Knowing a city by its bookstores

One of the great things about being an interim minister is that you get to move around the country. In the past three years, we have had the luck to live near three of the great cities of the United States. Last year we were near Berkeley, California; the year before that, we lived outside Boston; and this year we’re living near Chicago. I define a great city as one that has lots of independent bookstores.

I just spent the afternoon and evening in Chicago, where of course I spent hours in a bookstore. I was up in the Lincoln Square neighborhood, and stopped in one of those used bookstores with books piled everywhere. “Should I check my backpack?” I asked the owner. “No,” he said, “but be careful going around corners. You don’t want to start an avalanche.” He wasn’t kidding.

You learn a lot about a city by its bookstores. I always zero in on the religion section. In Chicago bookstores, you always seem to find lots of historical criticism of the Bible and general hardcore theology books, which I attribute to the influence of the University of Chicago, and there always seems to be a smattering of “Christian inspirational” books. In Berkeley bookstores, you’ll find tons of books about eastern religions and east-west studies, partly due to the influence of the university, but also because Berkeley is a Pacific Rim city that looks west more than east. In the religion sections of Boston (and Cambridge) bookstores, you find lots of scholarly books about Western religious traditions, but also a surprising number of books on Confucianism because Harvard has become a center for neo-Confucian studies.

Each of the great bookstores of each city tell you a little more about the character of the city. Berkeley has Eastwind Books, specializing in East Asian writers, and where I first got books by Lu Xun, an amazing Chinese writer of the early 20th C. The Seminary Coop Bookstore in Hyde Park in Chicago is quite simply the best academic bookstore I’ve ever seen. And the Mass Bible Society in downtown Boston carries an excellent selection of books on liberation theology and liberatory theologies, as well as good story books for children. (On their Web site, click on the “Bookstores” link, and then on the link “The Bible and Homosexuality” — yup, they’re liberal Christians.)

Trivialobservations, I suppose. But I do find it interesting that different places address different religious questions. And what I’ve seen in the bookstores plays out in the UU congregations I’ve served in each of these three places. Trivial, perhaps, but fascinating.