It’s not typical to stumble into a small-town bookstore and be greeted by the sounds of Gregorian chant and a bookshelf featuring the works of Emil Brunner, Pope St. John Paul II, Etienne Gilson, Ernst Troeltsch, Josef Pieper, Benedict XVI, and Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange.
But that is what greeted my wife and me as we walked into Loome Theological Booksellers, located in an old Main Street storefront in downtown Stillwater, Minnesota, a few hundred yards from the St. Croix River—the river of the holy cross, if you know French.
An hour later we walked out with a Charlotte Mason reader, two works by Brunner, and Pieper’s introduction to Thomas Aquinas. We could have taken more. I saw an intriguing little volume on the history of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Gilson’s Christian Philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, and a number of volumes on C. S. Lewis, some of which even I—a Lewis fan who has read nearly all his published works—had not come across.
Owner Chris Hagen noted that a bookstore can play a unique role in the life of a Christian community: “Most vibrant communities that develop within the church gather around a charismatic individual or a set of ideas. Bookstores keep those ideas alive.”
In an era when Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is a publishing hit and Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed has landed a Yale University Press book on some bestseller lists, the mission of a bookstore like Loome’s may be more relevant than ever. As many others have noted, ours is an era of forgetting. Loome’s helps us to remember.
The project that would one day become the bookstore began in the 1970s. It was a time of upheaval in the American church, as convents, monasteries, and seminaries were closing their doors. Thomas Loome, a Catholic layman and doctor in theology, began buying books from these institutions in order to save them from being lost in the aftermath of Vatican II. The bookstore was established in the early 1980s and has been operating in and around the Stillwater area—a small town thirty minutes east of St. Paul—ever since.
A Catholic World Report story explains how Dr. Loome and his employees blessed the church by rescuing old books. “During the 1990s and 2000s,” writes CWR, Loome’s helped to stock the libraries of “new and resurgent orthodox Catholic institutions,” including Ave Maria University. Cardinals and bishops shelved books from Loome’s in their diocesan institutions and their own offices. In short, “Much of the intellectual patrimony of the church was saved and relaunched by Loome Theological Booksellers.”
In 2008, Dr. Loome sold the store to Hagen and another employee. Hagen sees it as his job to steward the legacy of Dr. Loome, who passed away this past April: “I select the books I do because I was a disciple of Tom Loome.” He says that most of the books he chooses to carry are books he knows Loome would have chosen himself.
Several years ago, the bookstore relocated to a farm outside of Stillwater. Hagen, like Loome before him, has been strongly influenced by Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. He has accordingly sought to build a broader community around both the bookstore and the farm. But due to changes in how the farm’s owner wished to use the land, Hagen and his family were forced to move last year, and the bookstore returned to downtown Stillwater.
That move coincided with a medically complex pregnancy, which in turn led to heavy debts for the store and the Hagen family. Earlier this summer, Hagen launched a Go Fund Me campaign to save the brick-and-mortar store so that it can continue to have a presence in the downtown Stillwater area.
We live in an era of upheaval, not only in the American church, but in the American republic. In response to the crisis, it will not be enough to act with courage and good intent. We must also know what needs to be done. We need, as a friend of mine once put it, “to possess the principles of reality in our minds” so that we are equipped to live as godly servants of the common good, prepared to pour ourselves out to one another and our local places.
We need, in short, to be wise. Old books are helpful to that end. They furnish us with ideas that can challenge and season us as thinkers and help us understand the truths of the Christian religion. Stewards of old ideas can help us recover the resources of our past, so that we may live wisely and faithfully. In a time of fracture and forgetting, I can think of few things more valuable than bookstores that do the work Loome’s is doing. They are well worth your support.
Jake Meador’s writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, Books & Culture, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.