One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all I had and give it to the poor.
This bookseller's parable comes from Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert: Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers. It's a Catholic book, written by a Trappist monk, with requisite Nihil obstat and Imprimatur. It also happens to be a book I believe I could handsell to a reader of any religious faith--or faithlessness, for that matter.
Sharon Roth of Loyola Press originally asked us whether "there is a religious bias by bookstore buyers in ordering religious books--especially Catholic books." I have no straightforward answer for her other than my suspicion that "bias" is not the appropriate word here. Substitute "balance" because that is how most indie booksellers seem to describe their aspirations for building a good religion section.
But what is "balance?"
Is this "balance" achieved in most bookshops?
These are also good questions.
"As a buyer, I look at the demographic and market that my store is in and completely bypass my own beliefs for the most part," said Katie Glasgow of Mitchell Books, Fort Wayne, Ind. "Being in a predominantly white, middle-class market we have mostly Protestant Christians as a customer base and therefore stock more Christianity texts. But, we stock a wide variety of religious books, everything from the Koran to Apocrypha to Mother Teresa to the Dalai Lama, although recently we decided to limit the amount of books within our religious section since it really wasn't selling."
Stephanie Anderson of the Moravian Bookstore, Bethlehem, Pa., carries books "based on what the interests of the community are. For example, as we are in the middle of a large Moravian community, we tend to heavily promote and merchandise Moravian titles (in fact, Moravian books have their own section in the store). Other religions are best merchandised in terms of popular authors (Deepak Chopra, Karen Armstrong, etc)."
"We have a permanent display table up front for religious books as well as several wall sections," noted Patrick Covington of Accent on Books, Asheville, N.C. "We also do numerous displays at conferences and workshops. As far as some of our customers are concerned we are a religious bookstore. That's what they come to us for." In addition to books on other faiths, Covington stocks "books by the 'new atheists' such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris . . . and they do quite well. Our customers--which include many clergy--don't mind being challenged by such ideas. As for books that seemed to us hateful or downright bigoted, we wouldn't carry those books whether they dealt with religion or any other topic."
Kelley Drahushuk of Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., tries "to appeal to the broadest audience possible in as many religions as possible." She observes that books about atheism are "my best-selling 'religious' titles, hands down. Apparently my store attracts a bunch of heathens. Could it be the fact that we serve beer here?" As to whether a bookstore has any responsibility to the community to carry religious books, Kelley answered, "If the community demands it, then the bookstore would be foolish not to provide it. Responsibility is a strong word though, I think."
Another of Sharon Roth's questions--"Should a bookstore carry the Koran and books about Islam?"--provoked, as might be expected, some heated responses.
"Good god that's a seminal religious text important not only to Muslims but to anyone interested in religious scholarship and ideas," wrote Sheryl Cotleur of Book Passage, Corte Madera (and San Francisco), Calif. "It is not a political book. I cannot imagine a world where an independent bookstore would refuse to carry the Koran and think it important to carry the Bible."
Kelley Drahushuk also wondered if there was "some reason why a bookstore would not carry books about Islam or the Koran? Should a bookstore carry the Bible? I carry books on Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Wicca, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. Heck, I carry a book called Gay Witchcraft that outsells many of the other titles in the section."
Thomas Merton wrote that "these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks in China and Japan." If bookstore religion sections represent an at once small and infinite world, what is "balance" in this context? For most of us, balance is a bookseller's quest, not a destination.--Robert Gray (column archives available at Fresh Eyes Now)