The Enduring Niche of Eighth Day Books
IN DECEMBER 1998, Warner Brothers and director Nora Ephron produced a wildly successful romantic comedy in which a spunky independent book seller takes on the owner of a Barnes and Noble-esque book chain, only to fall in love with him over the then infant internet. Of course, I’m referring to You’ve Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, and others. And while Ephron’s film was primarily an overly saccharine sweet story about the sometimes unexpected nature of falling in love and finding a soulmate in unexpected places, the film’s most interesting subplot concerned the cutthroat business of retail book selling.
As the owner of an independent bookstore dedicated to children’s literature, Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly is pushed to the precipice of extinction by the ruthless Joe Fox (Hanks) – with whom she unwittingly falls in love – and his giant Fox Books, clearly an allusion to bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble who, in the late 1990’s, were at the height of their success. But, like anyone who is faced with the possibility of losing a business they love, Kelly fights to keep her niche alive, to maintain the small business her family started and its place within the fabric of the local community. Unfortunately, that she ultimately fails is of little consequence to the film. After all, she fell in love and this is a love story, not a docu-drama on the difficulties of running a niche bookstore in a market dominated by mega-chains.
But such struggles are real and recent events render You’ve Got Mail almost prophetic.
Even as the large chains begin to falter, themselves unable to adapt to today’s changing marketplace, hundreds of the country’s best independent bookstores have gone under, according to some estimates 50% of them, in fact. In Seattle, the nation’s so-called “most intellectual” city, stores like Baily/Coy and Couth Buzzard have gone under. In New York, the famous Gotham Book Mart and Coliseum Books closed theirs doors, while in California Cody’s Books (of Berekely), Printer’s Inc Bookstore (in Palo Alto), Midnight Special (in Los Angeles), and the aptly named A Clean Well-lighted Place for Books (in San Francisco) all closed their doors for good. Kepler’s, among the most beloved, infamous bookstores in America, closed their doors in 2005, only to reopen them thanks to the efforts of the local community.
Things aren’t exactly looking up either.
In recent months Boise’s A Novel Adventure and Maine’s Port in Storm closed their doors, while a recent report in The Guardian noted that independent bookshops in the UK closed at a rate of two per week during 2009 and the beginning of 2010. Meanwhile, the New England Independent Booksellers Association reported that 10% of independent bookstores in that book-saturated region closed in 2009. Grim numbers indeed for those readers who appreciate the earthy smell of books nestled on shelves, new or used, each with their own story and history.
Yet all is not lost, especially for readers concerned with finding the best in religion, philosophy, history, and literature, who want to read books that last, and especially for readers who would prefer that Orthodoxy and the Church Fathers be brought to the “table of the cultural conversation.”
Eighth Day Books, based in Wichita Kansas, is just such a place and while they haven’t been without their own share of struggles, they have managed to stay afloat, due in part to a successful mail order business and the ability to adapt to the continually changing marketplace.
“I have always loved to read. I have always loved the sense of entering a completely new world,
yet finding points of contact with my own. I have always felt the relentless pull of whatever might
be on the next page of a book. I have often lived through my imagination.”
- Eighth Day owner Warren Farha | Image Journal, Issue #46
HOUSED in three levels of a “quasi-Dutch barn house,” not counting an attic, Eighth Day Books today carries over 26,000 titles, or 42,000 volumes, 60% of which are new books (compared to a Barnes and Noble which typically stocks closer to two hundred thousand titles). But each of these titles is chosen not for their sell-ability but because they “[conform] to a vision.”
Eighth Day Books is the product of a belief that, as founder/owner Warren Farha puts it, “all things good and true and excellent and beautiful belong together.” He wrote in Image Journal, Issue #46 that he would “live and die for Father Alexander Schmemann’s insistence that you can’t compartmentalize reality – you can’t separate the religious from the secular. I believe that doing so is a denial of God’s good creation.”
So Farha and his staff began to build a catalogue of titles that reflected those beliefs and a place wherein ideas such as these could be discussed and contemplated in the spirit of true camaraderie. They house a large collection of titles by C.S. Lewis and his contemporaries, an impressive assortment of works on the Orthodox and Catholic traditions as well, including books about Patristics and the Desert Tradition. This in addition to classics, modern or otherwise, in literature, poetry, drama, and criticism, especially a rather robust collection of titles by Wendell Berry. Indeed, Eighth Day is the rare bookstore in which each major stream of Christian thought and faith is considered with equal sincerity and seriousness, with a spirit of humility and a deep desire to learn, to discuss true and beautiful things.
But Eighth Day was also born in the wake of great tragedy. Farha admitted in the aforementioned issue of Image that when, in 1987, his wife and unborn child passed away due to the recklessness of a drunk driver, he “felt that [his] life had… ended in certain deep ways, and that [he] had to start [his] life over… With only a BA in religion and Classical Studies and not much desire to teach…the thing that I could look forward to was opening a bookstore.”
So, building upon years of working in his family’s grocery store and his passionate love of good books, he set out to build a new life, a new kind of life altogether, a new career in a market entering a new, challenging phase in its history.
Eighth Day Books first opened in September of 1988 in a rented space of only about fifteen hundred square feet with “a few lovingly-chosen books, staffed by the owner and a one part-time employee.” Since then the staff has expanded to three full-time employees, not including Farha himself, one part-time employee, and a husband-wife duo who help with the website and inventory software.
For the first thirteen years of its existence, Eighth Day Books – named for the day of the week upon which the resurrection took place, that is, the day after the seventh day – leased a space in Wichita. But in 2002 they moved into their current location – that old three thousand square foot “quasi-Dutch” house, painted white and trimmed in blue, with large picture windows that show off many of the store’s titles as any store front window should and surrounded by large Bradford Pear trees, healthy shrubs, and a brick walkway that leads up to double doors. It’s a beautiful, unique building, absurdly midwestern and abundantly appropriate for its purpose.
But, of course, as the book market changed, Eighth Day Books was forced to change with it. As the need for brick and mortar buildings dwindled and book buyers began to purchase via online outlets such as Amazon and other internet bookstores, thereby forgoing the many of pleasures of in-store browsing, Farha and company were forced to adapt. So that the store could remain viable and its vision be fulfilled, they developed their own website which now makes available their entire catalogue and they “increased their presence at theological and literary conferences – a sweaty, time and labor intensive (though rewarding) task that neither the internet nor chains can easily duplicate… a bookseller can’t wait for customers to come to them.” Eighth Day is a fixture at such events as Image’s Glen Workshop, Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, and Baylor’s Symposium on Faith and Culture. And we are pleased to say that they have joined us for the last few years at our own conference, and will do so again in July, 2011.
“There came a time when I knew that I could not not do this thing.
Whether or not I sold a single book, I knew that this was the thing
that I had to do.”
- Warren Farha | Image Journal, Issue #46
FARHA’S vision is a grand one, and therefore the store’s mission is grand as well.
Maintaining a standard in a messy marketplace is no easy task, and to do so one must stick to one’s proverbial guns. But as he has written, “classics are endlessly fertile; as other writers engage with them down through the centuries, they tend to beget excellence in turn.”
There are too few places left where the classics are taken seriously as tools that allow for the “integration of faith and imagination.” Our universities read them too often purely for the abstractions they present, or even as abstractions themselves – or to deconstruct them. And our high schools take them seriously only inasmuch as they can and do improve test scores. But Eighth Day Books carries the classics in hopes that we will read them and be nourished by them, be guided by them, in hopes that we will be able to live, like Farha, through our imaginations, imaginations enlightened by Faith and Truth and Grace.
According to Farha’s article in Image, one customer referred to Eighth Day Books as an umbilical cord. That sounds about right. Or, perhaps, we should think of it as a well. When one is thirsty one goes to the well. Without the well, the water is less easily accessible. In the same way, Eighth Day Books makes accessible the water that is good books, true and beautiful and excellent books. Books that nourish the soul.
That’s an enduring niche, if ever there was one.