Not a drop, but you could build a small mountain with the ink and pages in the CTS Bookshop.
At any one time the bookshop has up to 8,000 books carefully fitted into wherever we can make space. Of course it’s not all books, in addition there are the icons, rosaries, statues, chalices, vestments, crosses, candles, jewellery and monastic produce from all over the world (soaps, incense, painted boxes, enamels) the housing and display of which constantly stretch our ingenuity and creativity.
When I first started working for CTS three and a half years ago I came equipped with an everyday faith and a love of books, I confess I had no idea what a novena was or why I should pray one (luckily the CTS did a leaflet), I had not heard of G.K. Chesterton, or St John Vianney.
Yet despite the brilliant books we stock, it’s the customers who teach us the most.
Questions about authors and on elements of the Faith force us to learn more than we ever might have otherwise. Of course there are some requests that we cannot fulfil, for example, no matter how often we are asked (at least once a week) we cannot provide large print pocket sized Bibles.
This is why:
Customers to the CTS Bookshop are from all walks of life, impossible to categorise or define.
We meet parish priests, nuns, catechists and seminarians, teachers, parents, students and scholars, people facing sickness, grief and abuse who are looking for comfort, people who want to help their friends and people who want to help themselves.
Orthodox Christians and Anglicans visit us, along with Atheists, Spiritualists and one gentleman trying to start his own cult. The actor Mark Williams visited us prior to filming the new Fr Brown TV series, and we were once visited by some ducks from St James’ Park (they didn’t buy anything).
Catholics from all over the world come here having heard of the CTS Bookshop and have come here specifically to ship books back home – since the launch of our website ctsbookshop.org in 2015 our second and third largest online markets are Hong Kong and Australia. We were once asked to outfit a library for a new Convent, and the sisters spent several happy hours emptying our shelves of books.
Of course, it’s not always our knowledge that is tested, but the very tenets of living the Faith. If you have read Jen Campbell’s Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops or watched the comedy series Black Books you may have an inkling of what awaits in bookshops, and when you work in one with the words ‘Catholic‘ and ‘Truth‘ above the door…well.
In three years I have been called an idolater, a nazi, a hypocrite, a bigot (those classics regularly applied to Catholics nowadays) and asked to account for the finances of a parish in Spain, and these are just the encounters that included coherent sentences. All through this I find it helps to keep the cover words from The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy in mind. DON’T PANIC. And to remember to look for Christ in friend and stranger, no matter how mad or unpleasant.
There is a common perception that working with books means quiet and not much to do. The first is certainly not true in London, Victoria – an area under constant re-development, which has forced our own bookshop to move twice since its opening 90 years ago in 1926.
To the second, I cannot think of a moment that I have been bored working in the CTS Bookshop. When new books come in they often end up on a staff members’ to-read shelf before they get to customers (my shelf is currently stacked 4 rows deep with piles on top), and when pay day comes round, often a part of that money goes right back where it came from in exchange for those books, films, and other items that we just couldn’t let go out on the shelf, or finish reading in our lunch breaks.
Then there are the unique moments when you stumble across an obscure book that turns out to be amazing – for example, while trying to make space to shelve new books in the Faith section I noticed a slim, plain book titled Only the Lover Sings, a bit obscure, so I pulled it out for a closer look.
It’s currently one of my favourite books from our stock – a beautiful, readable and inexpensive volume by the German philosopher who influenced Josef Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) on art, music and all forms of sub creation (creativity) as an act of love and yearning for God.
When you find a good book, or author you immediately want to share it with others, right? Well working in a bookshop you have the chance to share it with hundreds of people, and the challenges we set ourselves are how we can do that to the best of our ability, whether that’s with a display, a personal recommendation or a social media post.
Being a part of the CTS has some excellent perks – for starters, we have access to a group of individuals in our authors, whose collective knowledge of the Catholic Faith is utterly astounding.
Although our mission is to evangelise through literature, in many cases a few spoken words can get through to people much more efficiently than a book that they may or may not read. So, since 2015, we have invited our authors, speakers from other Catholic Charities and organisations to speak about the faith in 20-30 minute talks. Over the last year Aid to the Church in Need, the Apostleship of the Sea, the Marian Fathers and the National Office of Vocations have spoken about their work.
When I look around at the congregation of information on these shelves, I know that these are my guides to the complex world in which we live, and where better to live that than in this melting pot of many meetings. We are a small bookshop, we sell Catholic books. We cannot compete with Waterstones or Amazon, but we are dedicated to providing an encounter with the Catholic Faith through the words and wisdom, debates and dialogues that are waiting within the covers of books.