During our time in Michigan this past weekend, we made sure to spend an afternoon in South Haven, a small port city down the road from where we were staying. We go there each year for the lighthouse, the blueberry store (blueberries are a big deal in Michigan), the antique shops, coffee, and of course, the bookstore. It was unfortunate, then, to find that the Hidden Room Book Shoppe was closing. We had enjoyed this place in years past- last year our finds included Micreae Eliade's History of Religious Ideas and Ernest Jone's The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. This year we found a gaping storefront view of empty shelves.
Apparently the owner of Hidden Room simply decided to retire, so at least the story isn't one of small booksellers being pushed out by a tough economy- quite the opposite, I suppose, if she is able even to make the decision to retire. But the loss is still felt. Similarly, Rare Finds, the little used book store across the street from our apartment here in Wheaton, is also closing up (I think again because of retirement). While I'll always have my walk along 57th Street to the divinity school for good book browsing, somehow it's more rewarding to look through a bookstore not particularly catering to a large student and faculty population, and find a gem in the least likely of places. That's what I think I'll miss the most about these places closing. I remember finding a first English edition of Gustaf Aulén's Christus Victor in a used bookstore in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. Or an old hardback of Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith in a thrift store basement elsewhere in Michigan. Those are the times when you remember the actual moment of discovery, and it simply can't be compared to a search on Abe Books or a tidy-and-stocked specialty bookseller that surely has what you're looking for.
One pleasantly redeeming discovery in South Haven this year was another used bookstore that we had somehow missed in previous visits. On our way back from the South Pier Lighthouse we ran across Black River Books. When we walked in we almost stumbled over a huge, amiable labradoodle (named Booker), sprawled out half-asleep on the floor just within the front door. After stepping over him and chatting with the owner a bit, we looked around. Black River had a great religion section, with an impressive shelf of theology and a lot of old paperbacks of 20th century giants like Tillich, Bultmann, Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. I was sorely tempted to get a few books, including Makintosh's Types of Modern Theology, a small old translation of the Theologia Germanica that I had never seen before, and a whole handful of Tillich books. Unfortunately (though much to my wife's relief) we were rushing home, and I left them for others to find.
On our way out I made sure to compliment the owner and let her know that I thought she had a wonderful religion section; she told me that her husband had been in the ministry for over three decades (I'm forgetting with which denomination, but some sort of mainline congregational background). She said that she had worked in mental health and so they also tended to have a good selection in this area.
So while it's been sad to see booksellers go, it is inspiring to find new ones popping up. It's an encouraging sign, and hopefully one that will continue.