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JOE LAGUARDIA: Closing of Christian bookstore robs us of avenue to faith-building

For the last two weeks, I've spent a significant amount of time at the Cokesbury Christian bookstore in Decatur. Since Cokesbury announced that, as of April of this year, all freestanding locations will be closed, our local store has decreased prices on the last of its stock. I purchased as many much-needed books I could afford.

Although primarily a United Methodist retailer, Cokesbury became a leader in books, clergy apparel and resources for Christians across denominational lines. The Decatur branch was one of the larger stores that boasted high sales among Cokesbury's 50 locations. I, like so many others, was shocked to hear the news.

Cokesbury is more than a bookstore; it represents a community of like-minded people who get to know you and pray with -- and for -- you. The employees know me by face, and I get the same greeting every time, "Hi, Pastor, how can I help you?"

I was on a first-name basis with the store manager, and he knew exactly what books to recommend.

When I roamed the aisles this last time, I was grieving the loss. Since most of the bookstores in our area have all but closed, Cokesbury was one of the few outposts for folks like me -- people who don't shop online because it's hard to buy a book before physically holding it. (That, and I can't get books on most of the stuff I read, like Lent for instance, at other Christian bookstores.)

With the store's demise, I'll now have to rely on reviews and friends for book recommendations. I'll be forced to look through catalogues and websites to determine whether I want to spend money on a book, knowing all along how inconvenient it is to return it if I don't like it.

I'll need to work extra hard to find obscure books, and gone are the days of browsing through the beloved clearance section.

For me, the closing of Cokesbury is akin to a crisis of faith. At least, it is for a person whose faith grows in the company of great authors and well-written prose.

Faith is best served when a person chooses how to grow and by what means. It is a democratic process in which God comes by way of calling and exploration, creativity and, at times, meandering the aisles and flipping through books.

Buying books online limits the democratic process of choosing all that a store has to offer. I talked about this with a parishioner recently, and I bemoaned the fact that the closing of bookstores, the end of learning penmanship in public school, and the collapse of many newsprint media signals the end of liberty as we know it.

Sure, I was exaggerating, but I'm on to something. If all we read are the bestsellers and blogs that a set of logarithms recommend (based on buying habits), then what kind of society -- what kind of Christians -- will we become over the next century?

Over the past month, I've been writing about several spiritual disciplines, some very close to my heart, like letter-writing and confession. That is not unintentional; these spiritual disciplines are the very ancient practices that will continue to stoke a vibrant faith into a cyber-centered future faith that promises greater access to information at a cost.

We will be connected online more, but fewer of us will be able to shake hands at the bookstore. We can keep in touch over long distances with the click of the "send" button, but yet feel deeply detached and disconnected from each other's lives because we never communicate beyond the surface-level tweet.

We will be able to get books on our e-readers, but forget that the best type of reading engages other senses too, like the smell of the book and the feel of the pages as they turn in our hands.

I guess I'm being dramatic again; hyperbole is a faithful friend.

But I feel strongly that our Christian faith formation -- and our witness -- relies on grounded, well-researched and well-written resources that inspire theological reflection, challenge our all-too narrow opinions, and draw us ever closer to a God who wants to be nearer than a mouse click.

For each bookstore that closes, we lose touch with this simple conviction.

The Rev. Joe LaGuardia is the senior pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, 301 Honey Creek Road, Conyers. Email him at trinitybc3@bellsouth.net or visit www.trinityconyers.org.