Tucked away between high-rise condominiums and small shops, almost hidden behind double-parked jeepneys and pedicabs, is a bygone marketplace that’s easy to miss. Just one LRT ride to Gil Puyat Station, a five-minute walk, and you’re welcomed by blue, green, and yellow banderitas connecting the vicinity of Cartimar.
More than your average market place, Cartimar is known as the go-to shopping haven for pet and bicycle enthusiasts. But there’s more to this establishment than what word of mouth has credited it for. Growing into a community of retailers and a second home to their patrons, I stand at its doorstep curious about the rarities that have been drawing crowds in for decades.
Before S&R and Rustan’s came about, and the likes of SM Aura and Greenbelt became retail giants, for Hanson shirts, Guess jeans, and Skippy peanut butter, you had to sojourn Metro Manila’s hippest shopping center in the 70s and 80s. Established in 1956 by the Oppen family, the word ‘Cartimar’ is derived from the names Carlos, Timotea, and Margarita.
I am introduced to Tessa Hidalgo, a regular who is famous among the wet market vendors whom she encounters weekly. She explains how wealthy Makati City residents used to buy fresh fish and greens at the Cartimar market, and fondly recalls that the market was a Sunday family tradition. “After Church, our dad would take us biking along the [Manila] Bay or Luneta Park, then he’d either buy us ice cream or take us shopping at Cartimar afterwards. It was something all of us kids looked forward to,” says Tessa, reminiscing while holding on to her plastic bag of grapes on one hand and the hand of her seven-year-old granddaughter on the other.
“She’s always so excited to look at the puppies every time we come here,” Tessa adds, as the two head towards what could be considered the “Greenhills” for shopping addicts of previous decades.
Land of the PX
Ask anyone older about Cartimar and the words “PX goods” almost automatically come up.
PX is a military term, short for “Post Exchange.” Every American base anywhere in the world has a PX, which can be described as a big department store that sells all sorts of goods, from kitchenware, to clothes, to toys and games. Regardless of location, every PX carries the same variety of goods, usually imported from the United States.
These kinds of stores were popular for locals hoping to get their hands on American products, and if you didn’t want to have to go all the way to Dau, Pampanga for jars of M&Ms or a pair of Adidas, Cartimar was the place to be.
The tides of change
Today, the rows of colorful shops that line Cartimar resemble the market’s former glory almost sixty years after its birth. As the workers in stalls busily sew and weave strips of fabric to perfect each piece of clothing sold in their respective shops, the typical sounds of traffic in Manila are muffled by old-fashioned music echoing through the bright stained walls and damp alleyways.
An amalgam of smells from the wet market and pet stores surround the area, signifying the life and livelihood that rest and reside in Cartimar. Although majority of the original shop tenants have already relocated to what seemed like greener pastures in the mezzanine floor of Cash & Carry Mall and Tiendesitas, some have stayed.
Winterhouse is one of the few shops that have stood its ground as a forty-eight year old symbol of hard work and astuteness. Throughout lanes of stores that simply retail the same roster of China-made products, when asked if Winterhouse’s four walls of thick fur coats and knitwear are made in the Philippines, owner Minda Habana replies, “Lahat ng nandito, gawa namin.”
She goes on to recollect about the different memories the marketplace holds, from the time they were forced to change the location of their stalls, to the friends and colleagues she used to work with.
“Oo meron naman sa amin magkakaibigan dati, pero ayan nagsi-alisan na yung iba. Tapos yung iba naman, sa tagal, namatay na,” Minda shares her memories of the Kitchenette by Aling Poling and the gulayan by Baby in the wet market, owners she started out with, but are no longer with us.
Perhaps a sentimental attachment to the place wherein many of the original owners made their first millions is what makes them stay. However, there is also no doubting the faint sense of community amongst the tenants that saw each other through years of good and bad business.
Strength in numbers
After being abandoned since the rise of other malls in the Metro, Catrimar still sets itself apart and fortunately keeps itself afloat by offering a wide array of interests for any shopper.
Apart from the Little Asia groceries that give the best prices for red bean- flavored ice cream in fish-shaped wafers, fresh bottles of soya milk, and frozen packs of green soba alongside large tubes of wasabi paste, you can freely choose between Savemore Supermarket products and a wet market that packs in sacks of rice and fresh produce on a daily basis.
What used to be the haven for genuine imported goods is now a haven for what they call “Class A” shoes. While these aren’t exactly 100% genuine, they’re genuine imitations of what’s in fashion. Maybe the signature Nike check of the Air Jordan’s you’ve been eying is just a few centimeters off, but what would usually retail for seven thousand is being sold in Cartimar for only around seven hundred. And you can always bargain for the last and lowest prices.
The colorful shoe shops are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a tattoo parlor, as well as a store for collectors of airsoft guns. Through the Leveriza side, there are numerous bicycle shops, selling mountain bikes, folding bikes, and even vintage-looking Chinese and Japanese bicycles (with optional bell and basket!).
Other things worth checking out include the invigorating scents of the Greenland Plants and Orchids Center, or Aqualand Alley, which caters to any marine and aquarium life needs. For animal enthusiasts, a mini petting zoo awaits, filled with the barks and eager little cries of usually purebred puppies and kittens waiting to find a new home. Meanwhile, expert vendors invite you to pet or hold rare breeds of snakes and iguanas against the rows of birdcages and hamster wheels being displayed. With everything else Cartimar has to offer, nobody who visits is going home empty-handed.
Of a better time and a great city
Is the survival of Cartimar at an impasse? In an article published by the Philippine Star back in 2003, tenants complained, “in addition to their regular electricity billing, the contract stipulates an additional 15 percent service charge for the maintenance and administration of electrical facilities.” It’s been over a decade and it seems like some of the shops are barely keeping their heads above water.
Management, however, claims that it is constantly working to improve facilities and market itself better, although some shop owners have said otherwise. This is a manifestation that support has to come from the outside in the same level as it has before. Vendors and tenants can only hope that business will improve regardless of the evident decline in the last few decades.
The problem is that while some have forgotten about the mélange of diverse finds in Cartimar, many don’t even know about it. At first glance this marketplace may seem like a discord of just everyday things, let alone a dirty place left behind by time.
“But you’ll never know how a country is unless you experience the dirtiest places in it,” says one of its younger patrons, Clark Rosales (AB-PLM, III), who recalls times his parents took him to Cartimar growing up. Thankful for this exposure, Clark has an appreciation for one of Manila’s now hidden gems, the kind needed to pull this market out of the covers.
In the vast mix of food, trinkets, and life in Cartimar today, its elements of diversity and discovery come together for a beguiling whole adventure that brings forth a sense of what Manila was decades ago, and what Manila has been struggling to become once again.