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The Virtues of Booksellers

Surprised by Oxford - Carolyn WeberThis January blog post was just brought to our attention and references a store in Oakville, Ontario that we’ve known over many years. The author is Carolyn Weber, author of the 2013 Surprised by Oxford: A Memoir (Thomas Nelson). Carolyn spoke this morning at the chapel service at Tyndale University College and Seminary in Toronto. We thought it was in keeping with the spirit of the piece if booksellers themselves got to read it, but better yet, why not send her some link love by clicking the title below and reading it at her blog, Pressing Save.

Virtues of Booksellers

In our increasingly digitalized world, we often overlook the bookseller. Folks who run bookstores with care and from passion are an increasing rare breed. They should be cherished and supported, for there is so much they do beneath the surface of things to stoke the thoughtful flames of culture, and to keep us all connected across pages, years and minds.

Over tea the other evening with my dear friend, Mary (“Muffy”) Chester, who runs Good Books Christian Bookstore in Oakville, Ontario, I was reminded at just how gifted booksellers are. Mary has to read people like she reads books. All sorts of both kinds come into her store: she must absorb, address and sift through each. Like books, readers too come as the genuinely inquisitive or antagonist defensive; the seekers of beauty and truth, or the lost and despondent. In an instant, she must match book to buyer, and discern who could use what – whether a book should be a challenge, a tonic, a balm or a blast, or perhaps, some or all of these. Unobtrusively and without judgment, she must tailor a text, seek a story that suits. She also must discern whether to enthusiastically push or subtly suggest. She must know her wares, and be wary of the knowing: always being open to the larger conversation of the history, and context, of ideas. The bookseller sits at the hub of circulating life changing insights. And so, she sits, too, where business and ideas intersect, showing us what so much of the world is, if not all: compatibilities masking as opposites.

To borrow Shelley’s term when he spoke of the poet, a good bookseller (one who loves her trade, the craft and the reader) is “the unacknowledged legislator of the world.”

Shortly I will have the good fortune, Lord willing, of meeting Rick and Susan Lewis, who manage Logos Bookstore in Dallas, Texas. Rick Lewis is an ardent supporter of authors, even across the miles. It is people like Rick who make authors like me want to write. They help you trust the process of properly raising a book once it has been birthed. They are doing good work, for good purposes, and it encourages and uplifts one to be a part of it in some small way.

Don’t get me wrong: I certainly understand the conveniences of clicking through Amazon. But no matter how sophisticated technology may become, there are two things that it will never be ever to emulate, I am sure: 1.) the true meeting of minds and 2.) the smell of books.

My husband’s and my favourite date is to stroll a bookstore, leisurely and together, preferably with coffee in hand (though taking particular care in the rare books section). The only other person I do not mind speaking with on such a romantic outing is the bookseller. Call me old fashioned, call me silly or , but clicking items into my cart while at home in my jammies sitting next to my beloved in mutual distracted silence just does not have the same escape from self-absorption effect.

Bookstores are hallowed ground.

And so booksellers must be humble, too, subverting their egos, tastes, even their admonitions and hesitations, to what they deem to be best for the reader. In this sense, they are far superior to the authors themselves.

Case in point:

Recently I admitted to my binging on Elizabeth Goudge. Her City of Bells came to me via my dear friend Laura Baker, and if there is one thing that is certain in life, it is that a book from a friend’s hand is bound to be a blessing (wow, there’s a lot of alliteration in that last sentence – nothing like a good strong “b” to bring into being the beauty of books!). In Goudge’s delightful novel about the tranquil air of Torminster and her engaging character sketches of the town’s people, the kindly and wise old Grandfather (whom I adore, as he is believing and yet believable, and someone l would like to grow more to be – there’s that loaded “b” again … ) has a conversation in a bookstore with his young ward, the winsome Felicity. In speaking of those who dedicate their lives to the provision and distribution of good words, Goudge writes:

“A bookseller,” said Grandfather, “is the link between mind and mind, the feeder of the hungry, very often the binder up of wounds. There he sits, your bookseller surrounded by a thousand minds all done up neatly in cardboard cases; beautiful minds, courageous minds, strong minds, wise minds, all sorts and conditions. And there come into him other minds, hungry for beauty, for knowledge, for truth, for love, and to the best of his ability he satisfies them all … Yes … It’s a great vocation.”

“Greater than a writer’s?” asked Felicity.

“Immeasurably,” said Grandfather. “A writer has to spin his work out of himself and the effect upon the character is often disastrous. It inflates the ego. Now your bookseller sinks his own ego in the thousand different egos that he introduces to one to the other …. Yes …. Moreover his life is one of wide horizons. He deals in the stuff of eternity and there’s no death in a bookseller’s shop. Plato and Jane Austen and Keats sit side by side behind his back, Shakespeare is on his right hand and Shelley on his left.” He paused for a moment while Felicity took Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights gently away from him. “Yes. Writers, from what I’ve seen of them, are a very queer lot, but booksellers are the salt of the earth.”

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