The Filbar’s of our youth
by rick olivares
If you talk to any boy who grew up in Manila in the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, chances are they read comics books and they got their weekly fix from Filbar’s. The shop, named from the first syllables of Filemon Barbasa III’s name, is arguably the first ever comic book specialty shop in the world. Filbar’s was way ahead of its time even before the concept of a comic book specialty shop gained traction in the United States. Prior to that, comics were sold at bookstores, newsstands, drugstores, and thrift shops. The specialty shop allowed customers to gave fans a hub for their fantasy fix.
However, after more than three decades of selling comic books, Barbasa sold his shop to some of his former clients who opted to retain the name for brand recall.
I caught up with “Fil” as Barbasa is nicknamed to reflect on those time and how comic books helped fulfill a dream of his as a young man coming out of Roxas City.
When Barbasa first made his way to Manila after graduating from college in Capiz, Roxas City, during the early 1970s, all he knew was he had dreams of making it big. While the big city left him in awe and sometimes troubled (he once lost PhP500 to a pickpocket in Avenida and this was huge money at that time when a bottle of soda used to cost ten centavos), he saw what the city had to offer.
Fil first made a name for himself wholesaling bangus but he knew there was more to life than selling fish so he became an sales representative for a pharmaceutical company. He approached the job with so much zeal that he soon became one of the company’s top sales agents. While walking along Ayala Avenue one time, he saw a sign atop one of the windows that this company was looking for an account executive. It was for Reader’s Digest and then Time magazine. During a sales seminar held at the house of the company president at posh Dasmariñas Village in Makati, Fil’s eyes bulged when he saw how huge the house was. “It even had its own swimming pool,” he thought. “And I had never seen a swimming pool before more so a mansion. I made a promise to myself that one day, I’d have a bigger house and a swimming pool of my own.” In that same seminar, Barbasa bared his ambition to become the company’s top sales representative much to the laughter of his colleagues who didn’t think this country bumpkin had what it takes to be a top sales agent.
Only, he did and in doing so, earned huge commissions that were even massive for the time. As fate would have it, there were two chance incidents that put him on the path to comic books – one was while on his daily trips to the bank to deposit money or commissions, two, while watching a bunch of kids buy comic books by the stack in a shop from Greenhills.
By now, Fil had left the magazine distribution company he worked for to put up his own. Intrigued by the number of comic books selling at this shop from Greenhills, he learned that the source was at Avenida and Escolta. He went to the country’s old financial center and purchased every single American comic book he could find and sold them at a profit. After a day or two, they had all sold out.
Finally, he went to Olongapo, the source of the comics that came from American servicemen who discarded their books for some money. “The problem was, many of these comics had labels pasted on the covers that said, ‘Property of…” as it was from soldiers. And since comic books were numbered and in sequential order, it was difficult to get them. And that’s what the buyers in Manila were looking for. What was the most popular comic book back then? X-Men. That’s what everyone was looking for.”
Fil remembered the bank teller who had a relative who was a stewardess who made routine trips to the United States. He commissioned the stewardess to purchase comics from America and that eventually opened a pipeline to American retailers as the distribution market opened itself to comic book specialty shops.
Filbar’s grew from his initial small store at F. Manalo Street in Cubao to a high of 25 stores all across the country. He counted a clientele from young students to even the rich and famous.
“Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago once bought 50 copies of the Death of Superman,” revealed Fil. “I also had German Moreno, Dingong Avanzado, Michael V, Dingdong Dantes, Francis Magalona, and the sons of mayors and other politicians buying.
The rise of Filbar’s in the 90s also coincided with the speculator market. “I had some customers who were buying multiple copies of certain titles and selling them for an even bigger profit,” noted Barbasa. This was the era when comics were selling by the hundreds of thousands fueled by the speculators. “My single best selling comic? The Death of Superman,” revealed Fil. “I sold 17,000 copies of that.”
He also points out to the year 1992 when then superstar Fil-American artist Whilce Portacio made his triumphant return to Philippine soil. “We had an art contest where Nick Manabat was adjudged the winner,” recalled Fil. “He was brought over to the United States to work for Homage Studios.”
Filbar’s was also innovative when it came to his sales. He introduced the loyalty card that allowed patrons, first a free comic, and later a discount, for all book purchased. He held parties for his regular patrons and gave away freebies.
He also got to experience the craziness of the industry when he attended the San Diego Comic Book Convention at the time Image Comics first broke into the industry. “I got to meet Todd McFarlane (who at that time was the hot artist on Spider-Man and Spawn) and many others. I lined up like every other fan. I was like a young boy all over again. Honestly, I got into comics as a businessman. I didn't really know anything about the books storywise. But I also came away a fan of the medium."
In the late 1990s, the industry came crashing down due to the weight of the speculator market as well as a world-wide recession, sales slowed down. To augment his sales, he brought back his magazines. Although after a while, he decided to call it a day and instead venture into real estate among other things.
Today, the comic book industry remains vital as ever more so with the film industry turning out one hit superhero-themed film after another. There are still a number of comic book shops in Manila; proof the industry is still good. The local comic industry where local creators produce their own books is growing more than ever. And Barbasa looks back fondly on the industry. “It’s good to know that comics are still doing well,” he enthused. “And to hear that even the local creators are doing well is fantastic news. If I helped people with their hobbies and their passions then that warms my heart. Being in the comic book business will always be one of the best times of my life.”