The call came into our front desk this week. Jeanette buzzed my phone and said that a Mrs. Johnson was on the phone and wanted to talk with me. I asked Jeanette if she knew the woman and she said that she did not, but that this woman claimed to know me. A few seconds later, I picked up the line that Mrs. Johnson was on and discovered that she was a long time CLC customer from the era when I had been a bookstore manager. At that time I had helped her find a particular Bible and she had used it for many years and needed a replacement. Somehow, I must have made an impact on her as she tracked me down at the headquarters office where I now work and opened the conversation with line. “I just had to call you because you know everything”. Well, I certainly do not know everything, but I did know about this Bible and that it had been replaced by a similar Bible with a new name. After a quick recommendation and a reminder about where our store had moved since we last chatted, she thanked me profusely and ended the call.
As I was pondering this event and how much I enjoyed this aspect of my work when I was in the bookstore, I couldn’t help but consider another breaking story of the past couple of weeks. After many years of rumors, Amazon.com actually opened a physical bookstore in Seattle, Washington. This astounding event occurred without much fanfare in the mainstream media or hoopla about the irony of “the world’s largest bookstore” actually finally opening a bricks and mortar location. After 21 years as an exclusively on-line book retailer that destroyed the livelihoods of many independent physical book stores, this giant of an organization opened a very modest 5,000 square foot location. There has been much speculation about why they made this plunge. One thing is for sure, shopping on-line is not the same as visiting a store and the closure of so many bookstores has changed the book buying habits of our nation and many countries around the world. While people may have access to almost any book on-line they want at any time of night or day and great prices, this reality does not replace the value and the joy of human interaction.
I spent the weekend at America’s Keswick in Whiting, NJ at my church’s annual men’s retreat and realized how good it was for my soul. Men tend to be islands unto themselves and stoically go through life pretending they don’t need other people, especially not other guys in their lives. While we interact with each other in business, at church and in recreational settings, we rarely take time to get below the surface. Far too often we are consumed by trivial conversations about sports, politics or other inconsequential issues as we avoid ever letting other men into our world. I was like this for a long time too. In recent years, I was deeply convicted about this reality in my own life and committed to being in a weekly men’s accountability group. These men that I meet with are like brothers and have given me a safe place to explore my faith, share my frustrations and to be challenged on a regular basis. As I spent quality time this weekend in extended conversations with guys that I do not interact with on a regular basis, I was reminded of the way Jesus poured himself into the life of twelve men that he mentored.
This built in desire for relationship makes my phone call this week and the store opening in Seattle make a lot more sense. Mrs. Johnson could certainly have done her research on-line about the Bible she needed, but why do that when she could call me and get a personal recommendation from “an old friend”. Amazon may be finally recognizing that Starbucks was on to something when they opened so many locations around the world to create “third places” for people to congregate, interact and buy coffee at crazy prices. It would not surprise me if they open more stores and even increase prices as people prove once again that they are willing to pay more for the in-store experience and personal recommendations that make finding “just the right book” such a delightful experience.
My team members in France will certainly be glad that we have a physical bookstore in Paris and nine more in strategic locations all over that traumatized nation this next week. After closing on Saturday in memory of the horrific events of this weekend, we will reopen again to provide an oasis of care and concern. People will be able to come in and ask the hard questions, to cry and to mourn and we will do what we always do in crisis situations. We will mourn with those who mourn and pray with those who will let us. Our books will be all that much more meaningful and the Bibles on our shelves will provide the only true answers to events that seem so unimaginably awful. I only wish I could fly across the ocean to join with them as they open the doors. I may not be able to speak French, but I do know how to hug. May God be the God of all comfort to the people of France and may we remember the power of personal connection.