Monday, May 30, 2011

Christian Bookshops in Pennsylvania

Books and Regionalism

"You are what you eat" is a common, perhaps overused expression. But the same phrase is rightly adapted to books: "You are what you read." The last time I was in Pennsylvania, a year ago, I came across a "Bible Outlet" in Lancaster, PA, which I then wrote about on this blog. So it is no surprise that I'd come across similar shops that sold Bibles, or Bible-related books, or Christian books on a recent trip through Pennsylvania. In fact, the interesting sociological observation here is that bookstores will echo what the reading tastes are of a certain area, and ultimately reflect the larger religious (or secular) demographics of a region. This is why you'll come across almost no major bookstore chains or even book shops specializing in antiquities, rare books, or more broadly literary style shops in more rural areas. But equally, you will find almost no Christian bookshops in NYC.

A month ago, while I was doing a research trip in Pennsylvania to gather archival evidence for an article I was writing on the history of theological education in 19th century America, I drove through some small towns in southern and western Pennsylvania. Somewhere between Butler and Zelienople, PA, I drove through a small place called Evans City, which had a very nice Christian book shop called "Amazing Grace," which appeared to double as a mission center. The last time I'd seen something similar to this was two summers ago when I visited a Christian book store in the suburbs of Chicago called Royal Christian Bookstores (read the post).

A few days later, I found myself stopping in the fine town of Somerset after a rain storm. I drove around briefly and found this unassuming shop, a combo "Christian Book Store and Office Supply." I think you could put any two businesses together and do well, if you sold Bibles or other Christian literature in some areas. My guess is that Bibles sell better than coffee here. Unfortunately, the shop was closed when I stopped, so I didn't get a chance to go in.

On my way out of town, I snapped a photo of the old courthouse. I must say that many of the county seats and larger towns in Pennsylvania had lovely old architecture, which must have bloomed in the mid-to-late 19th century under the gaze of its German and other immigrants. The design is quite formidable, and especially striking when approached from a distance. The contrast of the blue or even clouded sky against such proud edifices set up on the highest hills are quite stunning. Onward now!--to other places, other books. These curiosities prove again the subtle experiment of American reading, set against tilled farm fields, old wood houses, and noble state houses.

Alabaster Books NYC

Things Like This Just Happen

Last month, when I was walking down to Chinatown from Union Square, along 4th Avenue, I spotted something curious under some construction framing. Of course, for me the word "curious" usually means that it resembles something bookish. And I was right. I crossed the street and found the quaint, little, and book-packed "Alabaster Book Shop." What a surprise and delight. The sad thing is that it is hard to see, though I'd have to guess that locals know the place well. It was a tight space, like any Manhattan business or living quarter. And the books were squeezed into every nook and cranny. Even in the windows, they had piled the books up. I was particularly taken with this massive tome of Armenian-Greek mystic, G.I. Gurdjieff (1866-1949), whose book here "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson" is a fusion of Eastern and Western esoteric mysticism--it is also incredibly long and dense, coming in well over a 1,000 pages and joining the ranks of hefty Robert Musil-style books. I'll admit, I have a strange penchant for searching out the plumpest of tomes, as if they're some hidden delicacy, or truffle. So when I find a new one, I think "wow--how did I miss that beast of a book!?"

Already, the mild weather of the spring afforded the book shop to move some of its wares out on the street. Of course, these are usually the "bargain" books, selling often between $2-$5.

Above, we see some of the finer decor of the shop, and a nice old clock on the wall. Though, I think it was wrong! (I was there later in the afternoon, around 5:30PM). Below, we see the construction beams and protective shielding, which make the book shop slightly obscured. It's a good shop. And if you're ever between Union Square and Chinatown, stop by and check it out. There are a lot of interesting and uncommon books to find. And the staff is very pleasant, knowledgeable, and friendly.

Free Books from Jehovah's Witness in NYC

A Table of Religion

A few weeks ago, I was walking along Broadway outside of Columbia University in NYC, and spotted a table of "yellow books." When I approached, I realized that the three smiling young women were from Watchtower (Jehovah's Witness), and were handing out books titled "What Does the Bible Really Teach?" The interesting thing about these little volumes is that they had them in dozens of languages, from Arabic to Armenian, Chinese to Czech, and more. I took two, an English and Hebrew version, which I will add to the "contemporary tracts in religion" collection at the library that I'm trying to build. I'll have to keep my eyes open for more of these items. In NYC, you can find a lot of this material, but it is often discarded or not looked on as relevant for contemporary collection development. I think it has some value, but that value may come in many years, when scholars are looking to study tracts and religious booklets from the early 21st century.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lighting Library?

A Library or Not?

Merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares have taken interesting paths in marketing whatever it is they are selling. But when I was walking to Chinatown last month in Manhattan, down along the Bowery, I came across this startling awning and sign: "Lighting Library." This has nothing to do with books, reading, or libraries at all. It is in fact a lighting store. The owners must have thought that it was a clever alliteration, something catchy that would compete with the other lighting shops in this mercantile district. I wonder if I was the only one to be confused by this name? No matter--they certainly got my attention, even if they didn't get my money!

Funny Book on NYC Street

The Things You Find...

I was walking on a street near Union Square and 14th Street in NYC not long ago, and happened to stumble across this rogue book on the sidewalk. I had to snap a photo for you all. A curious and admittedly comical cover. "God Bless Joe Papp." I wonder where this book came from, who lost it, or left it!? Joe Papp (1921-1991) was a director and producer of theater.

Another Bookshop Out of Business: Merritt Books

Another Passing of a Book Store

Merritt Books in Red Hook, NY recently closed up shop. It was one of the book shops owned by Scott Meyer, who recently closed another Merritt location in Cold Spring, NY. I saw the shop in Red Hook about a month ago and thought I'd stop in to pay homage to this soon-to-be-closed bookshop, and document its passing for our readership and the biblio-curious world.

Interestingly, there are other bookshops, which aren't doing so badly in the area. This shop in Red Hook apparently didn't have the foot traffic needed to sustain it. Along with the increasing demands of online or e-text material, especially in the educational fields, which this shop catered to, physical texts weren't making the cut.

On the other side of the spectrum, and not far from Red Hook, in the town of Rhinebeck, there is a book shop called Oblong, which is apparently doing well, in part for its promotion of e-reading and e-books. We'll have to keep our eye on this one. But I hope that those remaining bookshops of the world can sustain themselves amid the difficulties of the market.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Books and the End of the World

A Photo Essay on Doomsday

They've been handing out pamphlets on the end of the world ("May 21st 2011") for a while down in the 42nd Street subway stop, near the Port Authority, but just days away from the ill-fated day, the prophets were out in force. Here's a view of the dozens of signs in that underground pathway. On my way home yesterday, I witnessed these folks (in bright yellow and orange t-shirts) arguing with a group of youngsters about what will happen on Saturday. Another vision of New York city religion at its best and most visceral. Interestingly, the bright yellow and orange shirts were a new thing--in the previous months leading up to now, they'd all had less "intrusive" colors, and would hand out pamphlets that were white or green. Now, with days away, they've brightened their prophecy with a dash of lemon and orange.

Above, the argument among pro-End-of-Worlders and bystanders.