Working with a Legend
Not everyone gets to work with an icon. And not everyone gets to work with a business icon who doesn’t act like one. I was a twenty-year-old fresh grad when I first met National Book Store’s matriarch Mrs. Socorro Ramos or “Nanay Coring” as we fondly call her. She was around 80 years old back then. I didn’t know what to expect from the founder of the country’s leading bookstore. I was pleasantly surprised to see a tall charming old lady who sauntered her way into our department, carrying with her a warm yet commanding presence.
During my first meeting with her, I knew that I wanted another grandmother. She was beyond nice and extraordinarily humble. She laughed heartily, even playfully nudging me once in a while during meetings. She had no pretentions, serving others first before serving herself. I remember that every time we had a meeting, merienda would be served. She would give the mamon or burger first to the rest of us, distributing it quickly before getting her share. Little did she know that small gestures like that leave a huge impact in the people she worked with.
I was introduced to her as the new girl in-charge of the books for Powerbooks branches. Like any granny, there were times when she remembered my name and there were times when she simply called me “the little girl.” She taught me the secrets of the trade—how to negotiate and how to always end up in a win-win deal. I learned by example, watching her talk to foreign publishers with respect coupled with her natural charm and spontaneity. Publishers gave into whatever she asked without much effort from her. She was every bit sincere and irresistible.
With every presentation, she showed genuine interest and asked questions. She was an engaging listener and communicator. She is naturally generous and thoughtful. She gave gifts to every visiting publisher and even noted their favorite food or fruit! I remember this one US publisher who loves our mangoes. Every time he visited, huge ripe mangoes would be served (much to my delight because I love mangoes, too! Haha!).
When I celebrated my 22nd birthday, I brought food for our department and gave her some. I didn’t know she was coming to the office that day but I was secretly happy that she did. It made my day extra special. Much to my surprise, she called me in the conference room, asked me to sit down, and gave me a gift! I will never forget that day. I wanted to hug her but I was too shy to do so. I guess my body language betrayed me and it prompted Nanay Coring to give me a beso and a hug. I never felt kilig in receiving a lola hug ever except from her!
One of my favorite moments with her involved listening to her stories from World War II (my own lovable granny will narrate war stories to me, too!). She would share how business was difficult, how she strived and thrived, and eventually became successful. Even though she would tell this story repeatedly, I never grew tired of it. Her animated eyes and gestures made each retelling new to me. I also enjoyed listening to her conversations with publishers as they recalled how they used to do business back in Rizal Avenue with their feet soaked in knee-deep flood.
I also witnessed some of the cute quirkiness of Nanay Coring. She had this penchant for repeatedly eating something that she recently liked. There was a time when she grew fond of coffee crumble ice cream. So for months, we had coffee crumble during our afternoon meetings. Then came bibingka and so it was bibingka bonanza for weeks! Then came Jollibee hamburger (not even cheeseburger just the plain one) which she found really delicious and we had it for weeks as well. I’m not sure if she still has these cravings up to now because I haven’t been in a meeting with her in a long while. Nonetheless, that was really cute of her to saturate herself with her newly discovered food until she grew tired of it.
Nanay Coring lived by example and because she walked her talk, I saw the influence she made directly to her family. When I worked with two of her grandchildren I saw the ripple effect of her kindness and humility in them. I had a privilege of working with Gabby full-time in Powerbooks for four years and with Trina as a book consultant for five years now. Trina, my boss, doesn’t act like a boss. She works as a team player. She knows how to handle her people in a way that unites them together. I admire her the way I admire her grandmother. She is also a servant leader much like Nanay Coring.
I have to mention that Nanay Coring’s dedication to her work is unbelievable. She still goes to work full of energy at 90 years old. She reads the newspaper from cover to cover to keep her updated. One time she shared to me that she wakes up around 2:00am just to watch the news. It’s amazing how she can even keep up with the fast pace of the retail industry!
I also learned that for her, owning National Book Store is not just a mere business. It is also her way of making books accessible to every Filipino. I will never forget her answer to one foreign publisher when she was asked why she had to ask for huge discounts. With much conviction she said, “I want our books to have the most affordable price so that Filipinos can buy them.” She would go on to say that books are not really part of a Filipino family’s basic needs since we are a third world country. If books are expensive, people won’t buy it all the more. She believed that with the best price, people will still buy books and be encouraged to read.
Behind the more than 140 stores you see all over the country is a matriarch with a big heart. I’ve been with her in several branch visits before and I saw how she talked to the sales personnel. She didn’t limit herself talking only to managers, she talks to everyone. She’s the type who would randomly ask how you’re doing when she passed by your table. In a survey done some time ago, customers said that they perceive National Book Store as a reliable store. It was even compared to a mother and a grandmother who is able to provide what they need at any given time. I would like to think that the way Nanay Coring nurtured the growth of her business had something to do with that perception. Like any mom or lola she wants to provide everything her children need. I guess that translates to her customers as well. She wants to have every book, paper, pen—anything we need to be available in her store.
This year is a remarkable year for Nanay Coring as she celebrated her 90th birthday and the 70th anniversary of National Book Store. She deserves every blessing she’s receiving right now. It is my prayer that God will grant her more years because she inspires so many people, including myself. Through her, I saw that rags-to-riches stories are true. Through her, I learned that you don’t need a college degree to be successful. Through her, I learned that little acts of kindness to your co-workers go a long way. Through her, I fell in love with books even more.
I saw her recently in a store opening, had a short chat with her, and saw once again how she can light up a room with her presence. I am beyond grateful that God allowed me to work with someone like her. It’s a great blessing to learn from the best. Nanay Coring is a living legend in the truest sense of the word and I have to say the most adorable one at that.