Consider for a moment the idea of books as the manifestation of an inspired kind of virus, when a single book could spread and replicate itself countless times until it took over its host.
That’s the first thought that occurs to one when surveying the breadth of the Reading Club 2000-known to many simply as “the library on Balagtas Street.” It appears almost suddenly and improbably, a literal and literate library in the middle of the block, right where La Paz-Dulo jeepneys turn left on their way back to Zobel Roxas street.
Running across the entire front of a house on Balagtas Street in Barangay La Paz, Makati, the Reading Club is a virtual explosion of books. Makeshift shelves seem to be improbably hanging on for dear life as well-worn paperback novels elbow each other for precious space. Old textbooks line up obediently behind each other. Numbering at least 500-strong, the books seem to be spreading outward, taking over all available space. There is a lovable jerry-rigged quality to the whole thing, as well as an organic sense that the books go wherever they please. A spotted cat lazes under the table, savoring the shade.
As much as it is a wonder to discover, the Reading Club is even more extraordinary when you find out its rules. There are none. “No rules,” says caretaker and Club founder Hernando “Nanie” Guanlao. “People can borrow, they can read, they can take home. In fact, the club is open 24/7. I never close.”
Not only that, but once you take a book, you don’t have to return it; it’s yours. In fact, Guanlao encourages you to take it, take it! This then is the ultimate democratization of reading-take home whichever book you want whenever you want and it’s yours to keep. “It’s fine with me because I know that (people) need (the books) and in my mind, whatever they take, even everything, will be returned a thousand fold,” he says.
Guanlao, 60, says the germ of the idea came to him when he was just a young boy running his own “for-rent komiks” business. The second of five children born to government employees Honorio and Felisa Guanlao, he grew up in this very same house on Balagtas Street. He was introduced to books the same way most Filipino children are: in school, in the pursuit of academic perfection.
He was not in the habit of reading books until his freshman year in college when he took up accounting at the Philippine College of Commerce and visited the Theosophical Society in Quezon City. “Their publications are usually banned and you cannot find them in commercial stores. I miss those books because they are very expensive and only a privileged few can afford them.”
The esoteric and eccentric books he favors reflect Guanlao’s way of thinking. Something of a self-taught polymath, he is always spilling with ideas, explaining them with an almost evangelical fervor and formal cadence. “I need to find the truth, I am always in search (of) the truth to balance the left and the right. The right is what you have, the left is what they hide.”
After college, Guanlao followed all kinds of pursuits, working for an accountancy firm, selling ice cream and baked goods, working for government and then for himself. Throughout that time, he has also been self-employed as a remedial tax practitioner, helping those who have trouble filing their taxes.
Years ago, he wanted to come up with a unique form of community service. That’s how he came up with the idea for the street-based library. “The truth is, I am not an inventor by profession, or a scientist by skill, so I have to come up with a concept to help within my parameters,” he explains. “And I found the start with our books, those of my family.”
So one day in 2000-hence the number behind the Reading Club’s name-he took his old books and those of his siblings, went outside and improvised four rickety wooden shelves, put all the books up and opened shop. It took some people a while to understand the concept of the Reading Club. They assumed the books were for sale.
But eventually, the idea caught on and people now come to “borrow” and drop off books at all hours. “Now as I’ve observed, (the books have) multiplied and grown,” he says. “Ever since I started, I have never closed. My project was blessed. It’s a good community service in spite of the fact that I’ve never asked for any donations nor begged for any support.” But, he admits, he is not above visiting junk shops to ask for old magazines in exchange for his old newspapers.
Unlike other charitable projects, the Reading Club is no tax shield. “I never expect money. As a matter of fact, all I expect is for (people) to have literacy and enjoy reading. That is the goal,” says Guanlao.
Fortunately, the Reading Club’s distinctive personality and longevity have caught the eye of concerned people seeking to promote a Save Our Public Libraries initiative with advertising company Campaigns & Grey, the National Library and the National Book Development Board-with Guanlao’s Reading Club in the thick of this planned endeavor.
Libraries, he explains, have an important role in the Filipino community. Guanlao points out that there is actually a Republic Act-RA 7743-which provides for the establishment of libraries on the barangay, municipal, city and congressional levels but this isn’t being implemented properly. So he does what he can.
In more than a decade, the books have found a loyal audience and have planted roots in the neighborhood. Who visits the Reading Club and what do they read?
“Passersby, those in need of reading material just to pass the day, or those who really have the habit of reading,” Guanlao says, pointing out a neighborhood boy who is picking through the books. “Like that one, he is here all the time.”
The pocket books are especially popular, he says, though there is a constant demand for textbooks and reference books from the students.
As for him, Guanlao says he enjoys reading books about what he calls truth in journalism, the stories behind the news. “It’s hard to believe in newspapers because they are controlled by the oligarchy, so I want to know the inside story behind the news. I clamor for that, the real story.” He cites as example reading materials about the Corona impeachment trial, the power crisis and whether or not we really need American military bases on our shores.
At night, the library is left open and unmanned. Anyone can just walk over and take a dog-eared novel home. What’s more, if this book lover knows that you like a certain kind of book and such a title does arrive, he makes sure to send it to you, even personally delivering the book to your doorstep!
For all the giving and taking, Guanlao still has what appears to be an endless supply of books. Passersby have left boxes of books, not even waiting to meet him. “I never even get to thank them,” he says.
The donated books have begun to encroach on the Guanlao ancestral home; they now occupy the driveway and one side of the staircase. No, he says, he has no idea how many books he actually has for loan in the Reading Club. “I cannot have an inventory,” he says, explaining that whenever he tries, the numbers invariably change on him.
But while the threat of losing books to borrowers or thieves is non-existent, their loss due to seasonal floods is very real, he says.
The Reading Club’s environmental impact is not lost to Guanlao. This is zero waste, he says. “These are already recycled books. The newspapers and magazines-those have already been thrown-out.”
The Club has become a deeply personal project for Guanlao and his family, with wife Lourdes running a boarding house on the site that helps provide for the household’s needs. Their three children, Lyell, Hansel and Honorio III all help out, specially in spreading the word about the value of literacy. “(The Reading Club) also encourages my family to read,” he says.
The Reading Club is Guanlao evolving and going up. He says he intends to continue running the Club as long as he can. The land the house sits on is actually for sale, but he is content to run his unique library with whatever lease on life it has, he adds.
He also dreams of the Reading Club evolving. Already, some of his friends want to put up their own version of it somewhere else, while he wants to do the same for movies. In the evening, he shows movies on an old laptop to whoever is interested. People can bring their own movies, he says.
The latest iteration of his idea is a mobile library. “I decided to become mobile and came up with a prototype like this,” he says, showing off a bicycle fitted with a sidecar that is crammed full of books, newspapers and magazines, with a laptop lashed to the back of the vehicle. Guanlao drew on his past experience selling ice cream and baked goods to create his mobile library “to reach more people,” he explains, adding that he is planning a total of 10 units, initially to cover Barangay La Paz and hopefully, beyond that.
For Guanlao, this is all he can ask for. The lessons learned from the 12 years spent watching over the Reading Club are extras. Foremost of this is trust. “It’s so hard to develop trust, but this has helped develop my trust and confidence in strangers.”
Another learning he has shared with people is how, despite the rise in the cost of living, some of the best things in life remains free. Guanlao recalls how people are shocked when they ask about the price of the books and he tells them they’re free. “They can’t believe it especially in a city like Makati. Then they take their pick and walk away happily into the sunset.”
In the spirit of the Reading Club, Guanlao himself owns no books of his own-all of them are available for other people to read and take. “If I keep it, it’s useless,” he says. “You read it and just tell me the story. That’s my attitude.”
This is Guanlao’s chosen devotion, to make sure that here, in this unexpected nook of the city, you can find a good book, leaf through it amid the smell of freshly-cooked fishballs and the machine-gun clatter of tricycles, and fall in love with books again. •
The Reading Club 2000 is located at 1454 Balagtas St., Barangay La Paz, Makati City. For inquiries, call 0915-7291526 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org