Penance for the Death of Two Bookstores

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, November 8, 2010

Penance for the Death of Two Bookstores

One of my favorite movies is "You've Got Mail," an overlooked Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie, but by far my favorite.


The story is the quintessential modern romance, but it is set against the backdrop of one of my favorite cities (New York, and one of the better movies which features the Big Apple as a major character) and one of my favorite places.


A bookstore.


I have written in an earlier blog that I am, unashamedly, a book man. You can read it here.  All the more reason I was saddened to read on the front page of my local newspaper that two of my favorite area booksellers will be closing.


In "You've Got Mail," the story revolves around a big-box bookstore forcing a small, independent bookseller out of business. Now, it is the online giant Amazon, along with new technology such as e-readers, which is doing in the big-box stores.


I've written about that before as well, and you can click here if you are interested.


But I'm not just sad.


I'm convicted.


Because I am why they had to close. Yes, I helped kill two of my favorite bookstores.


Like many others, I loved spending an hour or two walking the aisles, enjoying the deep armchairs and sipping on coffee from its in-house bar. I would fill my arms with books that caught my eye, laid out tantalizingly as "New Fiction," "New Non-Fiction," "New Biography," and more. Finding a new book by a favorite author that I did not know had a new release; finding a topic of interest that I did not know had been published; such was the great joy of the visit.


And when I made my decision as to what to buy?


Confession time.


I would write the titles down and go home and order them on Amazon.


Now that I'm repentant, it's time for penance.


My first step is to work harder than ever to support the remaining local booksellers. Not just showing up to browse their shelves in order to buy online, but to buy at least some of my books through them as a tangible show of support for their valued and important ministry to me and others.


Yes, ministry.


Amazon is great, and I love the discounts, convenience and unlimited stock as much as anyone. But Amazon doesn't introduce me to new books the way a visit to a bookstore does. I need a way of discovering books I don't know to look for.


That's a ministry to my life.


For example, I pride myself on staying as current as I can with new releases, such as through the New York Times Book Review, Books and Culture magazine, First Things, The Atlantic, Harpers and more.


But nothing tipped me off to the release of a new mystery set in the late medieval period by C.J. Sansom titled "Dissolution," which introduced the world to a hunchback barrister-sleuth named Matthew Shardlake. I simply saw his first book in a bookstore, liked the era and idea of the book (the dissolution of the monasteries during the English Reformation) and was impressed by the blurb on the back cover from one of my favorite authors (P.D. James).


So I took a risk. A risk that resulted in hailing Sansom as among my favorite of authors, with my only disappointment being the completion of one Shardlake mystery, and having to wait a year or so for the next.


The same could be said of countless biographies, historical works, cultural and sociological studies and more.


I don't want to lose this ministry to my life, so I am now more committed than ever to keeping it alive and well.


My second step?


As the pastor of a large church, I need to get more serious about the ministry of our own bookstore. Many churches can offer a robust collection of books at deep discount because they do not have the overhead of most small retailers. They don't have to pay rent for the space, the employees are mostly volunteers and the enterprise does not have to turn a profit so, hopefully, it can match Amazon's post-shipping costs.


It can simply be a ministry of books for the mind and soul of readers.


And yes, even with deep armchairs and the smell of good coffee.


I wrote recently about the church being a "third place." Sorry for the third link, but if you like, you can read it here.  Maybe a bookstore is a step toward its fulfillment.


Regardless, it would be a vital and important ministry.


"A monastery without a library [sine armario]," a monk in Normandy wrote in 1170, "is like a castle without an armory [sine armamentario]. Our library is our armory." Even earlier we find the Apostle Paul's request of Timothy from his prison cell in Rome to be sure to bring him his books (II Timothy 4:13).


I want to make sure those books are still there.


James Emery White





"Bookstores Borders, Joseph-Beth to Close," The Charlotte Observer, Friday, November 5, 2010, p. 1A and 5A. Online at


A Mind for God, James Emery White (InterVarsity Press).


"A monastery without a library…" cited by Daniel J. Boorstin, the Discovers: A History of man's Search to Know His World and Himself (Random House)

Penance for the Death of Two Bookstores