Monday, August 31, 2009

Loome Theological Booksellers, Stillwater, Minnesota

I wanted to put in a kind word for the wondrous Loome Theological Booksellers in the remarkable little riverside town of Stillwater, Minnesota, otherwise known to me as the Happiest Place on Earth The nineteenth-century town of Stillwater clings to the steep bluffs along a wide stretch of the St. Croix River, the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. It is known as one of the world's premier "booktowns," and the first officially established outside of Europe. The "booktown" concept was dreamed up many years ago by an eccentric Welshman, "King" Richard Booth, whose hometown, Hay-on-Wye in Wales, became the first--its entire economy effectively revolves around bookselling. Hay-on-Wye has over 20 bookstores with reportedly 2 million books for sale, and only 1,300 inhabitants. Booth helped establish other booktowns across Europe. Stillwater is a bit larger, but with 35 bookstores of its own, it certainly qualified, and officially received its status by a proclamation of Hay-on-Wye's self-proclaimed king in 1994. There are now booktowns all over the world, including Malaysia and Japan, and at least two others in the United States.

One of the crown jewels of this remarkable little place is, as I have said, Loome Theological Booksellers, the world's largest second-hand dealer of religious books, and undoubtedly at least in the top ten of the world's largest used and antiquarian book dealers. It sits halfway up the slope, overlooking the river. As someone who spent a good deal of his free time haunting the eclectic but oddly-organized architecture section at the Strand in New York, I can say that Loome's is a very special place. It's the sort of setting you'd expect to find a trap-door or revolving panel that leads into the secret branch headquarters of an underground group of Templars, or perhaps a cover for a safehouse for Vatican demon-hunters. I'd only spent about an hour there (and about $125) before a few weeks ago, when I dropped into town for an overnight visit. A friend who first I'd met years ago in Rome is now half-owner of the place, after Dr. Loome's retirement. For someone like me, this is like discovering a pal from high school been elected President. Or at least Grand-Master of the Knights of Malta.

In any case, he and his business partner have kept the place running smoothly, and it has all the same magic it did under Dr. Loome, the same perilously warped floors and looming bookshelves, the same extravagant and fascinating holy clutter. It is housed in an old church building, too, which once belonged to a denomination called the Swedish Covenant Church, which adds to the charming sense of through-the-looking-glass disorientation. I walked into one of the bathrooms and found myself confronted with a gigantic claw-foot bathtub below a brightly-colored landscape print showing shrine churches and a lot of incomprehensible Polish. Whole shelves are bent under ranks of old missals, breviaries, and hymnals. It's the happiest place on earth for a Catholic nerd like me. When I visited, Mr. P-- asked me if I wanted to stay in his family's guest-room, or in the bookstore. He said people have actually asked that before. I decided to opt to stay with the family, though I did wonder what that might be like. (This is also just about the first time I have been introduced to someone, in this case his three kids, as "Mr. Alderman." It's nice to be an adult.)

What is especially pleasing about Loome's is it is not a chain. The place has a personality all its own. But it also has an unparalleled selection, and is quite well-organized and well-staffed, unlike some more idiosyncratic mom-and-pop establishments. Mr. P-- is a member of the rising generation of young, tradition-minded Catholics now starting to make their mark on the world and has a lovely wife and, as I said just now, three kids--two rambunctious boys and a tall, solemn, quiet young girl--and is by no means a mogul. He runs his business sensibly and intelligently, but he also loves his work, and the Faith, and is active in his home parish, the lively St. Charles, down the river, which has an extremely active and friendly little congregation and a great liturgical program for its size. In an age where the choice is often between smooth, institutional mediocrity and awkward, home-grown mediocrity, Loome's is a treasure and a rarity, an example of a well-run family business with a real family behind it. You will find everything from honest-to-goodness illuminated manuscripts from the depths of the Middle Ages to 1950s church-design manuals. There is plenty to interest not only the Catholic, but the Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian or Orthodox Christian, provided he is an antiquarian and bibliomane like me. Stop in the next time you're in the area--it's well worth at least a detour, or possibly even a whole trip. Make sure there's space in the trunk for your purchases. You'll need it. Matt Alderman, New Liturgical Movement

Tediously, I am required to report that I once considered purchasing Loome's building, the vacant Bethany Covenant Church in Stillwater, when I moved there in the early 70s. The asking price was only $10,000. There were neither, front, side or back yards. I didn't buy it; it seemed like it would be too difficult to convert into a home. I guess I had neither imagination nor creative spark. I suppose I can't claim any role in the success of Loome's, but I occasionally do. Forgive me.

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