Have you been to a church with a book table? Do you remember back when churches had book stores in them? Do some still do that? Even seminaries don’t have book stores anymore. I’ve been to a church that still has video cassettes in its library—but not on the book table.
I’ve been to some churches where the collection on the book table has lots of stuff nobody has wanted and nobody will, and it remains, promoted in vain, unregarded, undesired, prematurely worn through exposure and neglect. Those books are a sad monument to miscalculation as they become creased, curled and faded, and start calling like a medieval leper: unclaimed, unclaimed!
I remember Bethlehem in Minneapolis had a cart, a two-sided bookshelf on wheels and books all sideways, showing nothing but spine. That was an active book zone: pragmatic, portable and promiscuous—the books were being handled, shelved, taken, replaced, shuffled and hustled. It was an urban, street-wise iteration of the book table in a church that, come to think of it, might have had a book store.
A book table has books lying face up. There is a laminated list of prices, or hand-written stickers on the covers. Book-table churches in the circles I find myself in tend to restock from The Banner of Truth and P & R and SDG. Some have apologetics stuff, some have Creationist stuff, some places skew toward MacArthur and others toward R.C. Sproul; but some just have puritans and they don’t tend to address either creation or apologetics, do they? Pamphlets you see. Some have free pamphlets, counseling pamphlets addressing in a few easy pages some of life’s most challenging dilemmas, inspiring trust. Some have free tracts, old tracts that make one think of a thrift store, somehow like the shelves on which the random glassware accumulates. I’ve seen tracts written by Zanchi (1516-1590). The sixteenth century was indeed a time for tracts!
I’ve never read a tract in my life. I’ve handed them out, but never actually read a single one through. Who reads tracts anyway? Some people do. People who used to read the instruction manual on things, back when things came with instruction manuals. No doubt these are the kinds of people who would read tracts. I can’t picture anybody getting a tract and then thinking: good, I’ve got something to read carefully, to ponder for a quarter of an hour. Surely somebody does, or did.
Why do churches have book tables? So people can get books, it might be said. That was yesteryear, I think. People have Amazon now, can order online straight from a trusted book supplier. I wonder if people who go to churches without book tables wonder: have these people not discovered the internet? No, I don’t think book tables still exist so people can get books. There’s more to it than that, though no doubt inertia, especially where the unclaimed dominate the space of the book table we might designate the slums, no doubt inertia has something to do with their persistence.
I think book tables existed so people could get books they could trust. I think they exist so that you can browse among books that are recommended, those that address the issue as the church thinks best. I think you can find out a thing or two from the book table in such churches, providing the book table has no slums. It is part of an old economy, a world in which access was restricted. It seems to me it is also of a world in which we no longer live.
So it is interesting to consider, a way of watching the world as it turns. Have churches started having apps, I wonder?