Sunday Essay: A map of abandoned spaces

·4 min read

When you visit these days the places you frequented before this pandemic began, do you take note of the stores and other businesses that no longer exist? I can’t remember how this started, yet on the few times that I visit familiar streets or shopping complexes, I take note of the stores that are no longer there.

That list is growing, though not as fast as I thought it would. I am grateful that the few bookstores Metro Cebu hosts continue to survive. I don’t know how they’re pulling this off, when they never seem to have more than three shoppers at a time. Is there a hidden community of readers that no longer dawdle and browse in front of each shelf, and only dash into the bookstores to pick up titles they had smartly ordered in advance? Twice in the last six months, I asked the team at my favorite store if they had copies of some new nonfiction releases—and was happy to learn that no copy was immediately available, since all their incoming stocks had been reserved and paid for in advance.

Other haunts have not fared as well. Last Friday, heading home after a bank errand, I stopped in front of a coffee shop that had kept all its lights off, its chairs upended on top of its dusty tables, and all of its shelves and bakery cases completely bare. I know the sadness I felt was out of proportion to the event, yet there it was. The small store where I used to buy notebooks and wax candles to seal letters had closed before 2020 ended. So did the noodle shop where my nephews and I used to go a few times each year.

One out of every five businesses was temporarily closed as of November last year, the World Bank found out in a survey of nearly 13,900 companies in the Philippines. At least 54 percent were partially open, an improvement from a previous survey in July last year, when only 40 percent reported that they were doing business at a limited capacity.

Those who adapted survived. One in every four businesses invested in digital solutions, whether to make it easier for people to pay or to boost their marketing and sales activities. Almost half (46 percent) of the businesses the World Bank surveyed had changed their products or services, and 64 percent created new offerings to keep up with how their customers’ needs, priorities and buying habits had changed. About 44 percent reported that they had borrowed funds from their family and friends just to keep the business going. As stunning as the year often felt, it was not a time for standing still.

Is it too much to say that a kind of grief presented itself each time I learned that a shop I used to enjoy had shut its doors? It wasn’t about losing access to what they made or sold. Almost everything is replaceable. Part of it was feeling sorry for the families that depended on that business; part of it was knowing that another entrepreneur’s ambitions and dreams had taken a severe blow.

Nostalgia was part of it too. Nearly 20 years ago, a fast food chain’s only outlet in Cebu City suddenly closed, though by all appearances it was a popular success. It was the only store of its kind that had a salad bar stocked with fresh vegetables, dressed potatoes, wedges of boiled eggs, and large cubes of gelatin (always red and often served very cold). It wasn’t so much the salad I missed but the fact that on most weeks, usually on Wednesdays, my parents would pick me up from my apartment and we would head for that fast food chain and its salad bar and talk about what we happened to be preoccupied with that week. That was what I missed.

Every business that has had to close its doors in the last 12 months will be missed by a community that had somehow formed around it. One hopes most of these absences will be temporary; that recovery will come sooner rather than later for some weary business owners and their steadfast teams. Yes, there are larger and more painful losses, but the map of abandoned spaces we each carry in our heads is worth pondering too.