Nanay” is cool about being photographed with the santos that populate her office. That is where she prefers to pose in the shoot.
We’re surprised to see the many religious icons. “That’s only a few,” says granddaughter Trina Licauco Alindogan. “There are more of them at home.”
“Nanay” is Socorro Ramos, the woman whose success story is held up for today’s generation of Filipinos to emulate. Awards given her run to a good number of pages of her biodata, at the top of which reads “High-school graduate: Arellano High School-Manila.”
Nanay never got a college degree— a fact she doesn’t hide, but given what she and her husband Jose have achieved, it is a minor detail. We didn’t know she collects santos and has almost a houseful of them, but even such piety is again, only a detail—one of the many details of her phenomenal life. Piety is not the only key to her success.
Nanay turned 90 last September, and National Book Store (NBS), one of the biggest retail institutions in the country, turns 70 this year. For either momentous occasion, Nanay didn’t want a big celebration; not in the budget, she was heard to have said. In an interview with Quijano de Manila (“Super Salesgirl,” published in 1977), she said, “Whenever I want something I really work hard to get it. There’s no such thing as suwerte.”
The life of Socorro and Jose Ramos, in truth, was not anchored on suwerte. There were times when they would be, she recalled, “back to zero” and would try to rebuild the business over and over.
Now that she’s 90, we ask her what she prays at night before she goes to bed. “Good health, good business,” she says, and with almost a chuckle, adds, “and please help me pay the utang.”
We tell her she’s exaggerating about the utang, because her business is not debt-ridden, but she corrects us—the store merchandise is consignment, so ’pag ’di nabili, utang, isasauli mo ’yan.”
That is fiscal responsibility. “We’ve enjoyed the trust of suppliers for 70 years,” she adds.
The success story of the Ramos couple in building National isn’t only about frugality—but of incredible tenacity and self-sacrifice. The fear of utang isn’t recent—when they built the family’s first ever building to house its bookstore, the couple saved up for it for years and deferred building their own house just so they could construct their store’s building using their own savings, not on loan.
In the 70 years it took them to build NBS into the biggest bookstore chain in the country today, we ask, what stands out on her mind as the most memorable moment, the most among the many? She doesn’t pause long before she says, “Ah ’yung Typhoon ‘Gene,’ natanggal ’yung bubong at sumampay sa wall ng Avenida… kita na ang langit. Basa ang stock, lahat ng libro.”
Back to zero
She recalls the day (in 1948) the roof of their store was peeled open during a strong typhoon. “Back to zero again,” she recalls the oft-repeated setback they’ve suffered since the war years. She was, she says about that moment, “feeling numb, parang next to heart attack.” But she recalled how she kept telling herself, “Huwag kang mamamatay!”
They were a strong-hearted couple; she still is. Jose, her life partner/business partner, died in 1992; he was many years her senior.
Their story is so cinematic that it seems like fiction, only it’s not. It spanned the prewar years when they were growing up, he in Manila, the son of a middle-class family, she in Sta. Cruz, Laguna, of the Cancio brood of six whose father died when they were young and whose mother had to support them through the Depression of the ’30s. The story develops through the war years when, after she and Jose eloped, they eked out a living selling office supplies, even whiskey, or whatever they could get their hands on, then on to Liberation with the opportunities it offered in the buying and selling of goods, and finally onwards to the ’50s and ’60s.
In Laguna, her mother and grandmother had a market stall selling dry goods, from broomsticks to bakya. She was barely in her teens then and she remembers how they kept their earnings in a hollow bamboo. It was also then, she recounted to De Manila, that “in the provinces, people buy on credit and don’t pay.”
De Manila wrote, “This part of her business education would instill in her a lifelong horror of credit. She herself would never, never want to make utang.”
To us she recalls the fulfillment she derived from earning a living, even during her summer vacations from school. She worked for a candy and bubble-gum factory where she got paid 50 centavos a day wrapping bubble gum. She still loves the memory of the American manager praising the speed with which she wrapped the bubblegum. “Look at this girl, she would say, how fast she wraps,” she recalls the foreigner’s early assessment of her industriousness, and how from that menial work she was able to save for school and to buy her pencils and scissors.
Since the market stall business wasn’t good in Laguna, what with people promising to pay and never coming back, the Cancio brood moved to Manila where the family had to start from scratch. Not far from their place lived the Ramos family in Calle Misericordia—“But we didn’t know them then. They were well-to-do, all professionals,” she told De Manila.
To cut a long story short, a brother of Socorro married a Ramos girl and this couple started Goodwill Book Store. Done with high school, Socorro or Coring, as she was called by family in her youth, went to work for them as a salesgirl. This was in 1940, when Goodwill opened a branch in Escolta, on the ground floor of the Panciteria Nacional, which De Manila wrote, “may be why the branch got the name of National Book Store.”
Coring was barely 18 then when she met Jose, the brother of her sister-in-law. They worked together at National— “He took over the National Book Store—and myself along with it,” she told De Manila.
Along with the business developed the love story of the two budding entrepreneurs. Coring’s family didn’t approve of the budding romance, since she was too young, so they sent her back to live in Laguna. Then one day, Jose’s sister came to see Coring, begging her to see her brother who was missing Coring so much that he couldn’t eat or sleep.
As Coring recalled in De Manila’s mini-bio, she didn’t think twice, and went to Manila. In those days, that was considered elopement. The day after she arrived in Manila, she and Jose were married at City Hall. That was the start of an enduring marriage—and the enduring institution that would be National Book Store.
The young couple kept the Escolta bookstore going even through the war years. They were selling not only books but whatever they could get their hands on.
De Manila narrated a very interesting episode during the war when Coring was heavy with the twins (who would become the prominent businessmen Fred and Ben). We’re recounting it because it is a very strong, if graphic, manifestation of the Ramoses’ knack for entrepreneurship:
“She was carrying the twins during the third year of the war and was finally persuaded to stay home during her last months of pregnancy, but first climaxed her buy-and-sell period with a grand slam. A Jap wholesaler was in a hurry to unload a bodega of whisky, unsellable in those days—but Coring was already thinking ahead to the return of the Americans, when whisky would be at a premium. She bought the whisky, then was faced with the problem of how to transport those hundreds of bottles from their bodega… The bodega was on the Avenida-Azcarraga corner; her mother was then living just a block away, on Doroteo Jose. So, Coring hired a carretela to move the whiskey to her mother’s house, herself following the carretela on foot, trip after trip…
“The Ramos twins arrived earlier than expected because of an accident. With the day’s earnings in a bag, Jose and Coring were going home to La Loma in a carretela when the horse reared, backing the rig down a creek… Happily, neither of them was hurt, the funds thought lost were recovered from under the horse’s stomach—but the twins Coring was carrying would arrive two months before schedule.”
Identical twins Alfredo and Benjamin were named alphabetically. Many years after the war, the next one, the youngest, came—C for Cecile.
The National Book Store in Escolta, which Jose built while selling jewelry (by Meycauayan goldsmiths) on the side, was burnt in the war, with the rest of Manila. The couple rebuilt National in Avenida in the postwar years. From that store, Coring would see the vacant lot across Soler and yearn for the day they could buy it and build National there. She told De Manila that they would not only work hard, but also she would scrimp on “face powder… clothes” just so they could save up for the purchase of the lot.
In 1955 they finally had enough to buy the lot. It would take them years to save up for the construction of their building on it. This was when the couple decided they would continue to live in a rented apartment just so they could save for their store’s building. But they didn’t scrimp on their children’s education. De Manila wrote: “The twins were already schooling, at the Ateneo, and Coring took out educational insurance for them, to make sure they could stay at Ateneo from grades to college whatever happened to the family business. Otherwise, every centavo earned went into savings, so intent were the Ramoses on the great dream of their life: a building of its own, a mother house, for National Book Store.”
Not only were the Ramoses able to build their dream building; NBS has built branches all over the country, and later, Powerbooks, run by their children and now by their grandchildren. Alfredo married the former Presentacion Monzon, and Ben, the former Virgie Sian who years later built Gift Gate and Swatch. Cecile married Maximo Licauco III.
There are nine grandchildren and 12 great grandchildren.
We now ask her how she raised her children, and in a way, her grandchildren: “By example,” she replies instantly. “And I tell them to work, study hard. That’s my only pamana. I didn’t go to school but you’re given the opportunity for education.”
And her advice to her grandchildren? “Work hard, be honest in your dealings,” she says, “and read more.”
She likes this young generation. “They’re very good. Hindi napapagod. They know how to handle the company,” she says. “At—marunong mag-money market.”
Nanay Socorro Ramos spent her 90th birthday with her family. She continues to go to office every day in the morning and visits the NBS branches, as she’s done the past seven decades. Only now she knows how to face the TV camera.