Paulin Reyes



I feel like there should be a word that singly refers to that moment of bliss when you find a good book for a very low price at a secondhand bookstore— a particular expression that could communicate the joy of a bibliophile who lives for those chance finds. And another word that could perfectly capture the excitement you feel when, after going through tons of oversized shirts and too shabby-looking blouses, you find a beautiful, wearable piece of clothing at an ukay-ukay. These words, if they were ever to exist, would probably be the most used words in my vocabulary.

I’m not entirely sure when I first realized just how much of a thrift shop junkie I am; I can’t remember when I first noticed the deep and profound happiness I get from rooting through piles and shelves of books, and rows of ukay clothes. But I do know that it is not only the act or the prospect of purchasing that gets me excited every time I spot a secondhand store—it is really from all the sifting and combing that I get a natural high. Sometimes I could be in a shop for an hour or so and emerge without having bought anything, probably irritating the store owners even though they still smile at me as I exit through the door. I don’t think of that hour or so as wasted time even if I end up not finding anything I’d want to buy, in the same way that people don’t normally feel they have wasted hours after going through museums and art fairs without buying any of the artworks up for sale.

Shopping for books in secondhand bookstores is essentially like treasure hunting —you don’t really know what you would find, and you don’t really know where among the piles of books you would find the really good ones. You can’t ask the personnel whether they have this or that book, because they probably also don’t keep a tab on all their titles. And though there are attempts to create sections and categorize the books according to genre, chances are that some books would be misplaced. Like when I dug up Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man among romance and detective novels, and found that it was being sold for only ten pesos. The serious bibliophile, then, would routinely comb through every nook and cranny of the store rather than rely on the labels provided and risk not finding whatever treasure may be waiting to be found. I, for one, never go to these shops with the intention of staying for only a few minutes; book hunting requires hours of meticulous searching and evaluating and like art, it cannot be rushed.

The same goes for ukay-ukay stores. Even though I buy more books than clothes, I still cannot resist entering any store with a sign that reads “All items 40 pesos each (except jeans and jackets)” taped on the doors. I go through each of the steel braces in the middle of the room that support so many clothes on hangers that one has to push them apart with some effort if one wants to look at a particular item, and stare at the ones lining the walls all the way to its highest point and all around it, so much so that it looks as if the insides of the store has been intentionally made into a padded room. Since I started shopping for my own clothes, I have always preferred buying them from these dusty, poorly-ventilated stores than from shopping malls. My family does not share this trait with me. They prefer buying clothes with the distinct, antiseptic, and air-conditioned department store smell that proclaims that no one has previously worn it. But department stores bore me. I find no excitement in going through clothes that look better on the mannequins than on actual people. On the rare chance that I find a piece of clothing I like, I turn over the price tag to find that it costs around three hundred to a thousand pesos— money that could buy me a boxful of ukay clothes. Perhaps the allure of department stores for most people lies in the certainty that the clothes there have not been sweated through by some person, nor have it touched anyone else’s armpits. Or perhaps more accurately, because branded items are so fashionable and would quickly impress others. But you can buy some detergent and fabric conditioner to wash ukay clothes and remove extant bodily secretions of its previous owner, if there are any, without spending a thousand pesos. And whoever said there are no branded items in thrift shops? I once bought a Liz Claiborne blouse for only thirty-five pesos. I didn’t even know that it was a costly brand until a friend pointed it out to me. Also, the idea that a piece of clothing becomes expensive because it is embroidered with some rich person’s name or a famous brand has always baffled me.

Though it takes more time to find and purchase items in thrift shops than in official retailers, I still prefer buying things secondhand. Other than the joy I get from sifting through rows and shelves, there is also the fact that they are a lot cheaper, most of the time costing even less than half of the retail price. For example, that Liz Claiborne top I bought. Or the book One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez I purchased for forty-five pesos, and the classic (and monolithic) feminist text Women and Madness priced at fifty pesos. It is precisely why thrift shops are so appealing. These books, when sold in normal bookstores, would probably cost more than three hundred pesos each. I would not be able to buy them. In fact, there would be very few people who could and would be willing to buy a book for that much money, especially when there are more pressing needs to be met. But because of these shops, people are given access to literature that normally reaches only the rich and those in the academe. Because of these shops, branded clothing are knocked off the ridiculous pedestals they are put on and become available for everyone to purchase.

Thus thrift shops promote a kind of alternative lifestyle, where people can acquire these products without paying the price set by the manufacturing company. In fact, they bypass the manufacturers entirely, since these companies only get paid for the first purchase of the item and have no part in or control over its subsequent sales. And I think this is very important, especially the case of secondhand books, because otherwise, these items would be restricted to a small group of people.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno spoke of how “authentic” art—that is, art that has the capacity to stimulate people into questioning their preconceived notions and reevaluating the generally accepted truths of their society is made impotent when they are commodified by and assimilated into the culture industry —the products of and the process by which mass, or mainstream, culture is made. Simply put, it means that art loses its power to move people when it is put in the context of the production of goods. A good example that could illustrate their point is the usage of classical music in the advertisements of various products, ranging from airlines to margarine. The same could be argued regarding the exclusivity of the production of literature. Because the books are expensive, their true purpose- to be read by the people—is defeated; whatever wisdom their pages hold, whatever capacity they have to move people into action, is enjoyed by a select few. The potency of literature to incite a radical change, if not in society, at least in a person’s way of making sense of the world, is nullified. The importance, then, of places that sell secondhand books is that they become avenues by which literature reaches a wider audience, and by which people become acquainted with what Adorno calls “authentic” art.