Shield of Faith by Gracewear Jewelry

By Mike Patterson

As the year-end Christmas shopping season gets into full swing, Episcopal gift and book shops across the country have stocked an array of specialty gifts, locally handmade arts and crafts and books by clergy and lay members.

“Bibles and prayer books are traditional Christmas gifts,” said Lucy Chambers, manager of the Christ Church Cathedral Book Store in Houston and president of the Episcopal Booksellers Association. But Episcopal shops carry a menagerie of gifts and books that may be outside the realm of those traditional gift items.

For example, if you’re interested in introducing Fido to the Episcopal Church, you can find dog leashes and collars emblazoned with the Episcopal insignia. “They fly out of here,” said Cory Lites, manager of the Cathedral Book Store in Atlanta.

The internet makes it possible for shoppers to browse the Cathedral’s merchandise as well as other Episcopal stores to their heart’s content, no matter where they live. From the comfort of your home, you can hop from shop to shop and coast to coast to find unusual, unique, and creative gift items, some with an Episcopal motif, whether for the holidays or not, or things that seem a little wild, like the men’s Halloween socks decorated with tiny skeletons at Trinity Church’s Trinity Treasures in New Orleans.

Poking virtually through the online shops, you can also find face masks with the Episcopal insignia, water bottles, iPad cases, angel door knockers, silver alligators, carved gourd ornaments with a Nativity scene inside, bud vases, teddy bears, a Noah’s ark, towel sets, pottery, candles, towels, notecards, nail polish, and stuffed unicorns.

A bestseller in Jacksonville, Florida

Those shopping for Christmas and holiday gifts and interested in patronizing Episcopal stores will find many listed at the Episcopal Booksellers Association’s website (episcopalbooksellers.org), a community of more than 50 Episcopal gift and booksellers. The association maintains an interactive map of member stores to make it easy for shoppers to scan the virtual store shelves via their websites.

What is apparent in ranging among the shops is the diversity of books and products offered that are special to their area. For example, store managers agree that some of their most popular items are books by local authors as well as products crafted by local artisans.

“We sell a whole variety of fair trade and social enterprise products,” said Kathryn Bissette, manager of St. John’s Cathedral Bookstore and Gift Shop in Jacksonville and executive director of the Episcopal Booksellers Association. “We also try to support local vendors,” including Bee Hill Farms, Drema Farmer Jewelry, and The Oaken Bowl.

Lites said her shop finds local jewelers and artisans are popular with customers. Among favorites is jewelry crafted by Andrea Barnett utilizing a mix of vintage chains, rosaries, and semi-precious stones, and necklaces, earrings, and bracelets by erin gray (the artisan’s preferred capitalization), who uses proceeds to support cancer organizations.

“We also carry a line of Gracewear [jewelry]. They do pretty well,” Lites said. Also popular are hand-crafted dogwood crosses made by a local Atlanta wood carver, and Intertwined candles, handcrafted in Clarkston, Georgia, by refugee women.

Of course, books are always popular. Store managers find titles by local clergy and lay members are always in demand.

In the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, Lites said books by Beth-Sarah Wright on depression, faith, the stigma of mental health, and the role of personal storytelling plays in healing are popular.  She is married to the Rt. Rev. Robert C. Wright, the Episcopal bishop of Atlanta.

At St. John’s Cathedral bookstore, the seven books by the Very Rev. Kate Moorehead, dean of St. John’s Cathedral, are among the top sellers, Bissette said.

“The other book that has been our top seller this year has been With Gladness: Answering God’s Call in Our Everyday Lives by Christopher H. Martin,” she added.

Like retail stores across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has hurt Episcopal bookstores and gift shops. “I think COVID definitely affected everybody,” Chambers said.

However, the widespread availability of the internet enabled many stores to expand their reach and offset some loses from in-store shopping.

“What we have found during COVID is that we have had a surprising number of people finding us,” Bissette said, crediting Moorehead’s morning devotions as “particularly helpful in expanding the reach of the Cathedral and the bookstore.”

St. John’s and other bookstores have also joined the Bookshop.org network as a way of offering an online purchasing feature. “It’s a wonderful way to have an online store,” she said. “It’s a way you can support your local bookstore.”

Candles handcrafted by refugee women

And with the advent of internet shopping, local authors once known only locally or regionally have found a wider audience.

Knowing that stores would not be able to offer in-person speakers during the pandemic, in October 2020 the association launched a series of monthly Zoom presentations featuring prominent authors and providing participants an opportunity to engage in conversations with writers.

Kicking off the series was Presiding Bishop Michael Curry discussing his new book, Love Is the Way: Holding on to Hope in Troubling Times. “That was a wonderful one to start the program with,” Bissette said.

Following Curry were other prominent authors, including Marilynne Robinson, James Martin, Anne Lamott, and Kate Bowler.

“Anne Lamott was a big deal for us to have,” Bissette said, adding that Curry’s Love Is the Way “was a big seller for us last year.”

With the internet, Lites said, “We’re getting customers from all over the country.”

It’s uncertain whether the author series will continue after its concluding speaker in December. “We’re trying of thinking of what we can do next,” Chambers said. “People are burned out on Zoom.”

Skeleton socks from New Orleans

At St. Mark’s Bookstore in San Antonio, manager Carla Pineda said “we’re totally online right now,” but not because of COVID. The in-person shop was closed for remodeling. “We’re waiting to move back into a new space,” she said.

She said online shopping “turned out to be a really nice bonus” and enabled the store to “stay even remotely in front of people’s faces.”

The store is now receiving inquiries from across the country.

She said the store does do a good trade in prayer books, hymnals, Advent and Lent studies, children’s books, and “a lot of good, solid spirituality books. We tend to do a good bit of Celtic,” such as books by John O’Donohue, Pineda said.

Other local favorites are Wild Woman: A Footnote, the Desert, and My Quest for an Elusive Saint by Colorado author Amy Frykholm and books by San Antonio author Mary C. Earle, a retired Episcopal priest.

“We sell a lot of her books,” Pineda said. “She has a much bigger following than just local. She’s pretty well-known, especially around Episcopal communities.” Pineda suggests that her book of poetry, Did You Sing Your Song? “is a nice little gift book.”

Chambers said website traffic is dropping as more people are vaccinated and returning to in-person shopping. “Sales are definitely picking up,” she said.

The Oaken Bowl in Atlanta

One advantage of in-person shopping, she said, is that when shoppers “come into an Episcopal bookstore, they are looking for a curated selection.”

At Christ Church, for example, Chambers said “we think about our audience, not only our church but our community.” She said she wants to be a “resource and haven for anybody who might walk through the doors, not just church members.”

They even offer customers a cup of tea, “because book lovers tend to like tea,” she said.

Being in the Southwest, Chambers said they “have a lot of cr̀eches from Mexico. We have access to lots of pretty products from Mexico and things with a Southwestern feeling.”

Pineda is looking forward to reopening after her store’s remodeling. The bookstore had a table at the Diocesan Council in 2019 but was unable to attend in 2020 when COVID restrictions required a virtual council.

To increase its visibility, “We hope to return with a table in 2022,” she said. And so far, the in-person council is on.