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.
The proximity of the Bible section to the registers was one of the chief hazards of cashiering at Provident.
“You see?” exclaimed a man who (I later realized) must have been a Seventh Day Adventist. He jabbed a finger at Deuteronomy chapter eight, verse six. “‘Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him.’ And what day of week did God tell us was the Sabbath? It was originally on Saturday.”
“Well,” I said cautiously, “yes it was?”
“And what day of the week do you go to church?”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Oh, well it’s because of Easter. Jesus rose on the day after the — ”
“Exactly!” he slapped the open Bible triumphantly. “Easter! Which is derived from Ostara, the pagan goddess of spring!”
“I beg your pardon,” I said, “I really need to finish reloading this receipt printer.”
“Look here!” said a woman, furiously thrusting a cracklingly new New International Version at me. “There’s a whole verse missing.”
I followed her finger down the page to Mark 9:45, which was indeed followed directly by Mark 9:47. Well, not quite directly. “Ah, no, see, verse 46 is down here in a footnote,” I explained. “Because some of the original manuscripts didn’t have that bit of text, it says.”
“But it’s in the King James!” she said. “Do you really think it’s okay to sell Bibles with verses taken out?”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, “I think I just heard my manager calling.”
The rest of Provident’s inventory was a comprehensive selection of the culture Evangelical Christians had built to protect themselves from sinful influences. The music section was full of albums by Christian bands, which sounded suspiciously like U2, Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M., and so on, but whose lyrics exclusively concerned the struggles of sexual purity and the redemptive power of Jesus — the moral-aural equivalent of frozen yogurt. The music desk was staffed with guys a year or two older, and infinitely cooler, than I was, who were skilled in translating customers’ musical tastes from the debased mainstream into holier equivalents. These included the only other Jeremy in the store, who had pierced ears and frosted tips and an actual goatee, and in whose presence I could not complete a coherent sentence.
The philosophy of Christian Rock extended to most of our fiction inventory. Provident had Christian romance novels, mass-market paperbacks with soft-focus, painterly cover images that recalled the lovers adorning Danielle Steele’s books. On these, however, the men kept their shirts buttoned up and the women stood chastely apart, their faces usually downcast as in prayer. One popular series was, straightforwardly, exclusively about the Amish.
There were Christian thrillers and spy novels, too. Our bestselling books were the Left Behind series, which novelized the alleged predictions of the Book of Revelation as filtered through John Birch Society anti-internationalist paranoia. Their plotline follows the very plausible career of an ambitious U.N. Secretary General, the Antichrist, as he establishes a global government, a unified worldwide religion, and a global currency mediated by markings on the forehead, then proceeds to persecute resistant Christians. Left Behind aspired to imitate Tom Clancy or Michael Crichton, but only managed to make those magnificent hacks look like Charles Dickens by comparison.
I read enough Dickens right there in the store to make that analogy with authority. The chief perk of working at Provident was that, when customer traffic lagged and my side duties were done — cleaning the front windows, sweeping up behind the counter, organizing the coupon fliers to go into customer’s bags with new purchases — I was free to sample the shelves. Over the course of my cashiering career I burned through most of the classics section and every last Grisham novel, then delved deep into C.S. Lewis’s apologetics, thumbed through magazine issues on the history of the Reformation, perused The Martyr’s Mirror for interesting woodcuts, and even, out of desperate boredom and morbid curiosity, made it about two and a half books into Left Behind.
I was as comfortable at Provident as I was in my own bedroom. Some of my earliest book-buying memories were in its aisles — I still had an illustrated copy of The Wind in the Willows that I’d purchased a decade earlier with a gift certificate earned in a Sunday school Bible-reading challenge. And I was more conversant than many of the other staff with the theology that filled the air in the store, from the drive-by Bible-thumpers who pestered us on break to the Herald Press-branded doctrine we sold by the gross.
Still, the limited scope of the store’s inventory that I actually wanted to read was an unsubtle hint that my days at Provident were numbered.
For all my familiarity with the store’s evangelizing culture, I could never quite get into the, for lack of a better expression, spirit of the thing. I would certainly not have argued that Provident Bookstore wasn’t an important force for God’s Work in the World. Under direct inquiry, I would have had to admit that even if many of the products we sold were not what I wanted, each of them probably had its place in a well-balanced Christian life. And yet somehow, all together in one place, they felt different.
Left Behind and the Amish romance novels sat a shelf away from C.S. Lewis. Christianized soft-rock played over the store’s loudspeakers as I leafed through the transcendent choral tunes collected in The Mennonite Hymnal. A customer coming up to pay for a copy of The Martyr’s Mirror would walk past a rack of Testa-Mints — chalky candies with Bible verses on the wrapper —and sheaves of tracts extolling the grace of God and decrying the sins of the world, all designed for the easiest bearing of witness. Carefully written Sunday school workbooks were in the same section as Biblical action figures, which included a Jesus figure accessorized with a tiny plastic basket of loaves and fishes. Provident offered simple paperback copies of the New International Version and earnest Herald Press books about living “more with less”, but also bedazzled Bible covers, a jewelry case full of gold crosses, and enormous, luminous, gilt-framed paintings of Jesus in various postures of sacrifice and benediction.
Standing under those paintings, behind the rack of Testa-Mints, it was often surprisingly difficult to live up to what people expected of a Provident Bookstore cashier.
One day a lady marched into the store with the purposive stride of someone headed for the Bible section, but instead she took an ominous turn directly towards the registers. The two of us on duty gave her polite “hellos”. She returned them with a gleam in her eye that said we’d committed to more conversation than we wanted.
“If I were to ask you how to get to Heaven,” she said, “what would you tell me?”
My coworker suddenly noticed a pile of coupon fliers that needed organizing, and abandoned me on the spot. I decided to try humour. “Well,” I said, “I’d tell you that the information desk is in the back, that way.” I pointed, half hoping she’d follow the direction.
“Are you saying you’d send me away?” she said, sharply.
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I was, uh, being facetious.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I don’t know what that word means,” she said, “but I think you’d better give some thought to how you would answer that question, young man.” And then she spun on her heel and stomped out.
I did give it some thought. The next summer I took a job on a landscaping crew. It was hard work, but it was outdoors, and the pay was substantially better — and there were never any Bibles at the worksite.