Friday, December 03, 2010

a bookshop at the end of christendom


Bryanna loved books, read them before sleep, when told to turn off her light, did so and squirrelled under the blankets with a flashlight. She loved the outpouring of summer heat, played long and hard with the other boys and girls in her neighbourhood. But she longed for the rainy, overcast days when she did not have to go outside to play, for then she could take another book and climb into a corner of the attic in the midst of a herd of old trunks. (In her mind, she sat in tall African grass and around her, nothing to be alarmed about, squatted her sleeping elephants, her sentinels).
When God burst upon the scene she was astonished, not because she did not believe in God but because she did - she had not expected him to wish to become so personal. In the end, it turned out well enough. The best places for her to talk with him were elm groves, riverbanks, the quiet of her bedroom - or among the elephants in the attic. She and God got along fine. She gave him her love for books and he returned the love to her with a thought: Instead of becoming a pastor’s wife (someone at her new church had mentioned this), why not own and manage her own bookshop?
It began modestly enough out of her parents’ rec room while she was still working on her MA in English literature. Between seven and ten each week night she welcomed two or three people through sliding glass doors into a rec room bright with fresh pine shelving and coloured racks. There was a section for used books and texts, as well as a section of brand new titles. She offered a ten percent discount on every purchase. Her inventory was not large but it was not dull either. Word got around not only to students but began to percolate through the town’s population, including the Christian community. She had a shelf or two for religious books, trying to select the most profound, the most thoughtful she had come across in her own reading, whether new titles or old. Not many were purchased. Her pastor had coffee with her and tactfully recommended a few contemporary Christian authors. She located the books mentioned, read them, did not find them to her taste, refused to stock them. What did it matter? This little basement shop was not so much a business as it was an intrigue, a passion, a blessing.
She pursued her PhD in literature. Her parents died. Her sister and brother wanted the house sold and the equity shared. She arranged to pay out their shares in the home but this placed a financial burden over her she had never experienced before. Suddenly, the volume of her weekly and monthly sales began to matter a great deal. Taking the plunge, she moved her stock out of the rec room into a retail outlet, walked through other bookstores, took notes, improved the scope of her inventory, and opened for business.
It quickly became apparent that in order to secure the Christian market more changes would have to be made. Persons from various churches would drop by looking for books on angels, on demons, on spiritual warfare, on the end of the world. Where were her titles? She showed them what she had: William of St. Thierry, Bernard of Clairvaux, Johann Arndt, Brother Lawrence, John Wesley, John Bunyan, Thomas a Kempis, John Calvin, Menno Simons, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Philip Doddridge, Thomas Goodwin, C.S. Lewis’ lesser known works...
No, no, no. Where were the Christian westerns and frontier sagas? Where were the romances, the big thick ones? And the books on the Anti-Christ and Armageddon, giving days and hours and accurate timetables? Where were the spiritual thrillers, where Christians took on houses full of demons and witches and Satanists? No, no, not those mysteries written by G.K. Chesterton about Father Brown or those ones by Dorothy Sayers about Lord Peter Whimsey. The new thrillers, the books with dark clouds and vicious bolts of lightning on their covers.
Had it been only one or two customers, Bryanna could have ignored it, which is what she intended to do. But the bank mumbled over her sales figures, hours could go by without a person in the store - except for the quaint, talkative types she loved who browsed but scarcely ever bought. Back in her attic, she prayed among the elephants and listened, but only heard the rustling of pigeon wings on the roof. Reluctantly, she developed a section pretty much overnight, just a small section, the bestsellers of contemporary Christendom, fiction and nonfiction.
People noticed and snapped the new titles up. She expanded the section. Soon it was generating more income than any other part of the store. A few of the quaint customers grumbled about the new section. She did not care for the books either but business was business. She had to make a living. Certain mornings, especially mornings when God struck fire in her soul, her spirit quailed when she unlocked the front door of the bookstore and was assaulted by lurid dust jackets of bursting bombs and rumbling tanks and the scowling faces of sinister world leaders - the Biblical Prophecy section - or she was brought up short by the flowing hair, air-brushed beauties of the Christian romances who looked like their counterparts on the local drugstore racks, except the Christian heroines were somehow purer and more angelic. Bryanna would steel herself to march past the rows of demons and the rows of angels on her way to the till. From this vantage point the worst eyesore was the area of how-to, self-help books: How to Pray Like Jesus in Seven Days; Fasting and Praying for Financial Success; Self-Exorcism Overnight; Seven Sermons for Insomniacs; How to Build a Propsperous Christian Business and Expand Your Spiritual Influence. The whole direction her store was taking spawned a ferocious warfare in her mind and soul. She knew she needed the money. Without the Christian book sales the bank would shut her down.
And what if they did? What difference did her store make? What sort of minds was she helping form, what sort of souls? Why not sell marshmallows instead of books and see if anybody noticed?
“I still have my section on Christian classics. I stay open to sell them.”
“Sell them? You couldn’t give them away with any purchase under five dollars. Who bought the last one? Who?”
Bryanna punched out the code on her main till, refusing to answer the taunt from her warring mind.
“You did.”
Some days she could ignore it. The hours passed in a blur, she had six staff, she could hide herself in her office if she wanted, to all appearances scanning her computer screen for special orders on Christian fitness videos - in fact, the one time someone peered over her shoulder, she was reading Bonhoeffer’s Cost of Discipleship on CD-ROM.
The days she could not hide were the most stressful, usually when staff were ill or the Christmas crush was on. Then she had no choice but to face the onslaught that was late twentieth-century Christendom. Angel lapel pins for blessig and good fortune? Yes, sir, right over by the Jesus Is The Real Thing ball caps. Losing Weight, Finding God? Three left in hardcover in the Contemporary Christian Lifestyles section. Gregorian chants done as rap? Mainstream Christian Artists.
Sometimes she would snap and say whatever came into her head:
Look, she would plead, why this? Why a book on prayer written by a financial whiz and ex-football star? Why not this book here, by Metropolitan Anthony, Beginning to Pray? Slim, but lucid and full of wisdom.
Met. Mets? He’s a ball player?
No, a leader in the Orthodox Church.
No, no, I need something by a strong Christian, someone who’s still alive, who has a testimony, someone who’s succeeded at something else besides Christianity and can talk to ordinary people about God, someone they’ll listen to.

C.S. Lewis wrote this book also, ma’am.
Yes, well, was that before or after his conversion?
Oh, after. It’s very good, very insightful.
All I need is a set of The Chronicles of Narnia. You have those, don’t you? That’s his best known work, isn’t it?

George MacDonald also wrote these extremely interesting sermons.
No. I just need one of his romances.

Do you have a section on plays?
There are some over there. We also have T.S. Eliot and Dorothy Sayers in this section.
No. I need something people can understand, something written in the past year or two. Over there?
Yes. Over there.

In one of her darkest indulgences in self-destruction, she loaded her spiritual self-help section with books on plumbing, pouring concrete, roofing, wiring, caulking, and even set up a tool display. The books sold quickly, within a month the tool display with them.
“It goes well with the store,” a customer encouraged her.
Her posture had always been firm and erect. As the years in the bookstore thundered over her head like a herd, she began to yield and bend. The more she fought expanding her store into a Christian retail outlet - Jesus watches, Mickey Mouse watches with Bible verses, rubber Christs and rubber crosses with magnets for the fridge - the more she yielded and the closer she seemed to slip towards the earth, the more her shoulders slumped with her neck, the more her gait became a shuffle: “I remind myself of Marley with manacles.”
At 63 she sold the store to a huge Christian retail chain, paid off the loan from the bank and the mortgage on her parents’ house, and disappeared. Six months later a new bookstore opened in the city, a small ad popping up in blue in the Yellow Pages. Its name was simply Queer Duck. The quaint ones who browsed much but bought little found the store soon enough. Yes, thank God, it was Miss Bryanna. A warm little shop from out of the storm. Others found her too, new customers who wandered up to the pale yellow house trimmed in white and opened the sliding glass doors. Grateful for the titles, they became her friends. Her pastor, now retired, shook his head. Obscure titles, obscure authors. She nodded and smiled, tall and straight as a white aspen, standing firmly behind a brown birch counter.
“Plenty of other stores have the popular ones,” she responded.
“You won’t make any money.”
“I was thinking about helping people love God with their minds this week. Having a special.”
“You’re not being realistic, my dear.”
“Perhaps I ought to extend the special to the end of my life.”
“Bryanna! And you ought to think about changing the name of your bookstore. It’s bound to offend, turn some away.”
“I rather like my life again, pastor. I expect I’ll leave my shop this way unless God drops Job, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon from his own bestseller.”
She died in the shop one summer night that was full of crickets and moon. A pale arm was draped over the birch counter like a long thin taper, and her hair had unravelled and fallen over her face and features like gentle snow. Not surprisingly, the other hand held a book. She had been reading a paperback that looked brand new but had the cover design of a pocketbook from the 1930’s or the 1940’s - part of her old stock of Christian classics she had found discarded in a dumpster a few days after the book chain had purchased her store. They tried to slide the book out from under her hand but eventually had to pry it loose from her tenacious fingers: Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. A friend thought it best to cremate the book with Bryanna.

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