Unlike St. Augustine, most of us have not had the good fortune to be struck with a divine vision while lounging in a verdant garden in Milan. Then again, most of us haven't asked the Lord to grant us chastity as Augustine did--not yet, not ever. Allen Ginsberg, though hardly chaste, once had a vision of Blake reading outside his apartment window. And rural Wisconsin seems to be full of people having visions of the Virgin Mary. So is it unreasonable for me to seek my own golden ticket to salvation? Augustine said it could come only by grace, but maybe Thomas Aquinas was right when he wrote, "Three things are necessary for the salvation of man: to know what he ought to believe; to know what he ought to desire; and to know what he ought to do." But if you don't know, how do you find out?
Thomas Loome's desk sits about where the altar of Stillwater's Old Swedish Covenant Church used to be. Four blocks up the hill from Main Street, and looking piously down on weekend antique shoppers and the occasional riverboat, Loome Theological Booksellers barely pronounces itself in business, with a small sign the nearsighted would be hard-pressed to read from the roadside.
Converted in the late Seventies, this redbrick church is still in service to the Almighty. All the pews have been torn out, replaced with a maze of bookshelves sloping down to Loome's office. Bibles, hymnals, Catholic encyclopedias, literature, saints, general theology, and the G.K. Chesterton section occupy most of the main floor. The choir loft spanning the two back walls of the church is filled with shelves of Mariology. The lighting is rather diffuse and the ventilation system must be old. Yet there isn't really any identifiable smell when you first walk in--that musty odor of brittle, arcane tomes, of rotting spines and bookworms. That said, if you pick up a 100-year-old copy of Aquinas's Summa Theologica, open it, and take a long, suggestive sniff, you'll be sneezing de amore dei for days.
The last time I went to visit Thomas Loome, he was gathering books for a conference exhibit in Detroit, Michigan, titled "St. Thomas Aquinas and the Natural Law Tradition," to be held at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. "You don't get a much narrower subject than that," Loome says, leading me around the store to different stacks of books piled on the floor and on tables. These mounds are labeled with tags like "Censorship," "Punishment," "History of Law," "Biomedical," and the like. "See, look at this: Partnership and Profit in Medieval Islam. This book is spot-on for this conference. It's obscure, and it's just off-the-topic enough to be interesting to somebody."
Loome, who is tall and gray-bearded, slouches a bit as he navigates the store, and you get the idea that he is always looking for something, a book he has misplaced, or his glasses. A pipe? At the same time, Loome's height often leaves the impression that he's bending forward to hear you, to catch your exact meaning so he can run up into one of the lofts to fetch just the right book. When he's not listening, Loome is verbose, proving to be hyperarticulate about seemingly anything high-minded or arcane. I wanted to ask him about baseball or wing chun, just to see how far-reaching his knowledge was, and I wouldn't have been too surprised if he had launched into an anecdote about Mark "The Bird" Fidrych and how excited he was to see a Tigers game while in Detroit.
"I'll be the only exhibitor there," he says, "and about three out of four of the attendees are regular customers of mine, or at least know about me. After the conference, they all will."
This may seem boastful: What fame is there in serving as the sole exhibitor at an obscure conference of only a few hundred theological scholars? In fact, though, Loome Theological Booksellers is the largest dealer of secondhand scholarly theological books in the world. Or so Thomas Loome claims, and, surrounded by the towering catalog he has accumulated, one is challenged to disagree. The store itself is massive, containing 250,000 to 275,000 titles, most out-of-print. In addition, there is another warehouse in downtown Stillwater that stores Loome's periodical collection, overstock, and new arrivals.
From these holdings Loome selects several hundred titles to list in a catalog mailing, which he sends to select customers. Anyone who doesn't buy a book is promptly dropped from the list. But although the bulk of Loome's business is academic, a large portion comes from people who have come seeking something else.
"When my customers aren't professors or students, they are generally people with an appetite for scholarly material," Loome says. Some of them are writers, but a lot of them are deeply religious people who come in because they want to know about what it is they believe. Most religious people never even think about that. I have great empathy and sympathy for my customers. I take them very seriously."
Loome himself holds a doctorate in Philosophical Theology from the University of Tübingen, Germany. The combination of being a European-trained theologian and a self-described "hard-nosed Catholic" is part of the reason he has been able to establish himself as the foremost bookseller in his field. Most of what he knows, he says, is "absolute trivia. But I also know--and [this] is a great benefit to my customers--why Lutherans are not Catholics, and why Catholics are not Methodists."