Before Disneyland, Enchanted Kingdom, or even Netflix on one’s (electronic) notebook, there was this irresistible playground for Filipino children called National Book Store (NBS). There, they spent hours, rummaging through shelves, searching for the perfect set of notebooks, paper, pens and bestsellers to be later proudly shown off in school as booty from those “treasure hunts.”
NBS memories are shared by generations of Filipinos. And the remarkable lady who has – in her own way – helped raise and shape these countless dreamers, thinkers and leaders, and inspired irrevocable childhood images, is no other than the silver-maned matriarch, Socorro Cancio-Ramos, also known as Nanay Coring (Nanay is Mother in English. Coring is Ramos’ nickname).
With the success of NBS, which marked its 75th milestone this year, Nanay Coring has become a celebrity of sorts, to which she responds: “Nakakataba ng puso. Sino ba naman ako, kundi isang tindera lamang [My heart is full. Who am I but a humble saleslady]?”
Often recognized wherever she goes, it’s not unusual for people to approach her, sharing their gratitude and words of thanks: “I couldn’t have finished college without you;” “I wrote my first love letter to my wife on a Hallmark card I bought from National Book Store;” and “My best childhood memories were smelling the pages of new books and pencils.”
But Nanay Coring is definitely more than just your typical “success story” and “powerful CEO.” She is the enduring force and visionary behind the beloved brand, which was first established as a small sari-sari (variety) store along Rizal Avenue in Manila’s Santa Cruz district in the early 1940s. It started life in a tiny room occupying no more than 4 x 15 meters.
Fast forward – NBS in 2017 boasts over 240 branches nationwide, with several other smaller concept stores, all of which still revolve around the core business of books, art materials and supplies.
“Nanay Coring’s story is such an inspiring one,” attests granddaughter Xandra Ramos-Padilla, who now leads the company as managing director. “She built National Book Store all by herself, with her own two hands. She cleaned the floors, manned the cashier and put in the long hours, negotiating with all of her partners to make her business boom.”
Aside from drawing strength and inspiration from her lola (grandmother), being the close relation of such an icon had its perks, Ramos-Padilla admits, recalling the hundreds of trips to NBS as a youngster, and then, as a student. “My siblings and I were always thrilled when it was time for the back-to-school shopping. We’d go to Rizal Avenue where the office was, and we’d have our pick of the supplies,” she says with fondness. One of the most memorable gifts she received from Nanay Coring, which she says ignited her love for the written word, was a set of Nancy Drew books.
“I’m truly amazed by her journey,” says Ramos-Padilla. “Even though [Nanay Coring] finished only high school, she’s used her smarts, grit and determination to build her company and ‘out-best’ her competitors in the industry. Everything that she achieved, she earned it on her own and learned it on her own. She is the reason why National Book Store is National Book Store. It’s a household name.”
Building an empire
Set up in 1942, NBS was launched as a mom-and-pop business helmed by Nanay Coring and her sweetheart and husband Jose T. Ramos, who was 14 years older than she. They met when Nanay Coring worked at Goodwill Bookstore – another local institution – owned by her older brother Manuel and his wife Dona Juana. Ramos wooed the then 18-year old, winning her heart and hand in marriage.
Armed with the ABCs of business, the newlyweds went off to found their own enterprise, which they titled after the cash register brand popular at the time. “I just saw it and thought that it was a sound name,” laughs Nanay Coring. The small business turned enough profit, but she harbored no grand plans for it. “We had a rocky start,” she reveals.
They faced challenging times then, operating during the oppressive Japanese Occupation. “The Japanese banned the books in our stores. They ripped the pages from the bindings, and many of the books we had were burned,” says Nanay Coring. Trying to stay clear of trouble, the couple decided to sell “safer” stuff such as toothbrushes, soap, toothpaste and the like, basic goods that even the invaders needed.
More heartache ensued. The Ramoses’ humble store became a casualty of the eventual takeover of Manila by American troops. It burned to the ground. Then, after a long period of rebuilding, it was again bulldozed as a result of a devastating typhoon. Nanay Coring remembers: “I looked up and there was just sky. The roof was blown off… My business was paper and everything was soaked. We weren’t able to save anything.”
These challenges could have discouraged the hardiest entrepreneur from pursuing her dreams, choosing to regard the mishaps as bad omens. Nanay Coring, on the other hand, simply saw these as part of her particular journey.
“Tindera ako at heart, yun ang alam kong gawin, kaya yun pa rin ang ginawa ko [I’m a sales person at heart and sales was all I knew. That’s why I still pursued the business].” And so, she rebuilt. “People often forget, the road to success is paved with patience and hard work. Hard times are inevitable. There will be failures. But if you fall down, get back up. Never give up,” she reminds us.
“When I was young, growing up in Santa Cruz, Laguna, and Manila, we were very poor,” explains Nanay Coring, who was born September 23, 1923. “Which is why I worked very hard.” Her mother Emilia, a widow, toiled as a shopkeeper, prompting the young Socorro to take responsibility of raising their family of six.
Even as a young girl, Nanay Coring showed enterprise. She worked at odd jobs to earn cash. The Arellano High School student even did stints unwrapping bubble gum at an American Sweets company for 50 centavos a day, as well as unwrapping tobacco from moldy paper at a cigarette factory.
Nanay Coring always knew how to make more from what life had provided. To help boost her “projects,” she recruited friends from school, doubling her speed, results and income. This thinking and smarts – which can’t be picked up from any business advice book – is what has helped NBS evolve into what it is today. “It was never by luck that we have succeeded,” she nods. “That’s how business works. Kung hindi ka kikilos, hindi ka kikita, at mas lalong hindi ka aasenso. Hindi totoo ang suwerte, you make your own suwerte [If you don’t put in the hard work, you won’t succeed. You make your own luck].”
Into the future
Today, NBS is an institution. It first broke ground in the 1950s when it pioneered greeting cards and postcards. (In a significant acquisition/ partnership at the time, it secured the rights to franchise Hallmark products, making greeting cards a staple in all of its branches).
Now, Nanay Coring’s granddaughter Xandra Ramos-Padilla is handed the incredible task of steering NBS into the future. A true chip off the proverbial old block, she’s armed with numerous ideas to not only grow the brand but deepen its value as an inspiring, home-grown company. “Undeniably, we’re dealing with different challenges and energies,” she explains. “For Nanay Coring, during her time, it was all about building the foundations for what was essentially a start-up company. Today, the challenge is how do we sustain that growth and take care of our 4,000 plus employees.
“My role is not so much about being entrepreneurial, but being able to create that synergy within the company,” says Ramos-Padilla. “How do we build a culture based on [Nanay Coring’s] values of integrity, accountability and service-orientedness? We want to teach the next generation of National Book Store leaders.”
Responding to the new reality of digital media overtaking the print medium, Ramos-Padilla declares: “They say that print is dying, but we beg to differ. I think the challenge now is how to adapt to the new ways people read and consume information, which is more on the digital… but there will always be people, who seek the smell and feel of books, those who enjoy the tactile experience of flipping through pages.” Though National Book Store remains a top-of-mind brand, she still sees an opportunity to grow and saturate the market.
Nanay Coring, who has full trust and confidence in Ramos-Padilla, has now taken a back seat, enjoying her well-earned respite, diving into the endless piles of books in her library and being spoiled by the family. “Masyado na ako matanda. At 94, ano pa ba gusto kong gawin? Wala na [I’m too old. At 94, what else do I want to do and ask for? Nothing],” she smiles.
As a proper send-off to Boardroom Watch, the Grand Dame shares her golden principles for personal success: “Importante ang tama [Doing right is important]; honesty is the best policy, and if you want to succeed in sales, wear lipstick.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATIONAL BOOK STORE