Butch Dalisay’s cabinet of curiosities and antiquities

Butch Dalisay in his workspace, a fusion of new and old —PHOTOS BY EUGENE ARANETA

In his columns and Facebook posts, literary connoisseur Jose “Butch” Dalisay Jr. raves about his collection of memorabilia – fountain pens, old books and manuscripts, typewriters and paintings. Her mother’s three-story townhouse is a depot of pack-rat items, steeped in a storied past, curated from e-commerce sites, pickers, and flea markets.

Dressed like a dad, Dalisay, 68, wears a black paisley print shirt from eBay. In his workspace on the second floor, he surrounds himself with things that are close to his heart. But unlike other collectors who dramatically expand their activities into distinctive decorative statements, he piles his finds into drawers, shelves, Art Deco cabinets and a 1940s Japanese-made leather suitcase. They coexist with silica gels, household items and garbage.

Butch Dalisay
Flipping through a leather-bound copy of the first edition of “Noli Me Tangere”


The paintings are grouped by themes, such as backlit landscapes and illuminated seascapes by gifted but lesser-known Filipino artists, and nudes by E. Aguilar Cruz and Crispin Lopez. With the urge to travel under control during this pandemic, he brings the Old World into his room with lithographs of maps of the Philippines and the shore of the Basilan Strait with a palm tree engraved in the sky.

Two MacBooks, one for serious writing and the other for surfing and leisure, are the most contemporary elements of his office. Mugs with fountain pens are paired with vintage desk clocks. The Apple Watch is largely ignored, but for everyday use it bears contemporary branding, Bell & Ross.

This illustrated book about Paris from 1899 features a newly built Eiffel Tower.
This illustrated book about Paris from 1899 features a newly built Eiffel Tower.

The century-old bust of Jose Rizal by sculptor Anastacio Caedo is covered in a surgical mask for a touch of humor. It seems to blend in with Jason Moss’ playful illustrations for the cover of Dalisay’s novel, “Soledad’s Sister.” Shelves are lined with reference books and those by national authors, celebrities and artists.

His writing commands allow him to spend on items that bring joy and eventually payback later so he can buy new finds. Dalisay adds that his wife, art restorer June Mercy – Beng in his stories – also makes him happy.

Part of the fun of collecting is research. Before the pandemic, Dalisays traveled a lot and went to museums and flea markets. Lately, he’s been visiting eBay and other online marketplaces several times a day.

“Our Islands and Our People Seen with Camera and Pencil” depicts Westerners’ perception of Filipinos from 1899.

“You can buy cheap online from $10 to $20. I call myself a bottom feeder. I’m not one of those big collectors who will throw away tens or hundreds of thousands for things. I wait and look for bargains,” he says. He once bought a pre-war Hamilton pen at a California antique store for $5.

“You find good and rare ones in the least likely places,” he adds. Twenty years ago, while shopping for household goods at the Greenhills tiangge, he spotted a pen inserted into a cup in a stall. Upon close examination, he found that the pen’s gold nib was intact, unlike other old pens whose gold nibs were melted down for jewelry making. Dalisay mentally calculated that he would bring in $500; the seller gave it for P500.

Agatha Christie’s Snake

Followers of Dalisay’s columns would know that his fountain pens form the core of his collections. Although he is a tech junkie who has hoarded Apple products, he still loves pens for their history, craftsmanship, and functionality.

Dalisay comes from a generation that doodled with fountain pens. His interest was reignited while taking graduate and doctoral courses in the Midwest of the United States, hub of the American antique trade and home to famous brands, such as Parker and Sheaffer.

Dalisay's oldest book,
Dalisay’s oldest book, “An Abridgement of Notable Woorke” by Polidore Vergile from 1551; he bought the book under a lamp post in Cubao.

He returned home in 1991 with a bounty of 50 vintage pens and a few modern pens. The pen collection grew to 400 and has since been reduced to 150. He prefers the Montblanc Agatha Christie (1993) for its simplicity and romantic touch – a curvy snake pin that is a nod to Christie’s novels. The serpent’s head is also engraved on the gold nib.

“I have been collecting pens for 40 years. After a while, you stop looking,” he explains.

“Las Obras y Relaciones” by Antonio Perez, Spanish Secretary of State in the 16th century

“So I got into other things. I get them from the pickers. On Facebook there are used stuff groups. I’m in those groups. I use a different name and make myself friends and relations with the pickers who make a point of visiting flea markets, garage sales and houses that have been demolished. They find paintings and books and call me. We negotiate.

The collection of books and manuscripts offers the visual appeal of calligraphic lettering, the tactility of leather covers and the weight of parchment. The subject and the author connect the reader to the past.

“I brought the books and typewriters to class, opened them, and let the students smell so they could understand the materiality of literature and culture. It’s not something they see in the movies,” he says.

1911 standard typewriter
1911 standard typewriter

Dalisay also allows students to touch his oldest book, “An Abridgement of Notable Woorke” by Polidore Vergile, which consists of religious lectures and documents on Church and State, published in 1551. Vergile, of Italian origin, was a religious expert and historian who worked in England.

Bound in pigskin, “Las Obras y Relaciones de Ant. Perez, Secretario de Estado, Que Fue del Rey de España Don Phelippe II” (The Works and Relations of Antonio Perez, Secretary of State under Philip II of Spain) costs $10.38 online. Dalisay bought the first edition, published in 1631, at a much lower price. The seller’s caveat was that Dalisay had to buy 14 books from the same period just to get this edition. The full amount could have bought him a new MacBook.

Writers of the past

The pocket storybooks are by Saturnino Calleja, who was teaching children visual literacy at the turn of the 20th century. Calleja, a Spanish author-publisher and supporter of education and children’s literature, has sold books in the Philippines. Dalisay acquired over 100 miniature children’s books from a vendor in Tanay.

From his collection of modern books, he feels connected to another generation of writers: Stevan Javellana’s “Without Seeing Dawn” was signed by Zoilo Galang, the first modernist in English. “Volume Two”, a limited edition of poems by Jose Garcia Villa, signed by the author, could only have come from eBay.

Blickensderfer typewriter with oak case from 1896
Blickensderfer typewriter with oak case from 1896

Carlos P. Romulo’s “Crusade in Asia” contains a typewritten letter to a person to whom he dedicated the book. “Those personal touches appeal to me,” Dalisay says.

In contact with the baby boomers, he met the Japanese-British Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro, who signed his book “Artist of the Floating World” (1986), in London. Dalisay mentioned that they were both born in 1954. “It was a good year, wasn’t it?” Ishiguro said.

Magazines and documents reveal the conditions under which they were written. Documents, like an Old French letter written in 1733 and a bill of sale in Norfolk, England, in 1881, look like works of art with their flowing letters. There is a strangeness in the use of early 20th century Tagalog in a 1918 bill of sale.

Quoting the oldest edition of Philippine Collegian in 1922, wrapped in mylar, he remarks with a laugh: “It expressed the same complaints of the students: insufficient funding, autonomy, militarization. Nothing has changed much.

Typewriters and mechanical watches

As a kitschy yet still functional relic, the typewriter evokes nostalgia for the analog era. Before the pandemic, Dalisay invited her students to try the keys and experiment with sensory feedback.

Spanish children's paperbacks from the turn of the century
Spanish children’s paperbacks from the turn of the century

His oldest, the Blickensderfer (1896), the first full-keyboard portable typewriter, came in an oak crate. The Standard folding typewriter (1911) is one of the lightweight portables of its day.

Dalisay values ​​vintage watches as heirloom timepieces that exemplify reliability, time-tested character and, perhaps, provenance. Its collection ranges from early 20th century pocket watches to leather strap accessories.

“Watches should do one thing: tell the time easily and clearly,” he says. “I like mid-century watches because they have clean faces. They’re not complicated.

There’s more to this collection than meets the eye. Ultimately, Dalisay collects to satisfy a curiosity. “I want to encounter history on a more intimate level.” -CONTRIBUTED

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