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Book Store Tribulations

Some of my largest headaches have come not from the laity, but from the clergy. I began my ministry, which now includes a book store, by setting up book faires at local Catholic churches on weekends and by offering parish seminars on what distinguishes Catholics from Jehovah’s Witnesses, Fundamentalists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and other sectarians.

It has been my experience that many pastors, good men that they are, are not in touch with the needs of their congregations. For example, I recently held a book faire in a small church about 200 miles from my home. As I was setting up my display the pastor remarked that he couldn’t understand why I would drive so far for so few people–about 350 families. He said he didn’t expect me to do well since his people were apathetic.

His “apathetic” parishioners spent nearly $2,000 on good Catholic books covering doctrine, history, apologetics, Scripture, spirituality, and prayer. I spent hours answering their questions. These people wanted information about their faith, and their pastor didn’t even know it.

Wherever I go, I find a real hunger among the laity for apologetic information. Many Catholics realize they are no longer being fed solid meat-and-potatoes Catholicism. They are concerned that much of what they are being taught today is not recognizable as Catholic doctrine. I get numerous questions that begin with, “Has the Church changed the teaching on…” Some teachers seem to believe that the words of our Lord and the Church’s doctrines need to be reshaped into something more palatable.

Recently I attended a parish program on the sacraments. It was taught by one of the sisters. One handout she presented stated that we are not sure how many sacraments there are and that the sacraments were “invented” by the Church. It also stated that “no serious person would any longer claim that only those who have been baptized will be saved.”

The sister and her handout performed a disservice. Catholics have a right to expect that what they are taught by a priest or religious in a Catholic setting is going to be what the Church has always taught down through the ages.

It was to counter this sort of misinformation–whether coming from outside the Church or from inside–that I started my ministry, Catholic Footsteps. When I wrote about my work in these pages two years ago, I said that I hoped to open a book store. Catholic Footsteps Bookstore became a reality in January 1991. Running it has not been easy, either physically or financially, but the rewards have more than offset the difficulties.

In response to that earlier article, I received numerous letters and calls asking for advice about starting similar ministries. I will try to address some of the topics brought up.

To begin with, I recommend finding a priest who shares your goals and vision, someone who is respected by his fellow priests and is orthodox in his teachings. This may not be easy. It has been my experience that if a priest is truly orthodox, he may be characterized as being not too bright or behind the times. But search for such a priest; it’s easier to get started if you have a clerical contact.

If you desire to open a book store to serve primarily Catholics, consider this rule of thumb. Each member of the Catholic population will spend an average of one dollar per year in your store. If you have an annual overhead of $20,000, and if you require a personal annual income of $20,000, and if your markup on books is 40 percent, you will need $100,000 in sales to stay in business. Another way to state it is: If you estimate your needed gross income at $100,000 per year, you need a base of 100,000 Catholics.

I reside in a region that is sparsely settled. My store is the only Catholic one in an area of about 4,000 square miles; the total population is about 250,000, and the population of active and nominal Catholics ranges from 55,000 to 60,000. Since I need a population base of 100,000 Catholics to survive, I must go to as many outlying churches as I can in order to supplement my store income. I take my store on the road.

I try to schedule as many as three weekends per month serving outlying parishes. There have been many months when I’ve had only one or two days off. I had the idea that once I opened the store I could spend my days reading, studying, and waiting on customers. In actuality I have less time to devote to study than I had before I opened the store.

Having enough starting capital is key. I put everything I owned into my store, and it wasn’t enough. In September 1990, after only nine months in business, I found myself $15,000 in debt, with no money to pay the bills. I made an appointment with a lawyer to discuss liquidating the inventory, closing the store, and paying my creditors. The day before I was to have the appointment, a couple who live about 60 miles away came in, as they do every six weeks or so.

They asked how things were going, and I shared with them my problems and that I expected to close the store at the end of the month. They made a number of purchases, left, and then returned a little while later and said that the store was doing a lot of good and that it had to stay open. They offered me a $15,000 interest-free loan to be paid back as I could afford to. I believe these people, who would be embarrassed to be named here, believe in what I am trying to accomplish and want to be a part of it.

I carry over 1,800 titles. I try to carry only books that teach Catholicism in its purity. It’s important to me that my customers feel confident that they can count on me to carry only reliable materials. There was a time when we could search for a nihil obstat and an imprimatur in the front of a book to determine whether it taught orthodox Catholicism, but not any longer. Some good books don’t have those indicators, and some bad ones do.

We can’t assume a book’s orthodoxy from the fact that the publisher specializes in books for Catholics or that the particular book is published with an imprimatur. I don’t have time to read every book I put on my shelves, so, by trial an error, I’ve learned which publishers are reliable and which aren’t. Occasionally I will ask for recommendations from groups that I trust, such as Women for Faith and Family and Catholic Answers.

But I can’t always tell whether a particular book, even from an otherwise good publisher, is solid. Quite a few books are sent back to the publisher when I find they violate or confusingly state Catholic teaching, but some books are obtained on a no-return basis, so I must absorb the loss.

When I was planning the store, I was advised by friends to name it something less identifiably Catholic than Catholic Footsteps Bookstore, perhaps a name that might be more acceptable to other Christians. But when a person comes into the store and says it makes him feel proud to see the word “Catholic” prominently displayed on my sign, I know I made the right decision. His smile is one of the little things that makes it all worthwhile.

Even so, a number of non-Catholics visit, and I do my utmost to make them feel welcomed. Some come to buy gifts for a Catholic friend or relative, but some come in to save my soul. They are the visitors that I really enjoy.

I really admire these evangelists; they show a lot of courage. They believe they are venturing into a den of iniquity, but they also strongly believe they are on a mission from the Lord to save me from eternal damnation. (We could do with a few million of them as educated Catholics.)

Usually these people are from small Fundamentalist churches, and they have been filled full of untruths about and distortions of Catholicism. Rather than getting upset, I ask what it is that they wish to share with me about Catholicism. I listen and then explain what the Church really teaches about that particular subject. Many of these people have been taught by their pastors that Catholics aren’t Christians, that we are idolaters (worshiping Mary rather than the Holy Trinity), and that we aren’t allowed to read the Bible.

I usually hand them two business cards as they leave, one for them and one for their pastor. I ask them to convey an invitation to their pastor to come into my store so that I can share what the Catholic Church really teaches. Unfortunately, not a single pastor has taken me up on the invitation.

I did have one Seventh-Day Adventist minister come in to browse. That was a memorable day. He was a confident individual who had been preaching against Catholicism for 25 years. This was my first open encounter with an SDA minister, and I asked if I could question him about his church. He agreed. The first question I asked was why the SDA Church is so anti-Catholic. He was startled by the directness of the question and said he and his church were not anti-Catholic, just “pro-Bible.”

He explained the doctrine of sola scriptura. I asked him to show me in the Bible the scriptural foundation for it. After fifteen minutes of Scripture searching and discussion, he agreed that the doctrine was not scriptural. Then he argued that Catholics add to the Bible’s theology by our inclusion of Tradition as God’s word. After all, he said, Revelation 22:18-19 states that nothing should be added to or taken away from the Bible. We discussed the history of the Bible and the fact that the Protestant Reformers removed seven books from Scripture and that the King James Version is incomplete.

I have a small library of books on the SDA, so I was able to show him in Seventh-Day Adventists Believe… , published by the General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists, that the book explained Catholic Tradition incorrectly. When I showed him that this publication misrepresented the Catholic understanding of Tradition, which is the oral teaching of the apostles, he didn’t know what to say.

As he began to open up, I was able to explain many Church teachings. Unfortunately he held a distorted picture of Catholic beliefs based upon SDA teachings. The SDA Church (and even more so the Watch Tower Society) frequently misrepresents Catholic doctrines in its publications and twists history to suits its purposes.

After an hour of discussion I brought up the matter of his preaching against Catholicism, and he admitted he did that. He replied that he owned eleven Catholic catechisms and that he made certain that he quoted exactly what was written about a particular subject or doctrine. Only then he would refute the pernicious teaching.

I said I appreciated his quoting Catholic teaching correctly, but that wasn’t enough. I asked him what he would believe if someone showed him a picture of his wife and a strange man embracing and kissing. It could be that his wife was having an affair with the stranger, or it could be something innocent, such as old school friends meeting after a long separation. My point was that he could not tell without some explanation of the picture. Catechisms state Catholic teachings but not necessarily the foundations for those teachings. I invited him to engage in serious study of these foundations from a Catholic perspective.

When I said I would be proud to provide him with the necessary study materials and sponsor him as a catechumen, I guess I went too far for his first visit. He abruptly looked at his watch and said his wife was waiting for him. I doubt he will return to my store, but maybe he will have second thoughts about preaching so strongly against Catholicism.

A few years ago, I would have gone out of my way not to talk to any Protestant, let alone a Protestant minister, about religion. I found it an embarrassment that I was not knowledgeable enough to explain my faith. Now I have confidence. It’s not that I know everything I need to know, but I know enough to share my faith with others and to have the assurance that the Catholic Church teaches truth.

Each day at least one person comes in with a question about what the Church teaches or about sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormonism. I spend as many as fifteen hours a week answering questions, either in person or on the telephone, or directing people to the right books or resources. I’ve had ex-satanists, avowed atheists, anti-Catholic Fundamentalists, an occasional Jehovah’s Witness, and even a few people of questionable mental stability come in to harass, attack, or just talk. There is never a dull moment, but there is much profit in running a Catholic book store, even if the profit isn’t the pecuniary kind.

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