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."
Loome says that he "is on a mission to serve the Church." But, as he takes great pains to explain, that doesn't mean they carry just Bibles and hymnals. There are sections on art, law, music, Latin, and Greek, and one of the best philosophy sections I have seen. (It's worth noting, too, the absence of an "Inspirational" section.) Even a staunch atheist could leave the store with a crate of books. "If I were some redneck Catholic, I wouldn't carry a tenth of the books I do," says Loome.
"A bad book is just information," he continues later. "It's a dead end. A good book will lead you to more books, and they will lead you to others." He explains this while expounding on Platonism, and the way the store embodies this philosophy. "Information is easy. From information, we gather opinions, and they can be either true or not. The store is here to provide people a way to rise above those opinions to knowledge, and, from there, to wisdom, which is much better than knowledge. There are two ways to think about wisdom. Wisdom, you could say, is another name for God. Or, wisdom is when you know things that are eternal, or always true."
One of the ideas that Loome holds to be always true is the sanctity of human life-- "WITHOUT EXCEPTION," he says loudly, repeating the phrase a few times for good measure. And should you fail to infer what he is talking about, he states that he is "unapologetically pro-life and anti-death-penalty." At a medieval conference in Minneapolis a few years ago, Loome recalls, he saw Noam Chomsky speak. During the question-and-answer session, a student asked Chomsky what he thought of the abortion question. According to Loome, Chomsky replied, "'I am afraid that people in the future will look back on us and say that we lived in an age of barbarism.'"
Loome revels in this story, and I think it's because he sees himself--a pro-life, Catholic intellectual--as a marginalized figure. Surprised that anyone was interested in writing a story about him and his store, Loome insists that he's "more countercultural than anything the City Pages can come up with."
Loome's countercultural enterprise is to preserve books from the second millennium for the third one. And in an age when print material as utilitarian as the newspaper is said to be flirting with obsolescence, the very notion of theological books can seem downright medieval. Yet the volumes in the Loome, with the exception of the Bible, will probably never exist electronically. Nor will there ever be a full computer inventory of such collected knowledge. There are too many titles, and too few readers, and practically no money in it, and the transfer process would take too long to ever attempt. And so for a small, self-select group, the physical presence of the Loome remains a necessity.
Say, for example, you are a Medieval Literature professor from Vienna. After throwing a few million euros at a new computer-science center, your university decides to beef up its theology holdings with a thousand-odd volumes. You may venture a flight to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where someone from Loome Theological Booksellers will pick you up, drive you to Stillwater, and deposit you at the nearby Lowell Inn, where they have thoughtfully arranged for your lodging. If you request, they will set up Internet access for you in the back of the store, and will invite you to wander the shelves all night, by yourself, after close, trusting you'll shut off the lights and lock the door behind you.
Although my own more modest purchases have yet to win me this treatment, on a recent visit I decided to pretend I was just such a professor, conducting a brief walk-through to survey the breadth of the collection.
The first title I come upon is that Summa Theologica I so lustily sniffed when I first walked into the store. It never ceases to amaze me that some books are bound in the skin of animals--in this case, cow. The cover is red leather, with marble boards and a ridged, curved spine. Inscription: "Edward Fitzgerald, Prize for argumentation at the Grand Seminary, May 19, 1915." This is volumen primum, the first of six volumes, published by Forzani et Sodalis, officinatores librarii, Romae. One-sixth of God's total net wisdom costs a mere $150.
In addition to the rather large Chesterton collection, the Loome also boasts a sizable stock of books by French Roman Catholic poet and essayist Hilaire Belloc. Rather by dumb luck, I pull the first American edition of his book on poet John Milton. This, too, is bound in red boards, ex libris Father M. McMahon, South Dakota, published by J.B. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1935. The book is in excellent condition and is priced at $25.
Yet another red hardcover, this one in rough shape, which I find on the floor in the Hymnology section is The Elements of Plainsong, Compiled From a Series of Lectures Delivered Before the Members of the Plainsong & Mediæval Music Society. Published in 1895 by Bernard Quatrich. $20. I show this volume to Loome, who explains that he bought it in England, because "you can't really find any books on Plainsong in the U.S." If you didn't know already, the introduction states that "Plainsong or Cantus planus--even, level, plain song--is perfectly distinct from cantus figuratus, or mensuratus, i.e. harmonised, measured music....No well-informed musician, in comparing the two systems, can therefore claim that the one is merely a barbarous and undeveloped form of the other, and unworthy of attention. Except on antiquarian grounds." How true that is!
The fourth red book, which is wrapped in a plain white jacket with red lettering, is something of a mystery. As far as I can tell, it's called, Yr Eglwys Yng Nghymru O'r Goncwest Hyd At Y Diwygiad Protestannaidd. That can only be Welsh, right? I have no idea what it's about, but it was written in 1968 and costs $20.
The most beautiful, and at the same time the scariest, book I find is stored in a gray box. The book itself is black, with red and silver embossed flames on the front and back covers. Malleus Maleficarum, or, The Hammer of Witchcraft, looks like one of the books Mia Farrow read in Rosemary's Baby, with woodcuts of winged beasts and frightened townspeople, and chapters with titles like "Here follows the way whereby witches copulate with those devils known as Incubi," and "Of the way whereby a formal pact with evil is made."
Loome says he sold a copy of this book "to a young woman very interested in witchcraft, which, by the way, I am not interested in. She was looking for books that would be negative about the Church." My advice is to stay away from that woman and this book. But it could be yours for a mere $25.
I've noted the costs of these tomes to suggest that, despite their rarity, they remain generally quite affordable. Loome reports that such pricing is part of his mission to the Church, and another way in which he's countercultural. Elaborating on this notion, he says that his proudest purchase on a recent book-buying trip to England was a crate of Penguin Classic paperbacks, which he calls "food for the multitude."
I leave the Loome with a Cub Foods bag full of books, ready to learn how to know what to believe, desire, and do. Stillwater may not be Augustine's garden in Milan. But then anyone who can endure the weekend traffic jams on Highway 36 without taking the Lord's name in vain has already covered half the ground on the road to salvation.