Aisling Family Bookshop is situated in the centre of Galway city (west coast of Ireland).
It is a ministry of Covenant Christian Fellowship (RPCI). We see it as an outreach ministry of our church, meeting and befriending people and, when the occasion arises, sharing the good news about Jesus Christ.
City of young people
Galway is a city of around 80,000 people. It is full of young people, as it has two third-level Institutions of Further Education, one of which incorporates an Art College, and a good number of Language Schools. Galway City is also the main centre for employment in the West of Ireland. It has three centres used as mosques, one of these being a purpose-built mosque. It is an arty city that hosts a major arts festival in July of each year and has a good number of theatres. It is a cosmopolitan city. It has nine bookshops of which four have second-hand books.
All year round we have buskers presenting music of all kinds on the street. It is a lovely city in which to live and work, and to visit!
Away from Catholicism
Ireland, over the last 25 years, has been steadily moving away from its Roman Catholic foundation, becoming more and more a secular country. While the church is still useful for marriages and funerals the hold that it once had on people is long past.
The recent Referendum on same sex marriage shows how far we have left any semblance of Christian morality. There is a growing resentment towards the Catholic Church because of past abuses and scandals. The Irish Government pays little heed to any moralising lectures from bishops or priests.
Evangelical churches growing
However, it would be wrong to deduce that all is doom and gloom in Ireland. Most evangelical churches are growing. It is slow growth, but it is still growth, and this is so encouraging. There is also lots of evidence to suggest that people are seeking spiritual answers to life’s problems.
Recently, I attended a meeting in a local Roman Catholic church where the best-selling Irish author and mystic, Lorna Byrne, was being interviewed about her books on angels. Most of what was said was contrary to Biblical teaching. However, the church was packed full, with people of all ages asking lots of questions. There is still a belief in the supernatural and evidence of spiritual hunger among Irish people.
Bookshop among the dead?
Our bookshop is unique. For one, it is in the old Roman Catholic cathedral, which has been compartmentalised and turned into shops and offices. Locals have told us that the shop is located in the actual place in the church where dead bodies were left to repose overnight before burial!
All our staff are Christians from the local church who work on a voluntary basis. We have piles and piles of books and I guess it is a little dangerous to pull a book out without using a steadying hand! A few years back we took the decision to change our stock from exclusively Christian to include a wider range of books. This was a commercial decision – we have never been able to pay our rent from the sale of Christian books. We always required the financial support of our wider church. So we now stock novels (classic and contemporary), history (the Irish love their history), poetry, childrens’ books, cook books, art books – you name it, we have it. Christian books make up about a third of our stock. Most of what we have is secondhand and cheap. Students are always on the lookout for cheap books. How do we get our books? Thankfully, we have a friend, David Robinson from the north of Ireland, who very kindly collects them for us. He has an uncanny knack for gathering unwanted books and he sees this as a ministry. We are also living in an age when people do like to de-clutter. Many books are passed on to charity shops or even dumped. We also put out the word among Christian friends and churches that we are looking for unwanted books. These books have value! The results have been dramatic for us. We have become quite busy. We are making money to help pay our rent. Most important of all is the fact that lots of people are coming into our shop and are browsing, buying and talking; friendships are being established and the gospel is being preached.
Variety of people
The sheer variety of people coming in is quite amazing. Students from the local language schools come looking for novels to help improve their English; taxi drivers wanting a novel to read during their times of waiting; the Jehovah’s Witness who wants to show us just how wrong we are; the devout Roman Catholic, peeved that we don’t stock books about Padre Pio; the Chinese student fresh from Beijing wanting to learn about Christianity; the Muslim Imam looking for commentaries on the Bible; and the casual browser overhearing a discussion about Christianity and joining in. Sometimes the bookshop is a really exciting place to work. We just don’t know what to expect at times. Literature, of all kinds, can open many doors for conversation. From conversations about the human condition, relativism, ethical issues or history – all provide openings for the gospel. What we need is a listening ear and a willingness to take opportunities.
Christian books that scratch
The Christian books we stock reflect the situation we are in. 90% of the people who visit our bookshop are not Christians. So, we try to scratch where people itch. Hence you will find books on apologetics, family and personal problems, ethical issues, etc. We love books with titles that raise inquisitiveness and make people want to look inside.
Many years ago we were advised not to have a bookshop that just sold Christian nick-nacks and nice devotional books. The reason behind that advice was that it is important for people to see that Christianity encourages the use of the mind. Deep in Roman Catholic thinking is the idea that faith is a kind of existential leap in the dark. It’s not necessary to understand it all. Just have faith in the Church!
Bookshops (and books) are a big part of life in Galway city. We have a reading public and it presents us with a window of opportunity. In Ireland there is a suspicion of what Irish people call ‘holy shops’. Having such a wide selection of books other than Christian means that people can be relaxed and browse freely without feeling uncomfortable. It is our fellowship’s prayer that our Christian books (or titles) will catch the eye and curiosity of our customers.
Journey to salvation
Here’s an encouraging true story. It concerns a young woman called Kay, who was, at a time, a devout Roman Catholic. Many years ago she came into our bookshop and very quietly bought a little commentary by Geoffrey Wilson. We didn’t see her again for quite a while until she came in again and bought another commentary by the same author. There was very little conversation, but these little commentaries were being read and digested.
I now know from talking to Kay that they deeply challenged her and were the beginning of her long journey to salvation through Christ alone. It was a case of truth dawning slowly over time, which is a common experience with Roman Catholic people. What an encouragement for those who write Christian books! And the author of these particular books knew nothing about it! All glory to God!