For what does it profit a teen if he gains a summer job selling Bibles but loses patience with the faithful?
One spring semester in high school, I stopped by Barnes and Noble to pick up a job application for summer. When I sat down at the kitchen table to fill it out, my mother took a look and gave it the expression she reserved for news stories about child abduction.
“I don’t think you should apply there,” she said. “You don’t know who you might end up working with.”
Mom never explained her low opinion of Barnes and Noble staff, but she did know what kind of people I worked with at the bookstore job I did take. Provident Bookstore was a local institution, the Mennonite Church’s bookstore — Barnes and Noble, but for God and the Gospel. I spent two summers and the intervening school year as a Provident cashier, and the entire time it felt like I was making minimum wage to hang out in the church lobby after Sunday services.
The layout of the store was the same as any other large-ish retail bookseller: cashiers up front, customer service in back, row upon row of bookshelves ranked under fluorescent lighting. The air had the same hush you get in any space devoted to reading, the same faint flat scent of several tons of fresh paper all in one place. But the contents of the shelves were not what they carried at Barnes and Noble.
In addition to a sensible selection of classics and the more sedate entries on the New York Times bestseller list — your Johns Grisham, your Irmas Bombeck, your many, many Chicken Soups for the Soul — Provident stocked the complete inventory of Herald Press, the Church’s publishing house. Herald Press produced everything from hymnals to Sunday School curricula to Amish cookbooks to The Martyr’s Mirror, a seventeenth-century doorstop of a book compiling stories of people who had died for their faith, from the first century Anno Domini to the Reformation. There was, of course, an entire section devoted to Bibles, in every translation and with every conceivable annotation, and Bible accessories ranging from devotional bookmarks to zippered protective carrying cases.
The proximity of this Bible section to the registers was one of the chief hazards of cashiering at Provident. At least once a week someone would storm into the store, march to the Bibles, pluck one off the shelf, and try to make a theological point to the nearest available audience — us cashiers.