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Michael LeachAugust 01, 2011

I love the smell of cinnamon in the morning. I love the smell of the ocean in the afternoon. I love the smell of apple-scented candlelight at night. Most of all, I love the smell of old books, even though they smell like dust.

I have been writing, editing and publishing Catholic books for the past 40 years, so I probably smell like a 1966 Dutch Catechism. And a 1966 Dutch Catechism smells like an old wooden shoe.

When I was a child, I took out books from two different libraries, but I also loved riding my Schwinn to a used bookstore in Chicago with a storefront window that displayed books both old and mysterious. I would chain my bike to a lamppost, enter the quiet store and journey out into new worlds. I solved mysteries with the Hardy Boys, sailed through storms with Jack London and swung from tree to tree with Tarzan and Jane. And I went on holy adventures with saints in books like Damien the Leper, Joan of Arc and Saint Francis of the Seven Seas. You could buy books like that for a dime. The Music Box, my neighborhood movie theater, cost 15 cents. Books that play in your mind longer than a movie have always been a bargain.

When I was 14, I entered Quigley Preparatory Seminary. In the back of the old bookstore, under Occult, I found a fat book on Catholic apologetics that promised to help me confound anyone who did not believe what I did. My Uncle Barney was an atheist, so I tested out my new knowledge on him. During one argument, Uncle Barney said that someday scientists would be able to create human beings in a laboratory. I told him that was Frankenstein talk, and anyway only God can make a tree. I was obnoxious and have never liked apologetics since. Uncle Barney was not a bad guy, and if he were alive today he would probably resist the temptation to say, “See, I told you so,” about those lab babies.

At 15 I got my comeuppance when I came across a book by an ex-priest with a beef with the church. Since I could think of no better vocation for me than being a priest—other than centerfielder for the Cubs—I bought the 35-cent book out of curiosity. It knocked me down like a fastball to the head. I learned about the Inquisition and the Crusades and popes who made their babies popes and all kinds of crimes and misdemeanors. My Catholic guilt erupted: I knew I would go to hell just for reading it. So I went to confession to Father Ciezadlo, the kindest priest I knew. He not only absolved me but did not make a federal case out of it. “If your faith is built on a foundation of truth,” he seemed to say, “nothing can hurt it. Do not be afraid.”

A Candy Store of Books

The book did not hurt my faith. Instead it made me more interested in seeking truth. And in truth, the author was on target about a lot of things. Since that time I have read and given away thousands of Catholic and other religious books with many points of view, and each one has in one way or another enriched my faith. Today, the only thing I would rather be than Catholic is still centerfielder for the Cubs.

When I was 16 my neighborhood bookstore closed, but a brand-new Catholic bookstore opened in downtown Chicago, the Thomas More Bookstore. It was the world’s greatest candy store of Catholic books. I was working weekends and summers as an usher at Cubs, Bears and Blackhawks games, so I had plenty of money to buy books and see movies. I loved the rack of Image Books, a line of classics published by the Doubleday editor John Delaney. They had Mr. Blue, The Diary of a Country Priest and Practice of the Presence of God; books by Fulton J. Sheen, G. K. Chesterton and Thomas Merton; and classics from Augustine, John of the Cross and Teresa of ávila. They also had a whole table of Catholic novels with covers that created an instant love affair with anyone passing by. I experienced The Power and the Glory with Graham Greene, tasted Wise Blood with Flannery O’Connor and walked on The Edge of Sadness with Edwin O’Connor. The Thomas More Bookstore, an Aladdin’s castle of Catholic literature, closed years ago, but you can still smell the bouquet of books when you walk past the building on Wabash Avenue.

Today’s Stores

Today Catholics can keep their Schwinns in the basement and get any book online or at the nearest mall. Or they can visit a modern Catholic book and gift shop that smells like incense and offers a wide selection of books, cards, art and music. One model is the Gift Shop at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. The cathedral, the third largest in the world, offers Mass in 42 different languages and is the mother church to four million Catholics. Its shop offers parishioners a wide variety of books and gifts, ranging from $5 rosaries strung with ruby-colored glass beads to porcelain sculptures of Jesus, Mary and the saints.

Isabel Loriente, manager of the shop, points out: “In today’s changing world, books barely make a profit. Catholics also desire sacramental objects that remind them of the sacred in life and these gifts support the books. The profits then go to the church’s mission. Everyone benefits.” Isabel was drawn to her vocation through a back door. As a little girl from a nonreligious family she went to church alone and loved to spend time in the tiny shop tucked away in the vestibule. “It was both a guilty pleasure and a comfort,” she remembers.

I’d hold a figurine of the Blessed Mother and look at her peaceful gaze and know that somehow, someway, I was safe. I’d study the saints on holy cards and see valor and generosity. I’d read from spiritual books and begin to understand God wants only good for me and everyone no matter what things look like. Everything I saw or touched in that little shop reminded me that there’s so much more to this world than meets the eye. Now I love to share with customers the Aha! of a new book I read or just listen to their questions and concerns and be as helpful and open as I can.

Some 1,500 Catholic bookshops and gift shops offer this kind of service around the country. To find a Catholic bookstore near you, go online to the Catholic Marketing Network (catholicmarketing.com) or the Catholic Retailer’s Association (catholicretailers.com). There are also more than 100 publishers of Catholic books in the country. You can learn about them by going to the Association of Catholic Book Publishers at cbpa.org. All have excellent books that you won’t find reviewed in your local newspaper, but they will inform, inspire and enlighten you and remind you why it’s worthwhile to stay Catholic.

You can also pay attention to your Sunday church bulletin, and when the parish offers a speaker on a weekday night, surprise yourself and go. Some of the best Catholic authors in the country give great talks on weekday nights at parishes. Has anyone told you about Joyce Rupp, O.S.M., or Richard Rohr, O.F.M.? They are top-selling Catholic authors who often speak at parishes and who would delight and enlighten you. If you suspect there is more to Catholicism than you’ve heard, a little research will lead you to a book or study group or conference that can take you beyond statements about the truth to the Truth that will set you free.

Back in the 1960s, someone asked the theologian Karl Rahner, S.J., “Will the Catholic book have a future?” Father Rahner said: “It will be transformed, but it will endure. It will achieve this even if it takes the form of an unending variation upon the single basic theme: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ Even then it will endure and will lead us to that point in our human existence at which this existence is thrown headlong into the redeeming mystery.”

You may find direction in an old book that smells like dust or a new one that smells like plastic. Maybe the way will appear on a screen with pixels you hold in your hand or, the day after tomorrow, implanted on the inside of your eyelids. But heed the words of Aquinas and do not become “a man of one book.” Have fun, be adventurous and, as Father Ciezadlo advised, “Don’t be afraid!"

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Michael Stephenson
13 years ago
I found this to be a very interesting article, but I have one minor quibble. The Association of Catholic Book Publishers is at www.cbpa.ORG and not at www.cbpa.com . THAT is the CALIFORNIA Book Publishers Association.
13 years ago

Fixed, thanks.

Craig McKee
13 years ago
In addition to my annual stateside devotions to Saint Clare of Assisi (Patron Saint of TELEVISION) with back to back Star Trek episodes on SyFy channel, a M.A.S.H. marathon with my Dad, and Saturday nite crooning to Lawrence Welk oldies on PBS with my Mom, I also spend a weekend opening a year's worth of books ordered online and begin the triage to determine which ones will make it into the suitcases and take me dangerously close to the weight limit for the flight back to Hong Kong next month.
Among this year's treasures was the discovery of the Loyola Press CATHOLIC CLASSICS series, which includes affordable reprints of many of the titles mentioned in this article. For those who don't share the author's and my own love of the smell and touch of old books, it's definitely worth a looksee.
Craig McKee
13 years ago
p.s. Thanx also for the memory of Thomas More Bookstore, where I worked for a year while matriculating at Loyola/Chicago. Shall I ever forget the bags and bags of mail orders we had to process (by hand!) for weeks after DEAR ABBY recommended one of Andrew Greeley's titles? Quelle joie!

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