John Schmalzbauer: A haven for independent bookstores

The Mennonite hub of Newton, Kansas, bristles with religious booksellers at a time when they’re going out of fashion elsewhere.

Over the past twenty years, the number of independent booksellers in this country has fallen from 3,000 to 1,400. Given the plight of the American bookstore, I was heartened by its survival in an unlikely locale: the town of Newton, Kansas, home to my in-laws and an impressive density of retailers.

On a Main Street as wide as the Kansas sky, two city blocks yield three thriving book shops: Book ReViews (707 N. Main), pages: books and coffee (605 N. Main), and the Faith & Life Bookstore (606 N. Main). The address of the last store is apt, given the Mennonite heritage of the region. To virtually all American Mennonites, “ 606” is shorthand for the doxology appearing in The Mennonite Hymnal of 1969.

No less a product of Mennonite culture than that hymnal, the book buying paradise of Newton reflects the area’s religious demography. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, Mennonite groups make up 27 percent of religious adherents in Harvey County, Kansas. These include the conservative Church of God in Christ, the evangelical Mennonite Brethren, and the centrist Mennonite Church USA.

Drawn by the rich soil of the Midwestern prairies, Mennonites helped make Kansas America’s breadbasket through the importation of Turkey Red Wheat. Establishing the church-affiliated colleges of Bethel, Hesston, and Tabor, they have also cultivated the life of the mind.

Closely associated with the Mennonite Church USA, the Faith & Life Bookstore carries a wide range of titles, including James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Richard Hughes’ Christian America and the Kingdom of God. A special treasure is the large selection of Anabaptist books, a key resource in maintaining the area’s cultural and religious heritage.

Also boasting a Mennonite bloodline, pages: books and coffee hosts local poetry readings and music jams. Owned by Bethel College alumna Holly Nickel, it has attracted a loyal clientele of faculty and students.

Bethel ’s faculty are also responsible for the inventory at Book ReViews , a fact evident in its unusually large theology collection. Bringing Anabaptist bookselling into cyberspace, it has nearly 4,000 titles available online, including the works of Mennonite ethicist Duane Friesen.

A retired Bethel professor, Friesen is the author of Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City. He is also my in-laws’ neighbor. In the book, Friesen says he has “a vegetable garden because we enjoy eating fresh, home-grown vegetables but derive pleasure mostly from planning the space and from simply enjoying the garden’s intrinsic beauty.” Having enjoyed the beauty of Friesen’s garden and his prose, I am reminded of the area’s intellectual vitality every time I walk out my in-laws’ kitchen door.

A short walk to the Bethel College campus reminds me of the contributions its alumni have made to the life of the mind. To name just a few, Harvard professor Gordon D. Kaufman, University of Virginia scholar Jalane Schmidt, and theologian Alain Epp Weaver are graduates of the school.

With neighbors like this, it is easy to see why Newton has continued to grow Mennonite theologians and independent bookstores.

John Schmalzbauer teaches sociology of religion at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri.