An ARKIPELAGO of You and Me: Finding Filipino Books in San Francisco

Fil/Lit, Sunday Spotlight

The South of Market district in San Francisco is home to a plethora of things — tech giants like Twitter, swanky residential hotels, studios and art spaces, the newly renovated Museum of Modern Art plus a hum drum of restaurants, clubs and bars — ideal for tourists and would-be residents to call home.

While this influx of traffic is generally seen as a boon to the district, it casts a long, dark shadow to what makes SoMa a historic and amazing place to be in: its mainstays, mostly brown and black folks.

What might be a a relatively unknown fact to most is that the SoMa is also home to a sizable Filipino population — the largest concentration in San Francisco — residents of the area since the 1900s. In April 2016, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution establishing SoMa Pilipinas marking 2nd St. to 11th St. down from Market St. to Brannan St. the Filipino cultural heritage district in the City.


Source: Arkipelago Bookstore

And right on Mission St., between 5th and 6th, is a very special corner I’ve always loved to call home: the Arkipelago Books, a Filipino bookstore carrying titles by and of Filipinos. I first came across Arkipelago at a yearly Filipino festival called Pistahan. I met Marie in her stall back then, as I perused and tried to contain my excitement over classics I recognized plus a lot of new titles neatly stacked.

That was about six or seven years ago, and I’ve gone back to Arkipelago frequently to procure more books. A few weeks ago, I came across a friend’s post on Facebook with a fundraising link for the bookstore as it expands its services, upgrade its equipment and other services, as well as venture out into publishing.

On a sunny Friday in the City, I ventured out to the bookstore and got a chance to meet Lily Prijoles, the new owner along with her other Pinay partners Golda Sargento, Ley Ebrada and Charity Ramilo. What followed was an exploration and conversations on pre-colonial Philippines, Melinda Bobis, bookselling and Arkipelago’s future ventures.

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I first found out about Arkipelago like Pistahan, and I met Marie a couple of times. What’s unique about Arkipelago bookstore?

Lily (Arkipelago)


A lot of Fil-Ams, are trying to get into their pre-colonial side, the pre-colonial Philippines, because they want to discover more about it. We try to accommodate them with books but a lot of the books are very dense and academic, or if we do get books there’s not enough people writing about them. They want to know about Ifugao, Igorot and other indigenous tribes. They’re finding out something about themselves and it helps that Whang-Od is doing all these interviews, doing tattoos. But also a lot of people are looking up Eskrima and Arnis and those have hints of pre-colonial roots of the Philippines.

I finally found a book — Tahanan, which is a publisher, came out with it. They came out with Halo-Halo Histories which is a children’s book about the history of the Philippines. It has pictures and easy explanations and I get a lot of parents buying it not just for their kids, but also because they want to find out for themselves. Their warehouse in the U.S. is all gone! It’s written by these four anthropologists and they did a lot of intensive research about our history. We were colonized but how were we before that?


Source: Arkipelago Books (Facebook)


That’s really interesting to know, because I’ve also found books to be self-revelatory tools.

Lily (Arkipelago)

Yes, and it’s mostly Filipino women who look for these books. And if you think about it, rre-colonial Philippines is empowering to a lot of women. There was more gender equality even before the Bible came.

The creation story in the Philippines is Malakas at Maganda, who were created at the same time as opposed to Adam and Eve, wherein Eve was born out of Adam’s rib. Then you start thinking about the roles of women, and a lot of pre-colonial requests are from Pinays, and finding empowering positions of women in history.

I tell them: Don’t be a coy, just tell me what you want. I’m a sister — I got you! 


And speaking of Pinays, can you talk about your partnership with the bookstore’s new owners?

Lily (Arkipelago)

I manage operations — I run the bookstore and the website. Ley is our financial persona and Golda will be in charge of publishing. One of Barbara Jane Reyes’s books was actually published through Arkipelago; Marie gave her her first break and now she has a ton of books out! To Love as Aswang is the hardest book to keep in the store because people just keep buying it. I want a copy myself but it’s out so fast!

We’re going to start publishing again, and we have so many people giving us their book ideas and their manuscripts. I want to do like picture art books, coffee table books. Golda used to work at an all-women owned publishing company, and she loves to read. She brought Melinda Bobis out here, she’s an Australian novelist and short story writer. She’s also going to be in town for the Filipino Book Festival and you have to see her speak.

As long as we can get two or three books out a year, then we can do proper openings to them. It’s really exciting — and at least I’m doing it with friends. Ley is my good friend from San Diego and it just so happens that we’re all Pinay! All the babaylans are getting together and talking.


How has your experience been?

Lily (Arkipelago)

The thing is, people ask me: Why would you want to buy a bookstore? Look at Borders, they closed. But Marie managed to run this bookstore for 20 years, as a single mom, by herself, off of just books and gifts from the Philippines. Just her knowledge kept this bookstore alive. And her love for community, her sharing of the culture with people, she managed to keep it open through the real estate flop, the first tech bust, she managed to stay in the SoMa area and keep it in San Francisco. It was down the street at the Mint Mall for a little bit and when they opened up Bayanihan, she moved.

Bern (of Bayanihan) just allows the center to organically run itself so everyone cares if it’s messy in the kitchen, or if they left a mess in the hall. And then when there are events here, we can open and people walk through. And they’re the people in our community.

Sometimes you see bingo nights, or Zumba classes, panels, workshops, meetings of community leaders like for SoMa Pilipinas and all the activists are planning their events. Alleluia’s group is practicing or Bindlestiff is practicing. I always get to see the grandmas and the grandpas doing the karaoke and they all end up line-dancing! Once a month there’s also a a Mabuhay clinic, which is a free clinic for all the seniors here. I open up on Saturdays so I get to see all the med students that never come out in this area.


I love that about Arkipelago! It’s accessible to the community and it has managed to stay in this area in spite of so many changes as you’ve mentioned.

Lily (Arkipelago)

If they’re going to have all the tech companies move in, we need to remember the history of these communities and the people who used to live here.


Can you talk about the process of bookselling more? Take us behind the scenes.

Lily (Arkipelago)

I’ll be heading to the Philippines soon to meet with publishers and get more books. Marie had a lot of relationships with the major university publishers and I’m hoping to work with them as much as I can. Usually I start off in Quezon City because that’s where most publishers are. Marie just kind of went from publisher to publisher. She’s from Baguio so she visited UP Baguio a lot.

I also have to get malongs from Davao — they’re so popular! They’re actually the most viewed items on our website. With malongs, you also can’t get the same one because they have different designs all the time.

I’m going to feel it out, it’s just my first time so I’m really excited. I’m also worried at the same time because although I understand the language, I don’t speak it as much.


You can just add “po” or “opo” in your sentences.

Lily (Arkipelago)

Maybe even Ma’m/Sir!


Who are your favorite Filipino authors?

Lily (Arkipelago)

I love Jessica Hagedorn like most young Pinays. She’s one of my favorites. She spoke about being Filipino by writing about her experiences and herself. She was writing about what she was doing. I totally gravitated towards her as a reader.


What about other authors, not necessarily Filipino?

Lily (Arkipelago)

There’s this author named Emma Magenta who wrote a book who addressed love in such a cute way. I like comic books, graphic novels — I’ll read anything with pictures as a film person.


What are the most after items in the store?

Lily (Arkipelago)

Carlos Bulosan will never go out of style. Whenever we do get it, it always sells out. He’s an all-time classic. Jose Rizal’s books are also popular — everyone wants those in their collection. Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo are a must. Philippine Society and Revolution is for certain people, but it’s a good read. Not everyone will agree with it, but it opens your eyes.


Do people look for Andres Bonifacio books?

Lily (Arkipelago)

A lot of the activists like Andres Bonifacio. In the Philippines, Jose Rizal is the known national hero. Much like Emilio Aguinaldo, he’s the known first president. And then you start learning about Bonifacio, you start to wonder why he hasn’t been given the same national recognition.

There are some books comparing both Bonifacio and Rizal, but ultimately, there are more Rizal books. Much like when the Heneral Luna movie came out, there were so many people looking for Heneral Luna books.


I just saw the Forbidden Book on display in the History section. Would you say it’s a popular book?

Lily (Arkipelago)

We still sell the book a lot. We just sold one to GABRIELA Portland and they bought it as their community book. I’ve used this book when I teach. I love knowing that every generation is going to read that book and feel so connected. I know students here get really agitated when they read it.

I think this book shows the Filipino-American war and the casualties of that war, and the fact that our relationship as Filipinos with the United States hasn’t always been great. It’s still going to keep selling — it catches your eye, and then when you open it you get so mad.



GABRIELA Portland with The Forbidden Book | Source: Arkipelago Books (Facebook)


You know, at one time I was looking for a specific book called Tibok: Heartbeat of the Filipino Lesbian and Marie said she was going to try to look for it. I really appreciated that and I think the book is out of print. Luckily, a friend in the Philippines found a used copy for me.

Lily (Arkipelago)

That’s so cool! I’ll look it up too and see if we can find it, but this reminds me of when I was teaching in San Diego — how Filipino youth had the highest suicide ideation rates. At first it was young Filipino women, and then it was young Filipino gay men.

You walk into bookstores like Barnes & Noble and you rarely find Filipino books. Or if you go to other used bookstores, most of them are used history books. You don’t see yourself.

And I think that’s one of the great things about Arkipelago — we have a ton of books about Filipino identity. You walk in, you find a book you identify with and you think — I exist.

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Arkipelago Bookstore
1010 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA

Connect with them on Facebook here!

3 thoughts on “An ARKIPELAGO of You and Me: Finding Filipino Books in San Francisco

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