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The Booksale Story: How a Shoeshine Boy Turned Bargain Books into a P600-M-a-year Business

  •   7 min reads
The Booksale Story: How a Shoeshine Boy Turned Bargain Books into a P600-M-a-year Business

After 40 years of running the biggest bargain book store chain in the country, Manny Sison is sharing his journey, and a new mission

By Rhia Grana, Managing Editor of ANCX

It’s the biggest and most popular seller of bargain books in the Philippines. And having been in business for 40 years, it has earned a soft spot in the hearts of Filipino readers. The very mention of the name Booksale inspires joy and excitement among bookworms. For many of us, a Booksale treasure hunt has become a ritual, part of a weekday, payday, or weekend me-time. It’s hard not to stop—and shop—each time we’re in the vicinity of any one of its 90-plus branches.

Its founder Emmanuel “Manny” Sison, now 81, estimates that his company Visual Mix Inc., which runs all the Booksale stores in the country, have brought in 180 million books, magazines, reading materials, and teaching manuals for the Pinoy reader over the past four decades.

When he started selling second-hand books in front of churches and at company canteens, some people thought it was a crazy idea. But he told these non-believers, “You people have small minds, I know what I’m doing.”

The octogenarian is publicity-shy, we are told—he’s never granted a media interview even during Booksale’s heyday (although he gave one to the UST college paper Varsitarian more than a decade ago). So it’s quite a privilege to be given the chance to personally meet the guy—at his warehouse in Parañaque City at that—and listen to him share Booksale’s history and his own personal journey.

“I think I was born with a book,” the man with the salt-and-pepper hair across us says, smiling. Contrary to what some may think, this bookworm wasn’t born to a rich family. But his father and mother—a teacher and a market vendor, respectively—ingrained in him and his six siblings a love for reading very early on.

At its peak, Booksale had 94 branches all over the country. In photo: SM North Branch.

Reading became Sison’s go-to pastime especially when he contracted polio at age six. “I could not do physical things. I could not run around. I cannot climb a tree,” he recalls. Because of his condition, he wasn’t able to attend school for a year. “That’s one of the most important parts of my life. It shaped my thinking.”

While the young boy continued to nurture his love for the printed word, it became a challenge to source affordable reading materials. “Ang [school] allowance ko noon is 20 cents a day,” Sison remembers. “Umuuwi uwi ako ng bahay para mag-lunch, and each trip is 5 cents, kaya wala ng [natitirang] pang-merienda. Kung gusto mong mag-turon, maglakad ka [pauwi].”

In order to have some money for leisure—which means books and movies—he would shine shoes, sell newspapers, sweepstakes tickets, or turon. He frequented the nearby public library to borrow books and read them while waiting for customers at his shoe-shine station outside government offices. In grade school, he was already fond of adventure books and biographies. Later on, he’d read the Philippines Free Press magazine from cover to cover.

Booksale Shopwise Branch

From his hometown of Pangasinan, Manny moved to Manila for college. His parents’ meager income wasn’t enough to send all six Sison kids to school but thanks to a scholarship from the University of Santo Tomas Rector, Manny was able enroll in a Literature course. He also worked as an assistant at the office of the Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, which helped augment his school budget.

In the 60s, books became widely available in Metro Manila through Goodwill Bookstore and National Book Store. However, the books were expensive and Sison found this frustrating. So he would look for equivalent books in the “folding bed operations” along Recto and Morayta, Manila, where books were laid out in folding beds for buyers to check. “There, I discovered people like me who wanted to read but don’t have money, and so resorted to junk,” recalls Sison.

After earning his Literature degree in UST, he studied law for a few years at the University of the East through another scholarship. But realizing he didn’t want to pursue lawyering, he thought of going to the United States to study. It was during the height of the Vietnam War when Sison was accepted as a Fellow at the University of Illinois where he eventually completed his Masters in Science in Marketing.

“We vow to stubbornly make reading affordable. But this goal is getting more and more difficult every day,” Sison admits.

When he returned to the Philippines, Sison landed a director post at the premier advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson. He also became a marketing professor at the Graduate School of Business in several universities including Dela Salle University, UE and the University of the Philippines. He also worked as consultant for a number of research projects involving industry studies, brand standings, marketing feasibility, opinion polls, and election forecasting.

In all those years, the man’s love of books never left, a love he wanted to share with others. Thus, with the goal of making reading affordable to ordinary Filipinos, Sison decided to start a small business of selling second-hand books. He launched his own “folding bed operation”—he’d set up his trade in front of churches, in company canteens, in bazaars. People who knew him thought it was a crazy idea. Why would this accomplished man decide to sell “junk”?

“One of my students na kumukuha ng MBA nakita ako na nag-aarrange ng books sa folding bed. Sabi sa akin, ‘Sir, inyo ito? Nagtitinda na kayo nito? Wala na kayo sa La Salle?’ Akala niya nawalan ako ng trabaho,” he recalls. “Sabi ko, nandoon pa din ako. Pero gusto ko kasi ito.”

With former J. Walter Thompson colleague Vincent Pozon and Sison's wife, Lilia.

Even his brother thought it was a ridiculous idea for Manny to be selling used books on sidewalks. But he told these non-believers, “You people have small minds, I know what I’m doing.”

Sison would continue his bookselling business for several years. From a makeshift folding bed, he leveled up to a portable table, and finally in 1980, with a P20,000 capital, he opened his first outlet at the Makati Cinema Square.

What Sison discovered doing the business is that publishing companies in countries like the US tend to overestimate the number of copies they would print. Since they could not release or sell these overprints at a cheaper price in their domestic markets, because their present stocks are still out in the book shelves, these surplus are brought to junk yards. And there are people who collect these overprints and import them to countries like the Philippines.

Proceeds of the sales of his Sison's antique collection will help support his charitable projects.

From one store, Sison would open Booksale branches in smaller malls in Manila before venturing to the provinces. At the height of Booksale’s popularity, it had a total of 94 branches all over the Philippines. “Back then, I was selling 40,000 to 45,000 books every month. I was earning 600 million a year,” he offers. “I was vindicated.”

With some of his earnings from Booksale and with the knowledge he gained from books, Sison was able to invest in real estate, bonds, and hedge funds. He was also able to build a collection of rare books—which includes hardbound first edition copies of “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo.”

“Have you seen the handwriting of [Dr. Jose] Rizal?” he asks us, leafing through the Noli's pages. He also has a 100-year-old copy of a National Geographic magazine. Aside from books, Sison also collects art, Chinese porcelain and various antiques.

Among Sison's antique collection which are for sale at his warehouse in Parañaque.

Sison says the biggest challenge his company had to hurdle was the impact of the Covid pandemic. Since shipments weren’t arriving on time, he had to make do with whatever stocks he had in his stores and his warehouse. Since there were lesser stocks, he had no choice but to raise prices a bit. “We vow to stubbornly make reading affordable. But this goal is getting more and more difficult every day,” Sison admits.

Unfortunately too, the current situation has affected the charitable projects supported by Booksale. Since the 90s, Emmanuel S. Sison Charities have been helping finance the education of many indigent scholars. It has also been providing monthly food aid to 30 of Sison’s octogenarian classmates, to the visually challenged guitarists of Maligaya Blind Association, and to the abandoned elders and babies at Mother Theresa House.

Sison showing a rainstick that he got from a garage sale in the US.

In order to continue to sustain the said projects, Sison has decided to monetize his valuable collection of Chinese antiques, paintings and valuable books. Interested buyers may check them out at Legacy Interiors and pinoyarte.com or visit the Booksale Warehouse at 25 Japan St. in Parañaque.

We ask Sison if he doesn’t have any regrets giving up pieces from his collection. He admits it’s tough letting go of some of the items since there are special memories attached to them. But what he knows for sure is how much more valuable the proceeds of his project would be for a good number of his kababayans. “I’m 81 already,” says Sison. “I’ve already saved enough for myself and my family. This is my way of giving back.”

Photos by Josh Sison

This article is republished with permission from ANCX. You can read the original article here.

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