When I was a child, I hated books. Well, that’s not strictly true. I loved the look and smell of them, especially new ones. But I never wanted to read one! In primary school, we used to get something called ‘Chip Club.’ It was a colourful, 4-page book catalogue. You just selected the books you wanted, go home and ask your parents for the money, and then in about 6-8 weeks, your book would arrive! There was so much excitement when the box arrived and was opened before us, as slowly and carefully, the teacher brought the books out and read out our names, and gave us the book (or books) we had ordered. They looked more beautiful in real life than in the catalogue.
But I never read any of them. Why would I do that?
When I went to Secondary school, it was expected of us to read books. Weekly! AND to write a review on them! Well, I did that. But I don’t think I ever read a single book. I read the summary on the back cover, and maybe the first chapter, or a random chapter in the middle (which I always designated to be my ‘favourite’ chapter) and wrote my review accordingly. I always seemed to get away with it too, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did it either.
At home, it was my dad who was the bookworm. My mum used to complain that he 'always had his face stuck in a book.' My mum owned books, but I rarely saw her read any of them. She'd mostly spend her time reading the Belfast Telegraph, particularly the 'death notices' just to see if there was anyone she knew in them. More times than enough, there was! I used to joke that she was just checking to make sure that she wasn't in it herself.
In my early teens, I have a recollection of finding a religious publication of some sort at home, and seeing an advertisement about getting a free Christian book. I sent away for it. It was a book called 'Ultimate Questions' by John Blanchard. And I do remember reading it. I must have, because I remember sending off for another one of his books. Then I wrote a letter to wherever I got it from (probably a Christian bookshop but I can't remember) to get yet another one for free, and they did send it, along with a note to say that this would be the last free book they would be sending. If I wanted any more, I'd have to pay for them. That was the last time I wrote to them. It was my first experience of a Christian book, and it wasn't long after I had made my own commitment to Christ, which may have been why I remember reading them in full, because I wasintrigued to read more about the Christian faith.
During the time I was doing my GCSE's, I made the decision that I wanted to go on and do 'A' Level's. It would mean having to do an extra year of schooling, and transferring to a Grammar school. My GCSE results weren't great, (probably because I didn't actually study for them) but I got enough of them to get me to my new school. I will never forget the interview I had with my new headmaster who helped me pick my 'A' Level subjects:-
'Well, you got a B grade in Music and RE, so you can do those. And you got a B in English Language, so you can do English Literature! It's the same thing!'
No! It's not!! I know that now of course, but not at the time. I just went with it! But doing English Lit and RE meant I had to read books! No skipping out chapters here.They would know if I did that! I was bringing home big thick text books on the Synoptic Gopsels and the Early Church and the great Persecution, as well as works of Shakespeare, Hardy and Chaucer. And you know what? I loved them! I enjoyed the books probably more than anyone else in the class did. The problem I had was writing about them. I hadn't a clue. I was failing English Lit for a year and a half, and then for one essay I had to write about a particular theme within one of our set texts. I picked the theme of 'irony' in 'King Lear' and focused on the allsuions of sight and blindness; light and darkness. Something finally clicked! I got it! And I got my first proper grade! In the end I got a 'C' grade. It was my lowest 'A' level grade, but the one I was most proud of.
Suddenly, I loved books, and more importantly appreciated what was inside them. During my time at university I worked for a time in a music shop, and then not long after graduating I got an opportunity to work in a Christian bookshop. Books I once had studied I was now selling! Plus I was discovering so many other books that I wanted to read, and not to have to write essays on! The books of John Blanchard were there too! It's as if I'd come round full circle. And now, I run my own Christian bookshop and am reading up to 2 or 3 books at a time. Who’d have thought it! The boy who hated books owns his own bookshop! I guess there’s hope for us all.
But why do I do it? Why do I love it so much? And why a Christian bookshop?
I’ve been working in the Christian book trade for 15 years. It’s something I hadn’t expected (if my early schooling was anything to go by). But the longer I did it, the stronger I felt a definitive vocation towards it; That this was my ministry; A way of bringing others to Christ.
In our shop, we have an old lectern Bible on display. Recently a couple of ladies came in, and one was instantly drawn to the open Bible, and started to look through it. Her friend said ‘Do you want to have a look through the other books?’ ‘Oh no’ said the other. ‘I don’t need to read those. The Bible is all I need to read.’
I know what she meant. But I also felt like closing the bookshop up there and then and going home. A friend of mine called Michael was in the shop at the same time. He runs a shop further down the Belmont Road from me. He’s a Christian, and in many ways has become my personal Spiritual advisor (though he doesn’t realise this). It was Michael who suggested I had the Bible open in the bookshop in the first place. His business is a health food shop, and as the name suggests, he sells food for healthy living. He sells vitamins and nutritional supplements. There will be times when we’re told we need extra Vitamin D in our bodies, or Iron, or Zinc etc and that’s where these supplements come in handy.
In many ways that’s what Christian books do to us. They supplement our faith on top of what the Bible does. A very good friend recently shared 2 Peter 1:5 with me.
‘For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge.’
In fact, in that letter, there are so many things we can supplement our faith with. Knowledge is just one of them. But faith is the foundation. The Bible is the foundation. For me Christian books provide the knowledge we need to supplement the faith that we have in God through His word.
I love it when customers come back and tell me of how a particular book I sold to them, or had recommended to them had touched them, or encouraged them in some way. Most of the time I don't know the stories of what happens after a book has been sold. They are like passports in someone's life journey. Some of those 'passports' end back up in here to be sold to somone else, and then a whole new journey begins. An ex-colleague once shared with me that maybe someone will get to Heaven because of a book I sold them. What an immense thought that is, and one that stays with me. It helps motivate me, and endorses the call I felt to set my business up in the first place.