Monday, July 14, 2008

The One "True" Bookstore

I got my start in the book business as a home-based, online bookseller. After about three years I reached a point where almost all the walls in my home were filled with bookcases and the new, incoming books had no place else to go but in stacks on the floor. When it got to the point where the dining room table was so crowded with stacks of books that there wasn’t even room for a single plate I knew the time had come to make other arrangements—arrangements that entailed getting the books out of the house.

And then, quite out of the blue, it happened.

An historic, two-story Federal-style building in town became available—and the price was right. So I went for it. My plan was to use the 1,000 sq. ft. storefront space for my bookstore while renting out the other apartment spaces in the rest of the building to help cover the mortgage. The extensive renovations are mostly done, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel when I’ll be able to, finally, get back to the business of scanning/listing/uploading books. After several months and a lot of sweat equity I can proudly say that I have created the bookstore of my dreams, complete with 200-year-old heart pine floors, an old bank vault, and even a bookcase that gives way to a secret, book-lined corridor (dubbed “the catacombs”) which contains another hidden door that opens into a 12' x 12' secret room I call “the inner sanctum.” (I can’t tell you what’s in the inner sanctum.)

It’s a funny thing about small towns in the south, though. Start making some public changes and the locals start to talk. An acquaintance of mine who knows the area all too well once told me that if I ever moved my inventory out of the house and into a building in town I could be sure to count on one thing: the first people to pay me a visit would be the local ministers, to check me out. My acquaintance was right.

The other day I was working on getting more books into the shelves when I heard a knock on the front door. I looked through the glass. Oh, great, I thought.

I answered the door.

After several minutes of small talk the minister began making his way into the store, looking around and commenting on titles and authors he was familiar with. Soon his comments began to show traces of fundamentalist bias and condescension, and I found myself in a situation where I could either let him impugn my books on my turf or I could stand my ground.

“But a good bookstore,” I said, after a point (about 30 minutes into it), “shouldn’t cater to just one ideology. A good bookstore should offer a broad spectrum of ideas and perspectives.”

“There is only one truth,” he said. “Everything else is irrelevant. Most of these ‘perspectives,’ as you say, aren’t worth the paper they are written on.”

“You can agree, though, surely, that by reading about and trying to understand other cultures, ideas, and views, that our own world views are broadened, and this can lead us toward, for instance, greater compassion and less bigotry?”

Suddenly his gaze locked on the bookcase behind me. He stepped forward, toward the science books. He made a grand, sweeping gesture with his hand.

“Why have all these egg-headed theories on your shelves when you can have the Truth?”

“The truth,” I said.

“The Bible contains all the science, astronomy, math, history, psychology, philosophy, biography, and cultural studies anyone could ever need, and it is all absolutely, irrefutably infallible.”

I realized the conversation had reached a point where there was nothing left for me to say.

“If you want a true bookstore,” he said, driving it home, “you only need to sell one book.”

“The Bible,” I said.

“The Holy Word of the Creator of the Universe,” he said.

Sensing that he’d won the battle, he turned to go. On his way out, something on the shelves caught his eye.

“Oh! Wait.” He pointed to some books. “What’s this?” The books were from the Left Behind series. “Hey, maybe I was a little too hasty with you,” he said. But then he did a double-take at the overhead subject placard:

FANTASY.

His mouth dropped open and he went to protest.

Then something happened that, on hindsight, made me think there may be something to this divine intervention stuff after all:

My cell phone rang.

“I’ll need to get this,” I said, reaching for my phone and turning away from him.

Moments later, upon hearing the door click shut, I slipped over and bolted the lock.