This month, the Cokesbury bookstore at Lancaster Theological Seminary closed its doors for good. In fact, this wasn't the seminary's decision -- all the Cokesbury stores are closing, if they haven't already done so. As someone who deeply appreciates what goes into building and managing a finely curated collection of books -- a difficult task when the best of your collection regularly walks out the door, never to be seen until you re-order -- hearing that another store has closed grieves me.
I think a lot about the importance of seminary bookstores. The seminary experience, as everyone knows, is more than just lectures and tests. It’s more than structured spiritual development. It’s weekly chapel, late nights studying with friends, hours holed up in library carrels, and, since seminary students are a bookish breed, browsing the school bookstore.
In the mid-1990s, I spent so much time at the Gordon-Conwell Book Centre that the manager asked if I would like to spend some of that time behind the counter. After a few months, I took over managing the textbook side of the store, and for a couple years had a great job trying to meet the book-buying needs of students, professors, and public.
The manager took her job very seriously. Her mission, as she described it, was to get the best books available in front of the next generation of church leaders. “These students aren’t just buying textbooks,” she’d say. “They are also building pastoral libraries that will guide their ministries for a lifetime.”
Meet with pastors in their offices, and you will see the truth of this. A pastoral library is an outward expression of how a pastor approaches ministry, deals with problems, plans for the future.
A school library doesn’t replace or duplicate the work of a good bookstore. On the front lines of retail, book buyers can browse titles that may never make it to the hallowed stacks. They will find here not only academic titles, but also the books their congregations may have read: Max Lucado and John Piper, Eugene Peterson and Marva Dawn, The Prayer of Jabez and the mountain of Beth Moore Bible studies right next to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (vols. I–X) and a complete set of Eerdmans’s New International Commentary on the Old Testament.
But the seminary bookstore doesn’t just exist for the students. Step in any Family Christian Store, and you will see why the chain removed bookstore from its name. If you come looking for books on theology, church history, biblical studies, biblical languages, or even the more serious titles by authors with a mainstream audience, you will leave disappointed. So where are lay leaders to find curated (here I am using that term again) collections of books on important topics?
There are a few bookstores online that fill the niche—I am thinking particularly of Eighth Day Books -- but Amazon and B&N cannot digitally replicate the experience of browsing a well-tended bookstore. Realistically, most people don’t have access to a nearby seminary with a great bookstore. Fewer and fewer each year, actually. But those that do, value them as an irreplaceable resource.
Admittedly, maintaining the seminary bookstore is often a hard sell for board members and administrators who are looking at tight budgets. With students picking up textbooks online, or browsing the shelves and then ordering used from Amazon, there’s a lot to be said for converting the bookstore into office space and contracting out textbook sales. But I hope they are also keeping in mind what that retail space means for the seminary community and the community at large. Unfortunately, Lancaster Seminary's example shows us that even if the bookstore function is farmed out, that's no guarantee that an on-campus bookstore operation will remain viable.
Image from Flickruser coltera