Arkipelago Books - Keeping The Filipino Narrative Going

“Other than Arkipelago, there is only one other Filipino bookstore in the United States -- and there are so many Filipinos in the country, and our population is going to double or triple in the coming years. It’s unbelievable that there are only two bookstores in the whole country to serve our community. So we are here to make sure that our people have access to the books and information and histories that reflect their experiences.”

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Lily Prijoles and her partners Golda Sargento and Ley Ebrada are stacking papers and replacing them with plates of tacos from Señor Sisig, finishing a marking meeting in the Arkipelago Books storefront at the corner of Mission and Sixth. Their shelves are packed with colorful, beautifully-bound books, all curated to exclusively present Filipino art, history, and narrative from perspectives outside the influence of mainstream media. This isn’t a simple hipster move to sell cooler-books-than-thou: it’s a critical step in unpacking Filipino identity and challenging the colonial structures that continue to shape the lives of Filipino people.

“Run a Google search for Filipino history, and it can spit out some results, but a key part of our history as Filipinos is that our history has been messed with — so the media and histories that are more readily accessible might not be the real haps. So as a people, we are constantly looking at hijacked literatures and narratives. The books we sell at Arkipelago, they aren't going to be found on Kindle, because Kindle is pushed by popularity-based sales. Our books are not those books: they are more vital to our community than simple Kindle sales can measure. At the same time, these books don't have to follow industry trends. They can take risks that might seem unpopular to a certain set of publishers, but to another set, might be exactly what the Filipino community needs,” Golda says.

Understanding what the community needs isn’t something that happens overnight — even for a project as entrenched in Filipino-American life in the City as Arkipelago — and the current team is quick to credit their predecessors and emphasize the importance of lineage and history at Arkipelago as a guiding force for the bookstore’s future.

“The three of us came from different places, but we had all reconnected with [former owner] Marie Romero. We have all always known about Arkipelago and its importance in the Filipino community, and Marie has graciously let us continue that journey. It’s time for us to put our own personalities in it and try to figure out how we can work alongside and empower other Filipino-American vendors, and also have connections with publishers and book artists in the Philippines. The idea now is to go from Arkipelago Books to Arkipelago Goods, and showcase all of the beautiful and diverse artisanship that our people produce,” Ley says.

It’s a transition that the team is particularly proud of, and something they say represents the hard work of both the current group as well as Marie Romero, who operated the bookstore for almost two decades before finding the right set of young Filipina minds to carry on the project.

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“There was a chance that Arkipelago — and I’ve known it since it was called Sulu Books — was going to close. And this was when SOMA Pilipinas was just starting to become a state-funded Filipino Cultural District. Marie was looking for someone to purchase Arkipelago and fight for it. Arkipelago is one of the only Filipino-owned businesses on this stretch of Mission, in the middle of a newly-minted Filipino Cultural District, so its critical from a lot of perspectives. And I was just going to help with her website, and through that work Marie and I found that we were both really interested in having me, Golda, and Ley take over,” Lily says.

The nature of the changeover from Ms. Romero to the current Arkipelago team reflects the growth of the Filipino-American community itself. As younger generations step into leadership roles in the community — holding down decades-old institutions, like Arkipelago, while creating new ones, like Undiscovered SF — new approaches are needed to respond to the business landscape. For the Arkipelago team, this meant invoking the concept of a heart-centered business.

“The beautiful part about us is that we have three women that came to the table, and we all have strengths, weaknesses, and by way of those traits there are opportunities created. So we bring our personalities together, we talk through ideas, and we create a thriving business structure for Arkipelago that’s based around who we are as people. And we also are very clear about how we need to support each other -- we know that in order for the bookstore to thrive, we have to thrive, and I think that's an important level to the heart-centered business,” Ley says.

It’s a philosophy of success that extends far beyond the bottom line, positing that commercial success will come out of a deep understanding of what Arkipelago can mean to people. A sentiment echoed by all three women throughout the conversation is that: “Books are the vegetables of media: people know they should eat them, but they don’t.” But by their own dogged efforts and dedication to the Arkipelago mission — and, recently, through the community and commerce created by Undiscovered SF — Lily says that they’re finding success fighting that current.

“To see that there's a huge community of Filipino-owned businesses, and to see us all under one roof, people of our generation sharing their culture, Filipino restaurants selling our food done in new ways — and done really well — it makes us feel like we know each other, we're all the Night Market crowd. And it's cool to know they're going to be fixtures at the night market, to bring those people in and let them see themselves in the SOMA, and feel like they’re going to have a thriving business here one day -- next door to a bunch of other Filipino-owned businesses, like a tax office, or a leather goods store, or an art gallery.” 

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