A THANKSGIVING MEDITATION: GRATEFUL FOR PUBLISHERS, AUTHORS, READERS (and more.)

Recently several friends have been posting on facebook things for which they are thankful.  Reading some of these has been inspiring and at times poignant. Even in the naming of obvious and mundane blessings, something profoundly good is going on. It's a good discipline for any time, and certainly for this season.

You read this BookNotes blog, though, not to learn about me and my personal life, but because you arepicture of storefront.jpg part of a community of folks who support Hearts & Minds. This is a book review blog offered by a retail shop, trying to garner your business as we serve you with information and the opportunity to buy good books. So, although we in the Borger household have a lot for which to be thankful, even in this hard year, this post is offered for those who care about the story of Hearts & Minds.  I hope you don't mind a rumination on our gratitude for those who make this thing work.

Most obviously, there is a confluence of publishers, editors, marketers, sales representatives, and investors who run these institutions, most often themselves businesses, called publishing houses. Despite the odd phenomenon of self-publishing (I'm generally not a fan) most writers wouldn't be known or their work widely read if it weren't for the publishing industry and the amazingly talented folks who serve there.  We should be glad for these houses and pray for those who serve behind the scenes.

But, of course, the publishers wouldn't have much to do if there were no authors of worth. Let's hear it for those who practice the disciplined craft of good writing, gifting us with their use of words and their exploration of ideas. (And while I'm building this head of steam, let's just note that there wouldn't be that many good writers if there weren't good teachers inspiring students to become young scholars, authors, wordsmiths, artists. Or, as the case may be, really bad schools and boring teachers who so frustrate bright kids who push themselves to get the hell outta there and make something serious of themselves. I hope you know Taylor Mali's feisty little book What Teachers Make: In Praise of the Greatest Job in the World that reminds us of the importance of valuing good teachers.)  

So, we raise our voices to thank God for teachers and mentors, writers and scholars, publishers and editors, advertisers and reviewers, and all of those who help get the printed page into our hands.

Which brings me to bookstores and the staff who work in settings that sell books -- places thatAskaBookseller_graphic_0.gif are rarely as glamorous or fun as you might think. (No, we don't sit around drinking herbal tea and reading all day, nor do we have time to chat endlessly about the latest American Book Award winner or ponder the wisdom of the latest theological fad. We've got sidewalks to sweep, bathrooms to clean, boxes to unpack, damaged stuff to return, orders to track, lost shipments to find, donations to make, oddball titles to locate, bills to collect. And that's just before we open for the day.) 

I hope you join me in offering prayers for bookstores everywhere - this is not the time or place to lament our lot in life, in this age of dwindling profits, big box stores and faceless internet sites who have captured the public's dollars if not always their hearts.  Times are tough, but we remain glad -- for rewarding work, for stimulating colleagues, for often fabulously loyal customers, for the excitement of being in on very important stuff. We believe more than ever that books can change lives and impact our communities, and we are honored to play a role in helping shape the moral imagination and lives of our customers.  We are indeed thankful for this great privilege that is entrusted to us, and hope you know how glad we are about it all.

And we know we are not alone.  We take courage from books like My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop edited by Ronald Rice -- with a powerful introduction by novelist Richard Russo, which tells the stories of many indie book shops. It came out earlier this year andMyBookstore.jpg we've been delighted to show it off -- it is good to be reminded that some of the best authors in the country themselves are loyal to brick and mortar, real places.  I will most likely never visit these intriguing stores, but it is fun to read about them, and inspiring for any bookstore lover.

We are very thankful for our own staff (who seem like family) who you may or may not know: frontliners Amy and Patti and Kimberly, mail-out queen extraordinaire, Diana, and the financial whiz who keeps the ship afloat, Robin. And the backroom Bichon, Aurora. (I think of the God-praising poem "Aurora Leigh" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, but our daughter was thinking of Rory from the Gilmore Girls when she named her.)  Beth and I are so grateful for this good team of friends who work here to serve our customers. Our own dreams and vocations of doing this ministry couldn't be realized without them.

I hope you know where this is going, though: publishers, editors, authors, booksellers -- we all would all be dead in the water without readers and book buyers.  

YYoung-man-reading-a-book-001.jpgou are the essential link in the chain, the upshot, the point of it all.  Authors write, publishers edit and design the cover and print and manufacture and market, and booksellers curate their selections and push the books into your hands, but the readers --- ahh, the readers who love the printed page, who are fans of their favorites authors, who hunger for words and sentences, for poems and history and novels and memoir and science and jokes and theology, who want to learn and grow and enter into the worlds of writers --- you are the point.  You buy the books, read the books, ponder, critique and exclaim and share and argue and maybe buy more of them to give as gifts. You run book groups, give books away, fund libraries in your church and neighborhood; you read to your kids and subscribe to journals like Books and Culture or other review sources, you click on-line and watch the book trailers and then purchase them from real bookstores. And some of you tell others about us.

Yep, Hearts & Minds friends, facebook fans, customers, and cheerleaders, we couldn't do this without you. 

And so we are truly thankful.

We are deeply moved and almost speechless, sometimes, when we consider your loyalty, your support, your encouragement. Friends from south-central Pennsylvania support their local bookstore, and our distant but loyal BookNotes readers order often from us.  Out-of-town fans make road trips, going out of their way to visit. (We laugh when they call it a pilgrimage, and wish we could somehow be more hospitable when they arrive from a long drive.)  What an honor to have loyal customers, and how necessary it has been for us.

Beth and I have been at this for 31 years, this week.  We are still hardly in the black, despite31.jpg the rah rah rah around Black Friday. Some indie stores have it harder than we do and will close soon; others seem to be doing well (and more bookstores are opening nation-wide, a heartening trend.)  Our fiscal situation is precarious, and yet we are confident and thrilled - and, again, truly grateful - for the extraordinary opportunity we have to promote books, to connect writers and readers, to make a living through such an obviously meaningful vocation. That our bookstore opened during a Thanksgiving weekend makes it easy to remember each November to be thankful for God's faithfulness to our business and to be appreciative of our customers' support.

We sometimes hear about the impact a book has had on a customer, and we love hearing those stories.  Not long age we heard that a customer found a book which helped her develop a Christian perspective on her career, another used a book to assist a struggling marriage, another said a novel changed her entire outlook. A week ago a person bought a book on social justice, noting that she never read anything about such hard stuff, but felt she needed to.  A parent just the other day purchased a book to explain terminal illness to a child, and she was obviously touched by our assistance in choosing just the right one. A leader at a Christian college needed help with a large bibliography and it was wonderful to undertake that project. One person tucked a little note in complimenting our staff when she paid her bill.

People routinely talk about howpleasures of reading.jpg much pleasure a book brings to them. (If you like this sort of thing, I hope you know the truly splendid book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by the excellent, mature essayist Alan Jacobs, published by Oxford University Press.) It is a delight that comes with the job, hearing about how someone enjoyed their latest cozy mystery or YA novel.  And, given the nature of many of our books which are designed to help nurture one's spiritual life, or the communal life of the local church, we sometimes hear of deepened discipleship, expanded faith, enlarged hearts, good stuff happening in churches, ministries, and nonprofit organizations as they read inspirational resources to guide their Christian growth and mission.  All of this gives us much for which to be thankful.

It is often hard and complicating and tiresome. Sometimes it gets ugly. Not a day goes by in our work that doesn't tempt me to spit and cuss, and sometimes, to just give up.  

And not a single day goes by that doesn't give us a chance to exclaim "Thanks be to God." 

thank-you-quote11.jpgAnd, so, while we praise God -- the God who is called The Word -- we must thank you, too.  We are grateful for readers and customers who buy our books and spread the word about our bookselling efforts.  Truly, we wouldn't be here without you.  We are very grateful.



* * *

I suppose I should stop there, offering this little tribute to all involved in the magical world of books and bookstores, thanking those who appreciate our efforts to be patrons of the printed page, those who are our loyal customers and friends of our mission.

But I'd like to say more, for those who want to listen in.  I hope it isn't too self-indulgent to reminisce a bit, tipping the hat to some old colleagues who have helped us over the years.

I think the first publisher's sales representative Beth and I met who was serious about books, one who loved thoughtful and well-done Christian books of depth and importance, was Bruce Robinson who at the time worked for Eerdmans.  Eerdmans is one of the top publishers in academic theology and religion, more broad and curious now than they were a generation or two ago, but even in the early 80s, they had a diverse and fascinating body of work - Southbest of the reformed j.jpgeerdmans book.jpg African theology, Dutch reformational philosophy, Christian aesthetics, Biblical commentaries, faith-based literary criticism.  They had some classic evangelical authors like John Stott and F. F. Bruce and, of course, C.S. Lewis (and other Inklings such as George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, and Charles Williams.) They published one of the first books I ever studied on creation-care and the first book I read on a distinctively Christian approach to technology, the first book of many books I've read by Richard Mouw, my first book by John Howard Yoder, the first book by Lewis Smedes (the still in print Sex for Christians and the out of print Love Within Limits), the still important Lectures on Calvinism by Abraham Kuyper, the very significant Capitalism and Progress by Bob Goudzewaard, Art in Action by Nicholas Wolterstorff (not to mention his grueling, honest memoir of grief, Lament for a Son.) Soon enough, they published Alan Boesak and Desmond Tutu, Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson.  For years they published the journal The Reformed Journal (and you may recall how I raved in the "best books of 2011" column about the anthology of the best of the RJ that came out a few years ago, edited by James Bratt & Ronald Wells.  It is still a spectacular collection, very highly recommended.)

To have a sales rep visit our store and brief us on important books and regale us with tales of his own meetings and meals with everyone from Richard Neuhaus to Jimmy Dunn to Fleming Rutledge to Herman Ridderbos was a delight.  Eerdmans has been a distinguished press, releasing award winning books both popular and arcane, and their sales reps remain bookish, learned, articulate about ideas within the broader church and world. They know how to talk books.

In our early years we also had a rep named Bill Thomason.  Bill was a bookman par excellence - when I'd jump in his car to retreat to a local cafĂ© he'd have Shakespeare plays on tape in his car.  Like most reps, he'd have his back seat loaded with the books he was selling, and others he picked up at other stores along the way.  The best sales reps not only sell their own titles, but buy books, themselves, and it is fun to get them reading authors from other publishers.  The best book-lovers are, shall we say, promiscuous. 

He had a rep group that handled a whole bunch of small and often quirkie, nearly indie publishers.

If our Eerdmans rep introduced us to serious Reformed theology and the broader evangelical circles of interest promoted by the scholarly side of their storied house, Bill first repped an array of publishers that included liturgical Catholic publishers, liberation theology, a moderate Baptist publisher, and, for a while, some contemplative and monastic and Orthodox presses.  Where else would Beth and I have  learned about Cistercian Publications or Liturgical Press?  Eventually Bill landed at Westminster/John Knox, and since we are Presbyterian (USA) we knew his line pretty well.  But he knew it better, and having each season a guided tour through such an esteemed mainline Protestant publishing house - they have published Niehbuhr and Tillich and Barth and William Sloan Coffin and the like - was an education in itself.

We have dear, dear friends who have supported us more than words can express in the more conservative CBA (Christian Bookseller Associations) world.  I still miss the indescribable Keith Harrold who repped for Word Music and who understood our musical tastes and was an unabashed fan and friend who served us for years and years. There have been those who have sold us gift items and card lines and all kinds of religious books.

There are extraordinary scholars, editors, marketers, and reps in CBA presses like the editorial team at IVP and their sales director Jeffintervarsity-press-IMPRINTS.jpg Crosby (I routinely applaud IVP for being our favorite all-around publisher and would simply give up if they didn't exist.) I so much appreciate their work, and thank God for them.

I admire the crew at BakerAcademic like editor Bob Hosack, or, for instance, ecumenical bookman Steve Ayers, who is so very passionate about excellent, scholarly books.  Ayers knows everything from evangelical to mainline Protestant to Roman Catholic traditions and their authors - just the other day he noted that the fabulous new book Love in the Gospel of John by the wonderful Catholic Newbaker_academic.png Testament scholar Francis J. Moloney, SDB, was just released by Baker Academic (and that that wouldn't have happened even a decade ago.) BakerAcademic and their affiliated Brazos Press are perhaps the up-and-coming scholarly theological publisher.  And, unlike places like Fortress, they havebrazos_press.png deep ties in the still growing evangelical community and tend not to publish overly arcane or transgressive stuff.  I think it is a landmark achievement to have professors, scholars and book lovers from professional associations like ETS (Evangelical Theological Society) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) all raving about their new releases.

I appreciate that Baker has so many books about popular culture, film studies, social reform, exploring the common good and such.  When we opened, Eerdmans was the clearest voice for a robust, rather progressive, socially-engaged Reformed tradition. I still think that Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview by Al Wolters remains one of the most important books in their entire catalog. Today, though, this broadly evangelical, thoughtful perspective and admirable approach to excellently-produced books is found in many evangelical publishers, not least IVP and Baker.  Just think of the enormous contribution to this world-formative tradition by books like Culture Making (by Andy Crouch from IVP) or Desiring the Kingdom (by James K.A. Smith, published by Baker.)

There are plenty of other great publishers for which we are grateful, and workman-like reps who help us get our orders and who offer in-house help that we could hardly survive without.  But it has been the most bookish sales reps who have modeled for me a love for the printed page, the disciplined habit of reading widely, of learning how to compare and contrast the writing of different authors, and different traditions and viewpoints, for being evangelists for things other than the same-old/same-old religious literature, celebrating the best sorts of writing and thinking and enhancing the theological conversations. In other words, they are lovers of books.  (At a meeting just the other day, I asked a new friend at Eerdmans what his favorite book from their new season was and without batting an eye he said Preaching in Hitler's Shadow: Sermons of Resistance to the Third Reich edited by Dean G. Stroud -- "It's a great read," he said, and insisted that I had to read it. I think I will, although I otherwise wouldn't have; I'm willing to try it just because he was so glad to tell me about how good it was. I try to take the enthusiastic recommendations of a real book-lover to heart.)

byron in store from ydr.jpgPeople sometimes ask where I get my own love of books and writers. I believe it is true in most areas of life that we learn from and conform to the habits of the friends with whom we surround ourselves.  On the day of our wedding anniversary last week Beth and I were selling books at a prestigious lecture and on the way home - too tired to be very romantic, but for us it was apropos - we listed marriages of those we knew that we most admired, and who have been our models and influences. It works like that, doesn't it? I have been privileged to have good book lovers and teachers and generous, discerning readers around me, and I hope it is somehow that way for you, that you can find friends who push you on to read widely, who continue to press the best books into your hands, who speak regularly about what they are reading, what they are learning, and what strengths and weaknesses there are in the world of books and ideas. 

From Sunday sermons to the evening news, from the lyrics of the latest pop song to the top ofcaring for words.jpg the bestseller list, there are words everywhere, and we must engage and be wise about them.  I recall a favorite, recent, Eerdmans book by English professor and poet Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies.  Oh my, what a wonderful book, which I liked even more than Wendell Berry's Standing By Words, itself a lovely title and rich book. 

Maybe, in some small way, our BookNotes reviews and our shop here can play that role for you, reminding you of these things.  If we are able to help in any way, I say here for the record, as I often do  -- it is not false humility -- that it is mostly because of those I've been blessed to know, those who have rubbed off on me, even just a bit, that I'm able to talk books with our customers. 

I really, truly am grateful for those who taught me to love words and writing and reading, to care about books, from Mr. Trimmer in high school English to the Dutch worldview guru Pete Steen, who taught philosophy like a preacher, to my grandmother and beloved mother-in-law who often recited poetry by memory, on through great writers, reviewers, critics, journalists, and, yes, sales reps. It isn't hard to keep up a passion for good books when one gets to see forthcoming titles explained with vision and enthusiasm by those who believe in them.  Evangelical reps, especially, really believe that their books are going to be useful in the lives of ordinary people.  That faith can help us, that God is for us, that the Bible's wisdom can be applied to daily life, these guys major in that, and it is refreshing to have it put so simply.  It is hard not to believe in the potential of basic but energetically written books when those who know them best tell you the back-story, the marketing plan, and the hopes and expectations of how they will touch lives.  

So, once again, we are thankful to be a part of this work.

I say all this sincerely, inspired in part by those ubiquitous "what I'm thankful for" facebook updates. But I also say it because of my current Eerdmans sales rep, Jerry Arends, who got me in for a day to the the recent SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) and AAR (American Academy of Religion) extravaganza in Baltimore.  This annual event has been on my "bucket list" for decades, and to be able to walk the isles of world-renowned academic religious publishers and literally bump into Al Wolters and Tom Wright and Ron Sider and Diana Butler Bass, to be introduced to Arthur Boers and Robert Ellsberg and to get to hear Wendell Berry -- what a joy!  A big hope was for the chance to cross paths with Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, and it was a highlight of the day to be with them. (And I am again reminded of how important is Brian's co-authored Eerdmans book, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement which draws upon important authors such as Brueggeman on exile and Berry on place, and want to again be the one to press it upon you, into your hands and into your heart.)  Everything at SBL/AAR zoomed by so quickly, and I drove home overwhelmed with gratitude, being so thankful to be a part of this industry of book-selling, being a handmaiden of good authors, if even in a small, small way. 

A few of these big wig scholars and publishers at SBL even seemed to know who we are but most, naturally, do not.  We are still just a small town shop, with a relatively faint footprint here in cyberspace. We are glad for the place and role God has given us, such as it is, grateful for these decades of retail service, and thankful to you, BookNotes readers and customers who have shelled out your hard-earned bucks to buy books.  It is clear to me that we can serve you as we do, in part, because there have been special opportunities for us to know good sales reps, to occasionally meet publishers and editors who work behind the scenes, and to interact with the authors themselves. I realize it is a great gift which I must steward, and hope it somehow pleases you to know this.

We are at your service, for the sake of the world, to the glory of God.  To be called and enabled to do that work, is a privilege, and we are very, very grateful.

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