Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Loome Theological Booksellers in Stillwater Changes Hands

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When Thomas Loome sought to retire from a career as a bookseller last winter, he thought long and hard about who might continue his mission.

His replacement couldn’t be just anyone. They would need a strong work ethic, a love of the written word, and the knowledge to serve a diverse set of readers, ranging from enthusiasts of rare books, to academicians, to theologians — many from locales across the globe.

Fortunately, Loome needed not search far to find two qualified candidates: Christopher Hagen and Andrew Poole. The graduate-school educated scholars of religion, theology and languages had worked with him for years, and they had the qualifications needed to not only run a second-hand book business, but also to recognize important works and sell them to a world-wide, but decidedly rarified, audience.

On July 1, the men became proprietors and owners of both Loome Theological Bookseller at 320 N. Fourth St. — an internationally known repository of rare and historically important religious works [and the largest in the U.S.]— and Chestnut Street Books, a smaller, general-interest bookstore located at 223 E. Chestnut St. The latter store is located less than a block west Loome Antiquarian Books, which closed last December.

Hagen, 32, a native of Nashville, Tenn., began working at Loome’s Theological Bookseller seven years ago, when he was a graduate student in the University of St. Thomas’ Catholic studies program. Previously, he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion from Carleton College. He, his wife Christelle and their four children live in Oak Park Heights.

Poole, 28, grew up in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of St. Thomas with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and Catholic studies. For four years, he attended Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, in Rome, Italy, where he obtained a master’s degree in theology. An internship cataloging Slavonic materials with Loome led to a position specializing in rare and antiquarian texts. He, his wife Mara, and their three children live in Stillwater.

Between them, the men have knowledge of Latin, German, Greek, Russian, Romance and Slavic languages necessary to work with texts as well as customers from far-flung academic institutions, seminaries and other houses of learning.

Both said they plan to operate both businesses in Loome’s tradition of pursuing a scholarly business, with emphases on quality and equality.

“One of our primary goals is we want this to be a good place to work,” Hagen said. “We try to give people here as much responsibility as we can, to do their own thing.”

“We’ve use the term ‘guild’ to describe it,” Poole said further. “We do head it and we do tell people what to do because its necessary at times, but for the most part these people have their territories and they take ownership of it.”

Lessons learned

Although Loome’s antiquarian store was well known, competition from Internet-based booksellers, high overhead costs and increasing property taxes on the sprawling former bank at Main and Chestnut streets made it nearly impossible for the business to turn a profit.

Its lessons were not lost on Loome and his successors when they prepared to open Chestnut Street Books.

The theological store, which Hagen and Poole described as unique among second-hand booksellers, will see few changes. Customers will be able to browse through a partial inventory online, or visit the converted Swedish Covenant Church where a vast portion of the business’ theological books are kept.

The Chestnut Street store, however, will attempt to succeed where the antiquarian venture failed. After donating or selling much of its excess inventory — which exceeded three semi-trailer loads, according to Poole — a remaining collection of essential books was chosen to fit into the new store, which takes up a fraction of the space, at a fraction of the cost, of the old.

“It’s the antiquarian book store distilled to its best elements and in a tiny space,” Hagen said. “It’s not significantly different and its intended audience is not significantly different, it’s just more concentrated and the quality of the selection is higher.”

As a result, he said, its odds of success should increase, as well. Further, they intend to enhance the content of their Internet site with a journal containing interviews with interesting customers, which frequently include Catholic clergy, bishops and scholars.

Loome, 73, remains involved in the businesses, but at a distance. His new title, as listed on the business’ letterhead, is “founder and consultant.” His 23-year-old daughter Cecilia manages the Chestnut Street store, and has added a selection of children’s books to complement the store’s inventory of classic books.

“Cecilia’s really done great things with the Chestnut store,” Hagen said. “Essentially, she is choosing the inventory and the décor – she’s artistic, and she’s putting that skill to use.”

“My activity is limited to consulting,” Loome said in a separate interview, adding jokingly, “If I’m asked a question, I’ll answer as best I can, and I won’t even charge for it.”

Loome, who has suffered recently from health problems, intends to remain active at his church, the Church of St. Michael in Stillwater and in the Catholic Workers’ Movement, which sponsors two local “houses of hospitality” for women with children who are homeless or have what Loome described as “untenable situations.”

“I’ve put in more than 25 years to building it up, this kind of an empire, and now I’ve turned it over to a new generation,” Loome said. “It’s been my child, and I want to be protective of it.”

With Poole and Hagen, he said, “I know I’ve put it in good hands.” Lake Elmo Leader

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