Lessons from Hall of Men in Kansas bookstore
WICHITA, Kan. — The Hall of Men fits the name, with meetings offering beer, cigars, an open bar, some kind of “guy food” (think pizza) and lots of chatter around a giant wooden table.
But then there are the evening prayers, icons, Bible readings and lectures about authors whose portraits hang on the walls. The names include C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, Dorothy Sayers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, J.R.R. Tolkien and many others. Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan are there, as well.
This group has met twice a month for a dozen years, and most of the faithful are Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran, with plenty of evangelicals at special events. The authors honored are selected after an informal process that usually starts during fellowship before and after lectures, with men talking about books that have touched their lives.
“The whole thing is affected by having that bookstore right next door,” said Pastor Geoff Boyle, a Missouri-Synod Lutheran long active in the project. “The man behind the front counter is used to having these conversations and obviously knows all about the books the guys are talking about. The books are right there and, if they’re not, they will be soon.”
“That bookstore” is Eighth Day Books, which draws customers from across the nation to an old, three-story house with 46,000 new and used books — 27,000 titles — shelved and stacked anywhere that will hold them, including the basement “Hobbit Hole” packed with children’s literature. The white-haired man behind the counter is owner Warren Farha, an Orthodox believer with family ties to Lebanon.
This isn’t a “Christian bookstore” complete with knick-knacks, inspirational posters and religious self-help books, but “Eighth Day” is a reference to the Resurrection of Jesus.
Farha created the store in 1988 and selects all the books with the help of an ecumenical network woven into the Eighth Day Institute and its conferences, newsletters, podcasts and groups such as the Hall of Men and the Sisters of Sophia.
“My goal has always been to be fair to the great traditions,” said Farha, in his office in the bookstore’s attic. “We have classics in history, literature, poetry, church history, theology and philosophy — Christian writings through the ages. … I’m always listening to people who get the template for what we’re doing here.
“Great books from different traditions are on the shelves right next to each other, even if they clash in ways that we need to discuss.”
At the heart of the Hall of Men project is a question that all kinds of bookish people, from scholars to popular writers, have asked in recent decades: What can be done to encourage more men — in an age of glowing digital screens — to read books?
There are men who read popular classics, old and new, and then there are those who, when exposed to ancient writings, dive deeply into books from monastery presses and Christian scholars, Farha said. Hall of Men leaders have quit trying to push men into niches.
“These men don’t sort out easily,” he added. “There are lots of guys in pickup trucks who buy volumes of the Early Church Fathers and read them devoutly. It takes all kinds.”
Everyone agrees that the “bridge” writer between these two worlds is Lewis, the Oxford don whose books — fiction for all ages, scholarship, poetry and journals — have been bestsellers for 75 years. Thus, the bookstore has a large “C.S. Lewis & Friends” section, and the institute holds an annual conference focusing on The Inklings, the circle of writers that included Lewis, Tolkien, Sayers and others.
The key is that the Hall of Men and other Eighth Day projects help members and visitors journey deeper into the lives and works of all these authors and more, said Jeff Reimer, a book editor and internet professional who lives outside Wichita. It doesn’t matter where readers start when there are friends who help them keep moving.
“Warren has created a kind of community of desire here that just pulls people in. … I tell people this is the most erotic bookstore ever — but not in the usual sense of that word,” Reimer said, laughing. “This is a place of overheard conversations that can change everything. One conversation leads to another and one book leads to another.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.