Story of Socorro Ramos & National Bookstore

National bookstore logoThe story of National Bookstore (NBS), currently the biggest book chain and one of the most successful retail outlets in the Philippines, won’t be complete without telling the story of a soft-spoken lady. Socorro Cancio Ramos, fondly called Nanay, is the founding matriarch of NBS, literally and figuratively hand-in-hand with her husband, the late Jose Ramos. Her story would truly serve as an inspiration to budding Pinoy Entrepreneurs.

Born without a silver spoon and education

Socorro, born on 23 September 1923, grew up in Sta. Cruz (Laguna) with her five siblings. The family were of humble means. At five years old, Socorro helped her mother, Emilia, sell various merchandise — bananas, vinegar and wooden shoes  — at the local wet market. Her father, Jose, died when they were still young, so her mother was left to support them. Socorro finished high school. And that’s because public education until high school was was free. She never started college and she didn’t receive any degree. When business at the wet market turned sour because they sold on credit and collection was difficult, they moved to Manila.

Hard work and starting at the bottom

Owning the biggest bookstore chain in the country did not start easy. To help her family, Socorro went through various jobs starting at a tender age of 12 — in a candy factory, a cigarette factory, a factory making shorts, and a restaurant as a waitress.

When Socorro was approaching 18 years old in 1940, she began working as a salesgirl in a bookstore opened by her brother (Manuel Cancio) and his wife (Doña Juana Cancio), the Goodwill Bookstore in Escolta. The Goodwill Bookstore was located in the same building that housed the Panciteria Nacional. While others attributed this as the origin of the name “National Bookstore,” Socorro herself mentioned that the name is based on the brand of their cash register.

A strong life and business partner

As fate would have it, while Socorro was still working at Goodwill Bookstore, the brother of Juana (wife of Socorro’s brother, Manuel), Jose Ramos, was also working there. To make the long story short, they fell in love and, after going through rough patches, they eventually married in 1942.

Socorro was later appointed as the manager of Goodwill Bookstore. With the management skills of Socorro, Manuel and Juana decided to sell the bookstore to Socorro and Jose. They renamed it the National Bookstore. Together, they built the National Bookstore to what it is today.

Selling whatever opportunity provides

The couple started selling textbooks and school supplies. However, strict book censorship under the Japanese during World War II forced the spouses to shift their products to soap, candies, and slippers. They acted like distributors, buying merchandise from wholesalers and selling to smaller retailers. They also dabbled in selling whiskey, just as the Americans were about to liberate the country.

Starting from zero and rebuilding

Entrepreneurs flourish not because there’s an absence of setbacks, but despite the presence of setbacks. Socorro and Jose had to rebuild their business after it was razed down during the heaving bombing of Manila by the returning Filipino-American forces against the Japanese army.

They had to start from scratch, literally to rise from the ashes of the Second World War. With an undying determination to succeed, they reopened their bookstore in 1945, selling school supplies like textbooks, notebooks, pad paper and pencils. The bookstore flourished with little competition. Then in 1968, typhoon Gene wrecked their store and soaked all their merchandise. Yet again, they had to start from scratch, working even harder, sleeping only three hours a day.

Learning from Experience

We all learn from our experience. The entrepreneurial attitude of Socorro could readily be attributed to her experience when she was young, as early as 5 years old,  through various jobs she handled, and ultimately her work at the bookstore. Socorro is credit-averse, most likely learned when her family’s wet market business failed due to the inability to collect from customers who bought on credit. Learning from the total loss caused by Typhoon Gene, they worked hard to raise enough funds to build a concrete, two-storey office building. The money used to buy the lot and construct the building came from savings, not from any loan.

Staying ahead of the curve

Socorro started producing greetings cards in the 1950s. These greeting cards, featuring Filipino scenes and artwork, was an entirely new concept in the Philippines. National Bookstore solidified their hold of the greeting cards market when they secured the Philippine franchise of Hallmark cards. Also around the 1950s, National Bookstore was granted license by international publishers like McGraw Hill and Prentice Hall. National Bookstore, and Socorro Cancio Ramos, thereafter plowed on to more success.

Socorro does not believe in luck. She was quoted as saying: “Whenever I want something I really work hard to get it. There’s no such thing as suwerte.” On another occasion, she said: “If you want something hard and you really work hard for it, you will get it.” That success may not come overnight. This year, 2012, Socorro celebrates her 90th birthday, while national celebrates its 70th anniversary. One of the inspiring and successful Filipino entrepreneurs that should encourage new Pinoy Entrepreneurs to work hard for success.

Sources: National Bookstore website; Philippine Daily Inquirer, “Socorro Ramos, young at 90“; Ernst & Young, “Entrepreneur Of The Year Philippines 2004 Winners“; Entrepreneur Philippines, “How Socorro Ramos reached the top shelf“; Philippine Star, “The life & times of NBS Nanay Coring in kiddie book“; The Outstanding Filipino Award, TOFIL Awardee for Business 2006.

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