Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Defense of the Bookstore: Eighth Day Books

Wichita, KS. At the intersection of N Erie St. and E Douglas Ave. sits a bookshop, since 1988, as a testament to renewal.

Eighth Day Books is heralded by Image Journal as the “Miracle of Wichita,” and for its owner, Warren Farha, there’s likely more truth in that single statement. The store’s inception was grown from Farha’s own love of books: “I remember lying on our living room floor with a book called The Real History of the Wild West when I was three or four years old, looking at the pictures and pretending I could read. Reading led me into other worlds as often as I wanted.”

That, and the 1987 car accident that took away his first wife. “A completely intimate and unspeakable event, yet to describe the store without saying anything about that would be, fundamentally, lying,” said Farha. “In the midst of the cataclysm, one of the things I knew was that I had to start my life over in certain deep ways. Part of that starting over was entering a new vocation, and my umbilical attachment to reading, and the influence of the circle of friends I had inhabited for the previous ten years, pointed, in my head, to a bookstore.”

So here it sits, across the street from a rug shop and a bed and bath gallery, Eighth Day Books, with a name suggesting there’s renewal beyond the end of the week. The eighth day is the first day of the new week, the day symbolic of Jesus’ resurrection.

Devoted to “classics in religion, literature, and history,” Farha is hesitant nonetheless about the store being pigeonholed as “religious.”

“It slices ultimate truths from the stuff of life, defines it as one category among others, and also repels those for whom ‘religion’ has a viscerally negative connotation.”

He takes the distinction farther. “We’re aiming here at an all-embracing universality… We believe, in our souls, that all truth is interconnected—if rightly considered, Beatrix Potter and Curious George and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Wendell Berry can be as religious as Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus Confessor and Augustine and Aquinas.”

In an atmosphere where bookstores in general are increasingly considered quaint specialty shops, it begs the question of specializing further, but Farha persists in his now twenty-three year commitment to bookselling, his way. “From the beginning, I knew our selection…could not be supported solely by the local community,” though the store boasts a wide clientele from varying denominations, traditions, and depths of belief.

“A year after we opened, we mailed our first catalog, a 24-page broadside of our favorite books and short appreciate reviews… Our infant website was launched in 1998, mirroring the titles contained in our ink-and-paper catalog. By 2009, our website became comprehensive, presenting all 27,000-plus titles we stocked on the shelves, both new and used.”

Almost from its inception, Eighth Day has also been the representative bookstore at many an Image Journal event, along with Touchstone, the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, the Baylor Institute of Faith and Learning. It all started when Madeleine L’Engle came to speak at a local university in 1988. “A month after that was an event called ‘Assisi in Wichita,’ a gathering of representatives of the major religions from all over the world.” Later, Image seized on the bookstore for all their conferences, the rest followed. “We just sort of fell into this kind of thing.”

Meanwhile, Eighth Day Press does what it can by extension to make available books that fit the store’s niche. “Eighth Day Press began only because we felt compelled that certain books, whether old books now out of print, or—in the case of our first book, an original publication, The Feast of Friendship by Fr. Paul O’Callaghan—deserved to see the light of day. We don’t have the resources to do all we’d like to do, but we’re proud of the books we’ve published or reprinted. It’s more of a personal commitment to the books themselves.”

As I continue—albeit infrequently as ever—to mount a defense of the bookstore, I’m heartened to find each one is more different than the last, fitting their communities by engaging on the level of need, desire, passion. And I’m inspired with words Warren Farha left with me:
I nurture the hope that our nature as human beings cries out for the physicality of the printed book, and the almost endless and surprising variety a bookstore uniquely offers. Without wishing to offend anyone, I believe digital books are a Gnosticizing technology, by contrast with real books sterile and ephemeral, offering only convenience and novelty in exchange for the more subtle and enduring genius and delightful corporeality of the codex…I have no Plan B. I’ll keep doing this, as much as it depends on me, until by last breath.