When I walk down my parents’ tree-roofed mountain driveway, I feel closer to God than anywhere else on earth. My usual path takes me over a bridge that covers a big plopping creek and onto the side of a country highway running through the tiny town where my parents have a home. As I walk along the side the highway, I anticipate the hot boiled peanuts, mountain tomatoes, and cold drink I’m going to get at the local grocery, a one-room store lodged in a low building in the town’s community center on the edge of the road.
I have known the proprietress since I was twelve. A good-hearted native of the community, she is hard-working and kind. Until recently, Linda (not her real name) and her late mother had provided the pulse of the community. They offered a center of hospitality and fellowship for residents nearby and travelers on their way to destination mountain cities or fall leaf viewing. Linda’s Grocery was a place where immediate needs could be met – buying a few essential groceries, getting refreshment, and most importantly, feeling connected to other human beings by telling a joyous or sad story to a loving, listening, kind-hearted neighbor behind the counter.
This past year, the little grocery closed, possibly for good. The community elders have decided not to support it, charging a higher rent for a business in which it was very difficult to make a profit anyway.
Now the walk down the lane feels lonely and empty, despite my feeling close to God in nature. There is a hole ahead of me, an empty room on the end of a usually empty community center where I bought candy when I was twelve. There is no one around to ask for help, nowhere to get something to drink without driving at least 10 minutes down the mountain to a larger grocery store. No one to welcome my family to the mountain community – “Glad to know you’re here, how long are you staying?”
I think that church bookstores are like our mountain grocery. They provide centers of hospitality in churches and communities, especially stores that are open every day. They provide groceries and refreshment of a different kind, spiritual food by the volume, and they are gathering places of community and fellowship where one feels connected to God and humanity and can always find a caring soul to listen.
Often, church bookstores are “not profitable.” Despite many perks provided by the supporting church, the costs associated with selling books and gifts are high, and it’s hard to meet the bottom line, especially, like Linda’s, without high traffic volume. Almost all church bookstore managers I am acquainted with live this scenario. They tell stories of the money people and the ministry people on their vestries and committees. The money people usually want to close the unprofitable store and the ministry people see it as a rich service of education and hospitality.
I see church bookstores as one of the “most profitable” areas in a thriving church. A good bookstore is a sign of a vibrant, engaged and thoughtful church community. It is a place where outsiders are always welcome and seekers can always find something to enrich or inspire them on their journeys. Gift givers can find symbols of love to give to those who are celebrating or hurting.
I would like to celebrate the money people and the ministry people. Both groups have great gifts to offer the other and I think their cooperation is the key – working together, believing in the importance of the viewpoint of the other side, and seeing and supporting the gifts in each viewpoint. Good money management shows good faith and good stewardship of the resources God provides. Good listening, people tending and education reflects, strengthens, and expands the love of God in the world.
In the Cathedral where I am bookstore director, I have seen these two groups come together to create synthesis out of opposites and move our bookstore into the future. It is a beautiful example of God at work in the world, creating the via media out of two extremes. When groups with opposite viewpoints come together in the service of Christian education and hospitality, anything is possible.
Do you have a bookstore at your church or in your diocese? Are you aware of whether it’s profitable or could use the volunteer talent you might have as an accountant, merchandiser, or graphic artist? Are you aware of how many people wander in each day seeking inspiration and comfort? Spend some time in your local church bookstore this month. Think about what you or others could do to support it and what it can offer you and your church as a center of hospitality and welcome. If the mountain community around Linda’s grocery had come together with time, talent and treasure to invest in and volunteer to staff the store, there would still be an ever-growing welcoming heartbeat when my family pulls over the gravel lane.
Carrie Graves is the director of Trinity Cathedral Bookstore in Columbia, SC, and President of the Episcopal Booksellers Association. She has served as an EFM mentor and Confirmation teacher at St. Martin’s-In-The-Fields, Columbia, SC, and currently serves there as a lector and Eucharist minister.