A word on the business: Tom Loome left teaching theology at Catholic institutions in the early 80s after having bought and sold enough books (barely) to start a bookstore. He was not keen on academic Catholic theology in Catholic colleges in America in the early 80s, despite having written the book on Catholic modernism. In the 70s and 80s Catholic institutions were throwing away old books left and right, and Tom began the habit of getting his hands on them (and all sorts of other religious ephemera). He bought books, he took books that were going to be thrown away, he even dumpster dived from time to time pulling gorgeous leather Leonine editions of the Summa out of the rubbish. I don't mean to suggest that Tom only bought old Catholic books, his interests were ubiquarian, but because so many Catholic institutions were hell bent on ditching their intellectual patrimony during that time (often with newer librarians having no idea what they were throwing away or selling), Tom was able to rather quickly and easily amass the largest collection of Catholic secondhand and antiquarian books in North America. By the time I came along in the '90s, his was the game in the continent.
But it wasn't just Catholic stuff. When I first became of customer of Loome's I was there buying up Schleiermacher, and Feuerbach, and Bultmann, and Tillich, and Barth and such, of which they had more primary and secondary materials in all European languages than I had ever seen before, or even imagined possible in one place. And it wasn't just theology. There was shelf after shelf of books just by and about Kant. I would bet at that time they carried, for example, at least 100 separate titles in various languages on Roman architecture, and another 100 on Armenian history, not Arminian, there would have been even more titles related to that, Armenian.
I knew that Loome's was special as a customer, but after I began working there I learned just how special. That Christoph Schönborn turned to Tom when building the largest Catholic library in Vienna. That the Vatican library, and Bodleian, and archivists at just about every major North American collection dealing with theology, or Christian history, or medieval studies, did regular business with Loome's. In the book searching world just before the internet changed everything, scholars from all over the world would call asking for this or that hard to find text - many of them bearing names I knew from my own studies.
As the only Protestant who worked there, it wasn't long before I was out of the mailing room and was given the obvious task of taking care of the biblical studies and Protestant Americana sections.
The bibilical studies section started up in the balcony at the top of the staircase and went along the shelves on the wall as you went down the staircase, and then took up a rather incoherent arrangement of shelves below a portion of the large balcony. The main area of "the church" (which is what we called the church turned bookshop), where perhaps 2/3rds of the store's books were located, wasn't heated, and this is in Minnesota. So attending to books in that area for many hours a day meant coping with the cold. This was done via appropriate attire, taking breaks in the warm area in the back of the store, and keeping a flask handy.
My wife has often commented about my uncanny knack for finding employment in places wherein drinking on the job is the norm. Loome's was something of ChesterBelloc meets Mad Men, at least from a conviviality perspective. On a typical day we would really get things going after my coworker Danny and I had finished our breakfast, which might be somewhere around 9:30/9:45 or so, even though work officially started at 9. Then usually Danny or I would go to "downtown" Stillwater (four blocks down the hill) to get (more) coffee for everyone. We would work a little bit whilst drinking coffee, which was often enough fortified with spirits, and then, of course, we would need a smoke break.
Smoking was done in our little spot outside and to the back of the church, which was accessed via a door from the medieval studies section in the back of the store. There was a small concrete bit of space there, and a statue of St. Joseph blessing us from a slightly raised tiny garden. After the first smoke of the day we would work until lunch, which often enough involved beer. After lunch we would work until 5, when the drinking really began. But that was a typical day. On a special occasion, which there seemed to be a lot of, Chris, one of the managers, would give me $40 and send me to the liquor store (when it opened at 10, or not long thereafter) to get a decent bottle of scotch or Irish or bourbon, and we'd milk that throughout the day. In my first couple of years there every month or so all of this drinking would culminate into an evening trip to the venerable Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter, where we would drink German beer, in liter mugs, until finishing the night off with the shots of Jägermeister brought out on a wooden paddle by the always appropriately figured barmaid whose plump bosoms were pouring out of her dirndl's bodice. I am quite sure that if I were to try to relive one of those days today that it would kill me.
The environment was very heady. Academics and other intellectuals were often in the store, and discussions broke out frequently. People in the "theology world" who came to the Twin Cities to give a lecture often ended up at Loome's, so you never knew when an N.T. Wright or a Stanley Hauerwas or a Richard John Neuhaus or a Rosemary Radford Ruether or a Fr. Ian Ker or a Charles Kannengiesser or a Russel Kirk (Kirk had died before I started at Loome's, but his visit to the shop was still often talked about when I was there) was going to walk into the store. Further, Herr Loome made a point of bringing a lot of intellectuals into Stillwater to give talks, and he had his old European connections, so that brought more opportunities to meet and interact with prominent thinkers. Tom had been the first Catholic layperson to be granted a doctorate from the Catholic faculty at Tübingen, and he lived in Germany and then in the UK for quite a few years. Alexander Dru (translator of Kierkegaard, expert on Peguy, etc.), one of Europe's last great aristocratic non-professional wandering scholars, had been Tom's mentor. Tom drove a very elderly Emil Brunner around during Brunner's last years. He took courses from Ratzinger. Among Tom's closest friends were some of the children of G.E.M. Anscombe and Peter Geach; two of Geach's grandaughters from the UK worked at the store during the time I was there. Plus the faculty from the Catholic Studies Department at St. Thomas would come over fairly frequently, as did faculty and students from every seminary and theology department in the upper midwest, of which there are many.
So this gives a kid in his 20s a chance to ask Robert Louis Wilken why his buddy Jaroslav Pelikan converted to Orthodoxy and not Catholicism, and to ask frequent customer Avery Cardinal Dulles about a book recommendation, and to ask Robert Jensen about a passage in Barth that wasn't understood. Or you could ask then bishop of La Crosse (WI) Raymond Burke which his favorite La Crosse brewery was.
In addition, Herr Loome took me under his wing. He started giving me his read copies of the TLS marking in red ink the essays that I ought to "give special attention." I would ask him questions and often enough be given a pile of books with instructions of what order they should be read in and what I should be looking for from each. For years this often involved discussions in the mornings about the previous night's reading assignments. Theology certainly wasn't the only arena worked over. Tom's area of academic specialty was Catholic modernism, but he had an encyclopedic knowledge of modernism across the boards. He tutored me from Modigliani to Albin Moroder to Max Scheler to Montaigne. On more popular fronts he loves Graham Greene and John LaCarre novels. He would describe Handel's Chandros Anthems ("unequivocally the best psalm settings of the period") to me as if they somehow held the key to the meaning of life -- in that manner of fervent analysis via which Tom's mind operates when he loves something. He was once so distressed (and embarrassed, I think, of the lack in one of his bookmen) that I did not know who Heinrich Biber was that he at first, upon learning of my ignorance, walked away from me, then came back and sent me to his house immediately with the task of sitting down to listen to his Biber vinyl recording of the Rosary Sonatas, shaking his head and muttering to himself as I departed on his order, "Bach gets all the glory."
After a year or so of being there it became apparent that I was on the track of becoming a book buyer. Loome's book buyers traveled around North America, and occasionally Europe, on week long book buying trips to a given locale - at my peak I would eventually travel one week out of every 6 to 8. The job of the book buyer is, in essence, to know everything. There are the business aspects of the trade, there is the requisite bibliographic knowledge, but then there is that gnosis which can only come from being one of those generalists-on-steroids who is interested in everything and has a passable knowledge of most areas of academic and scholarly inquiry. One of the benefits of a job which requires knowing everything is that no one is much bothered, if, when tidying up a section of books, you spend a fair amount of time reading books in the stacks. There were "hard" aspects to the job. When we bought libraries and archival collections and the like we would have to unload semis with hundred of boxes of books that had to be carried and then gone through. We underwent a move from our "downtown" Stillwater store which involved a hell of a lot of carrying boxes of books, but for the most part I was paid to read, to drink, to smoke, to be able to speak with intelligent customers who had very particular requests, and to buy books. Not a bad gig. On top of it I was paid well and had excellent benefits.
All of this may sound like it was an academic theology love fest, but the reality was much more complex. Being around academic theologians and students (particularly in joke programs like M.A.T.S. students) of academic theology wasn't really conducive to developing a love of academic theology or its professionals and aspirants. Within a year or two of working at Loomes, I came to the point where I despised 99% of theology students, and the discipline as a whole. Loome's had a "secular" bookstore down the hill in addition to the church, and I met any number of academics and students at both venues. But there is something about theology students in bookstores which is reminiscent of a politician doing a stump speech - they feel the need to constantly remind you that they have something of value in their craniums. I found that with no other discipline did the student feel the need to come up and tell you that they were getting a master's degree in x. But theology students, 99% of them anyway, do this upon entering a bookstore. Then they tell you who they studied with, whatever "big gun" their program had at the moment. Of course I had taken phone calls from 4 guys of equal or greater scholarly caliber that morning, and 3 of the 4 were assholes, so I wasn't impressed. Sometimes, when the moment was right and I couldn't take it anymore, the scenario would work out like this:
Customer (upon handing me books to purchase): I'm a theology grad student. I study with Ben Witherington.
Owen (completely deadpan without a hint of mirth): Really? Huh. I just spoke to Luke Timothy Johnson this morning and he was telling me that Witherington's christology is utter shit.
Of course that wasn't true, but there is a horror and offense that can be extracted from theology students that is unique among human persons. And this is the other thing about theo grad students - most grad students are poor, but nobody is cheaper than theo grad students. First of all, the books that they typically bought were crap, and if they picked out 4 or 5 books worth $35 they acted as if this was somehow the lifeblood of our store, apparently it didn't occur to them that we couldn't maintain the staff of 7 full-time employees with such purchases, and they never bothered to ask and learn that we made millions of dollars buying and selling serious collections. Second, if I saw somebody drop a book when they thought no one was looking and then come and ask for a cheaper-than-marked price because it was scuffed up, I knew right then that they were a theology grad student. Well, OK, I probably already knew because they had announced that when they walked in the door, but on the occasion that I had been out getting coffee when that customer entered the store I would have known they were theo grad students upon seeing that game.
I also had plenty of opportunity to see how completely full of shit most academics are, especially theologians. All academics tend to be inclined to think that every moment is a moment for them to teach a stupid world some facts, but theology profs tend to be the worst. For instance, on at least three occasions that I can remember I saw academics, with students or in one case a couple of disciples in tow, come up to our ChesterBelloc section and upon seeing copies of Belloc's Path to Rome exclaim "this is Belloc's conversion story." It isn't. It is a travelogue of sorts wherein Belloc describes a literal path to Rome - the one he walked on whilst traveling to Rome. One of the scholars who made this pronouncement was among the most well known English Catholic academics (it wasn't Aidan Nichols). The first couple of years at Loomes these occasions of pontificating about things given academics knew nothing about surprised me, but as time went on I developed my very accurate cynicism of the academy and its ubiquitous bullshittery.
We had one local priest, Fr. Kolb, who was a regular customer at Loomes, often spending hours in the shop each week, and often overhearing the intra-staff banter regarding customers. Kolb had studied under Roland Bainton at Yale, and when that got brought up (not by him) in a conversation with several folks one time, I made a cynical coy "ahhh" remark and Kolb, probably picking up on our usual staff tendency to not really be impressed, retorted sharply - "No. No ahhh. He put his pants on one leg at a time just like you, and his shit stunk just as much as anyone else's." I didn't ask him how he knew that.
There were all sorts of quirky customers. One of my favorites, a fellow who spent most of his time in our philosophy and history of philosophy sections was a man who had been voted Minnesota teacher of the year at one point, having constructed the talented and gifted / advanced / whathaveyou classes at a St. Paul high school. He was a Marxist (I never asked what stripe, and now I wish I had). He quit teaching in order to homeschool his kids (his wife was a doctor, so this could be done) because, as he put it, the public schools there created pawns for corporations. Once or twice his kids came with him, a boy and a girl in their early and mid teens, both could read academic German, both very personable and polite. I remember feeling that it was refreshing to have some homeschooling customers that weren't, to borrow Chris' description, Leave it to Beaver Catholics (we had a small homeschooling section in the store and occasionally homeschooling families came in, and they usually fit the caricature quite well).
I wrote before of my encounter with one polymath while working at Loome's, and I'll repeat that story here:
I don’t remember if I have told this story before (I offer this story as trivia, not as any proof of anything or as having any grand meaning), but shortly after my friend Mark died in the Fall of 2000, I met a colleague of his who walked into the bookstore I worked at in MN (and would soon leave). Mark had been a neuro-robotic engineer and the youngest tenured professor in the UK when he died of an aneurism. His friend who came to the store (not knowing me from Adam) had 3 doctorates – one in psychology, one in chemistry, and one in philosophy (and the guy was in his 40s). So I had noticed what he was picking up over the course of the day and eventually discerned that I was dealing with a fellow who was very bright. After he’d been there a couple of hours he comes up to me and asks about complications with regard to my birth (breech, post due date, etc.). Every birth related question he asked me about was answered in the affirmative. He said he guessed as much from the way I held a pen in my left hand whilst writing – apparently it’s an odd manner of holding a writing instrument typical of people who were born under the circumstances of complications I was. This man then proceeded to tell me about my life – my personality, many of my quirks and idiosyncrasies, details that simply astounded me. Apparently it has to do with people who would have been left brained becoming right brained because of certain complications in their mother’s pregnancy. The cross over creates very predictable personality and thinking traits. I’ve never in my life, before or since, been so perfectly pegged and described, and this was the first conversation I ever had with the man. He then, after asking if it was OK, proceeded to give me advice – the sorts of jobs I should go for, the sorts of things I should read. He ended by telling me that I needed to read Hegel and keep him close by my side – that Hegelian thought corresponded to how a brain like mine is wired.
There were other unbelievably bright folks there, with astounding intellects. The seminary librarian who speaks 11 languages and has the most comprehensive mental bibliography you've ever encountered. The head of a Catholic university in the Philippines who writes theatre in the French Absurdist style in his spare time. The portly Benedictine monk who was a quiet genius though you would never guess it when first encountering him. The reserved philosopher who never says much in the store but always comes out and has a smoke with you, saying he can't pass up a Camel non-filter as this is what he smoked at P.I.M.S., and then telling you quirky stories about Gilson.
We (the staff) definitely had our favorites when it came to customers, and we could be quite, uhm, short, with the legion of other customers whom we for the most part tolerated.
But the reason I started this series of posts is because I learned recently that the old church which houses Loome Theological Booksellers is up for sale, and so I need to turn this remembrance in the direction of that building, and my relationship to it, and what she will always mean to me.
That will have to wait until next week. In the meantime, my old friend and former colleague Henry has a new catalogue out, so buy some books from him this weekend.
- to be continued.