing. But I think it’s promising. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be doing this. (Laughs.) So far, so good. We’ve been getting a lot of interest. Sometimes online is another thing, they have to pay for shipping. So they have second thoughts when they realise that shipping can actually be expensive.
They’re not things you can mail in a tiny packet?
Ringo: Yeah. Sometimes the cost of the book is not a lot, like 500 bucks. To ship to the US, maybe the shipping is going to cost more than the book. That’s out of our control, we work with outside companies for the shipping. We really try to source the most economical, more efficient ones. Sometimes they have special requests—if they bought a lot, like 15, 20 books, it’s really going to cost a lot to send. We can do alternate shipping for them, through the post office. It’s not that fast, and there are risks, but if that’s what they can afford, then we can adjust.
Do you get a lot of buyers outside the Philippines?
Ringo: Yeah. Some are Filipinos abroad, and some I guess are just interested in Filipino art. We also sell to libraries and to schools, so maybe they have an Asian Studies Programme or something, so they also order from us.
Do you ever think of publishing ebooks?
Ringo: No, we’re not thinking about ebooks right now. We may do a newsletter in digital format, but a book, I don’t think so.
Are the publishers you work with mostly based in Manila?
Ringo: The majority is, but we are open to expand to the other regions in the country. I know there are universities outside Manila that publish, like Holy Angels University in Pampanga, or the University of San Carlos in Cebu. But the reality is, the majority of the publishers are in Manila, they’re based here. So the bulk of our stuff comes from Manila. Then we also import books from the States if it’s about Filipino art. But that’s not a lot.
Are you planning to go into publishing, yourself?
Ringo: Yeah, eventually. We’ll get there. But right now, we’re still trying to work on the store. Maybe when we make more profit, we can channel it to publishing. That’s another setup. It’s a challenge here, publishing. Let’s say, printing costs are very high in the Philippines. It’s cheaper for other publishers to print it in Hong Kong or Singapore. There are local printers but the quality is not yet on the same level, and you have limitations in paper stock, things like that. So we still have to find a way, what’s a good strategy to be able to publish local books but at the same time come up with very good quality. I realised that here, some of the books, the print run is very small. Maybe the publisher doesn’t want to invest that much because it’s a big risk. It takes time to sell a thousand copies of anything, so it’s a risk for many, so they do small print runs. But if you do a small print run, the cost per copy is more expensive. To make it really affordable, you have to print in bulk. So I think a lot of publishers haven’t crossed that threshold that they have to print like five thousand [copies]. If you do that, the cost will be low. And you’ll be sure to have that for how many years, you won’t run out right away. It’s more expensive to reprint because of the new set of plates. So if you’re going to do it, you really have to go for it, not half-hearted kind of thing.
Are there still a lot of new books coming out though?
Ringo: Yeah. Not as much as they should, probably. The major publishers, they always have new books, but not a lot on art. Once in a while, they have some art publications.
What advice would you give to those who want to start their own bookshop?
Ringo: Don’t do it for money. I mean, it would be nice if you know this will become profitable and sustainable. Any business, that’s what you want. But if you’re out there to make quick money, then the bookshop is not the way. It’s not quick, it’s not a lot of money. Like for me, I really love books. I grew up around books, always worked around books. So it’s not so much of a job for me. I feel great I have all these books at my disposal, and I love discovering new books. Those are my perks for running a store. I don’t know, I find—well, books are so important for me. I’d rather spend a thousand on a book than eat a fancy meal, you know? A fancy meal probably costs more! (Laughs.) So it’s really about what your values are, what’s more important for you
On recommended reading
For someone who doesn’t know much about Philippine Art, what are the top five books you think they should read?Ringo: As an introduction? Oh, let’s see. From an art history point of view, The Struggle for Philippine Art is a required reading. That’s by Purita Kalaw-Ledesma, published in the 70s. I’m so amazed they still have copies of this book up to now. I don’t know, I’m not exactly sure about the print run of this book, but it’s still available. I think it’s worthwhile to read. It covers mostly the postwar. To be able to understand contemporary art now, you must have a grasp of what went before that. So that’s a good read. I love Nick Joaquin’s Culture and History. It’s more of essays. I think it has a nice perspective. What else? Some are very subject-specific. There are a lot of writings now on film, I think more than the other art forms, film is one of those subjects that there’s a lot of scholarships. Nick de Ocampo’s series of books I think is also very good; he did the one that started with the Spanish Ciné, which is about the Spanish influence on Philippine film. Then there’s Film, which is American influence, so he’s doing this on a historical presentation. I really like the book Architecture of Leandro Locsin for architecture. It’s only about one person, but I think he’s one of the foremost modernists here, and the book is just really well made. Very beautiful book. I also like the Philippine Ethnic Patterns, it’s a design source book that tells you about all these kinds of indigenous patterns. It’s published by the Design Center. They don’t have a lot of books, but that’s one book that they did, and I think it’s very useful. There’s a story behind these patterns, it’s not just the pattern. But now I think people just look at these things as something purely graphic, but it’ also good to know the narrative behind these patterns. So yeah, I like those books. There’s a lot! There’s a lot more there—some I like for the content, some I like just for looking at them.
To learn more about Artbooks and experience
their universe and books
go visit: artbooks.ph
or drop by the shop at 123 Pioneer Street, Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, Philippine
(1) Asia Art Archive. Ringo previously worked with aaa to research, document, and collate the work of Filipino artist and teacher, Roberto Chabet, who is considered the ‘father of conceptual art’ in the Philippines.
(2) Big Sky Mind was an artist-run space in Cubao, Philippines, founded by Ringo Bunoan and Katya Guerrero in the 1990s. It was an important alternative venue for conceptual art at the time, featuring various experimental artworks and serving as a community space for talks, screenings, exhibitions, and the like.
(3) Large, chain-bookstores in Manila, Philippines.
(4) Art Fair Philippines, 2015.
(5) Vicente Manansala was a National Artist of the Philippines for Visual Arts. He was an important proponent of modernism in Philippine art with his cubist paintings, most notably for works like Madonna of the Slums, and Jeepneys, and directly influenced succeeding generations of artists.
(6) Uno Morato is a bar and bookstore in Quezon City, Philippines, that also hosts various creative workshops.
(7) Foxing Stains, Gerry Tan, 2015.
(8) 36 Variable Series Collection from 2000–2014, MM Yu, 2000-2014.
(9) Cultural Center of the Philippines.