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Wesley Hill and Brett Foster


On Bookstores, Books, and Reading

Inspired by a visit to the new Seminary Co-op.

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Editor's note: Regular readers of Books & Culture will be familiar with Wesley Hill, who has just completed his first year as assistant professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and Brett Foster, associate professor of English at Wheaton College. Last week we posted an exchange of letters occasioned by their recent visit to the relocated Seminary Co-Op Bookstore in Hyde Park. Here is the second and concluding installment of their exchange.

Dear Brett,
Reading about your delight in the relocated Seminary Co-op made me realize that my first letter to you was more gloomy than I intended it to be. Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing if it blinds us from seeking out new vistas, and I'm afraid my nostalgia for the old store hasn't yet diminished to the point where I can fully appreciate all the positive things about the new location. But your enthusiasm is infectious. I trust that, after a few more visits, I'll be joining you in praising the new horizons.

One obviously positive note to emphasize is that the Seminary Co-op has relocated, not gone out of business. In today's economy, that's no small thing. At a time when Barnes & Noble is planning to close a third of its stores over the next decade (according to a Wall Street Journal report), any bookstore keeping its doors open is an occasion for rejoicing. And one more positive: the relocated Seminary Co-op isn't just a giant chain bookstore, inviting as those places continue to be for me. (As a friend of mine recently quipped, if You've Got Mail were being remade today, Tom Hanks' villainous company might be a certain unnamed online retailer, and Barnes & Noble could be cast as The Shop Around the Corner.) No, the Co-op stands squarely in the happy trend chronicled in a Christian Science Monitor cover story a couple of months ago: the quiet, steady growth of independent bookstores. Yet another reason to count our blessings!

As I think back to our Sunday excursion, I find myself pondering the future of bookstores like the Co-op. The Monitor story ended on an up note, with no imminent demise in sight for the indie bookstore, but it also charts a subtle shift. With the decline of the megastores like Borders, visiting an indie bookstore may come to be, for many book-buyers, akin to visiting a niche kitchen store or a specialty boutique—which is to say, less of a regular occurrence and more of a field trip, "a high holiday of the spirit," to invoke Auden's resonant phrase. Even for someone like you, Brett, whom I know to be a frequenter of bookstores of all sorts, a trip to the Co-op remains a once-in-a-blue-moon occasion, as you admit, something to plan ahead for and savor, not the bread and butter of your book-buying routine. And I wonder, are you a representative customer in that regard? If so, what might that portend?

I recall reading a fine column in The Christian Century last year, after Borders closed its doors for the final time. The column, "A Browser's Lament" (March 23, 2012), was by Rodney Clapp, and he described how he and his wife used to spend at least one evening a week at their local Borders. Among the virtues Clapp praised about that leisurely time among books was the serendipity of stumbling across titles you'd never see if you were relying on Amazon's carefully calibrated algorithm to channel your browsing. You might be waiting for a (by-now hackneyed) elegy for the codex to follow, but that's not where Clapp concluded. Bringing the column to a close, he said it finally dawned on him where the bookstore-browser can still cultivate her coveted serendipity: the library. In the absence of the wide aisles and comfortable chairs of the megastore, where else can you have the experience of lingering among shelves of books and passing the hours with titles you haven't seen before? Rereading Clapp's column and pondering our recent Seminary Co-op trip, Brett, I imagine a book-browsing future for myself that's part getting-reacquainting-with-my-local-library, part specially-planned-visits-to-the-indie-bookstore.

And a key part of the indie bookstore experience is, as you say, taking in the kaleidoscopic array of the "Recent Arrivals" table. In your last letter you told me about some of the titles that caught your eye at the Co-op, and you asked me to do the same. This is the fun part—here are a few of the many that piqued my interest:

What first caught my attention was a book by Geza Vermes, the (late) great Oxford historian of early Judaism (particularly the Dead Sea Scrolls). Titled simply Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, it's a handsome volume, from Yale University Press, and it comes with an endorsement that says the book "sets out to retrace the route by which a Jewish preacher in 1st-century Israel came to be declared as consubstantial and co-equal with the omnipotent, omniscient only God." In my judgment, that is the most essential question of early Christian history, and I'm interested to see how Vermes—himself someone who can't accept the legitimacy of that route—describes it.

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