Love of God, books, and community sustain 21-year ministry.
One visitor told Alliee DeArmond that The Word Shop she has run in Aptos, California, for 21 years should really be called a club. It’s a good way of describing the place—it’s not quite a regular bookstore nor is it a church ministry center but a unique blend somewhere in between.
With an ecumenical roster of volunteers and an eclectic mix of used titles, the 500-square-foot endeavor, located a stone’s throw from the ocean just outside Santa Cruz, has become an informal hub for a diverse group of believers, seekers, doubters, and everyday booklovers.
Someone more focused on making money could probably fare better than she has, she acknowledges, but “the fact of the matter is it has to be a labor of love, or it’s not going to be around. The only reason we’re still here is because no one is eating on it.”
Yet DeArmond’s vision has outlasted that of more traditional Christian stores in the area that have all had to call it quits over the years. And she has developed a sense of community among her regular patrons that other retailers might envy. The ingredients: a love for reading, a listening ear, and a little bit of quirkiness.
Born in part out of a church-planting course she once took, The Word Shop has a clear mission statement: “Proclaiming the love of God in Christ Jesus.” But it’s not done in a preachy kind of way; she encourages her team to let visitors set the pace of conversation.
“People will come and unburden themselves,” she says. But even when people are open to spiritual matters, “they only read where they are. You can’t give somebody a book six steps ahead of where they are, that’s not going to work.”
NO ‘CHRISTIAN BOOKS’
DeArmond remembers helping one visitor find religious unity books, and over time developed a relationship. Eventually the person spoke of his experiencing “a Jesus encounter.”
Although three-quarters of the books are by Christian writers, there’s also some general fiction and “New Age-y” and other religion titles. One section used to be called “Steals, Deals, and Heresies.” A collection of titles about Y2K issues was gathered under the designation “Millennial Panic.”
Those categorizations hint at the store’s personality. “We have offended people on all sides of the spectrum,” chuckles DeArmond, who sees the varied background of her volunteers—from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal and everywhere in between—as part of The Word Shop’s appeal.
“Seeing how each denomination has something to offer, they’re a doorway— that’s true of the books,” she says. “There are few books I agree with 100 percent, but I can look at what can I take out of there that is good and slide over the rest.”
At one time someone suggested that she start holding services at the store, but DeArmond had an adamant no. “I felt a check from the Lord,” she says. “As soon as we did that we would lose the ecumenical piece of it and became ‘that church’ with ‘that way of thinking.’” Despite not wanting to become a church, she recognizes that The Word Shop offers some of the benefits of one and observes that many don’t open their doors during weekdays.
“Have you ever tried to get into a church on a Wednesday afternoon?” she asks. “It’s no longer like it used to be in English novels, where you would wander by and the vicar is out there tending the garden, and you have this little conversation; that doesn’t happen in a lot of churches out here.
“Where can you go if you had this really cool thing that happened to you with the Lord this morning and you want to go talk to somebody about it. Us—we’re one of the places you can come. It’s a unique thing.”
That sense of community is fostered by the store’s down-home nature—there are clearly signed sections, nothing feels too organized. There are eight chairs for sitting and browsing in the property’s small two rooms—the back one with a table for various groups to meet around—and out on the deck.
SUCCESSFUL BOOK GROUPS
A columnist for The Santa Cruz Sentinel, DeArmond runs prayer and writing groups—they’ve published their own anthology—and has held illustrated journaling classes. Most popular is the long-running monthly literary party, whose particular approach might be tried to advantage by others.
It started as a traditional book club, but didn’t really take off because people’s interests were so diverse. So instead of selecting a single title for their meetings, they chose a genre and invited everyone to bring along an applicable book they had read to speak about.
“In that setting, you can have people who read really different stuff,” DeArmond explains, “one who just reads romance, and the guy who always wants to read French literature; they can each bring in their own books and participate.”
It takes some effort to lead the group so sharing goes well, but she enjoys it. Were the store to still sell new titles—which it pretty much gave up on when Amazon started taking off—she notes, the members’ recommendations could lead to orders from others.
At the start of each year, the group has a “Twice Told Tales” gathering, when everyone brings one of the favorite books shared during the previous 12 months. “You could think that would be a little boring, but it’s not, everyone loves that one.”
There’s a nominal charge for some classes, because that improves attendance: people seem to value something more when they’ve made some kind of investment. “One class I charged them a bit on top for any they missed,” she recalls. “If you’re meeting with six or seven people and a couple are missing, that’s important.”
SUPPORTED BY SPONSORS
The Word Shop depends on donations to stock its shelves. “People love their books, and if they’re moving and can’t take them with them, they want them to be in the hands of someone else.” Trade paper titles usually sell for $3 and hardbacks for $4. Bibles used to be priced really low because DeArmond wanted to get them into people’s hands, naturally, “but what I saw happening was people coming in and buying them up to resell, and that was not really what I had in mind.”
For overseeing a team of volunteers with different personalities, DeArmond draws on past experience running a crisis information switchboard, and a wide range of church ministry experience. Volunteers commit to a two- or three-hour shift on a regular basis, and get to make the place their own. Some have been with her since the beginning.
DeArmond welcomes applications from a wide range of backgrounds, but “you have to know the boss.” Openness to conversations about faith with visitors is encouraged, “but if someone is really an evangelist and wants to ask every person who walks in if they know Jesus, they’re probably not a good fit for us.”
Evidence of the value people place on The Word Shop can be found in its sponsors—including some who have never even set foot in the store, but “have heard about what is going on”—who give money every year to help keep the lights on, even knowing that as technically a for-profit business it can’t give tax receipts.
DeArmond floated the sponsorship idea in one of her newsletters and had 20 pledges within 24 hours. Sponsors are invited to take home any books they want, by way of a thank-you.
Sometimes she’ll wonder what kind of impact The Word Shop has had. “Then person after person we have touched will come in that day [to remind me],” DeArmond notes. “Something is going on.”
— Andy Butcher