Eighth Day Books is likely the only Christian bookstore to ever have been the subject of a major profile in The New York Times and almost certainly the only one where you might find a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

These two distinctives are interrelated—the Wichita, KS store’s singular inventory prompted the noted newspaper’s 1,200-word article in May this year about the unique mix centered on founder and owner Warren Farha’s “eclectic and Christian tastes.”

With sections devoted to the likes of Monastic Writings & Studies and Pastristic Writings and Studies, the 24,000-title selection is deep on theology and early church history. Many titles are from small university or even monastery publishers Warren tracks down online. The focus is on “books that are really important and interesting,” he says, “not so much bestsellers.”

Developing a national reputation as the go-to place for some of the more obscure classic works in faith, the arts, science, and the humanities has enabled Eighth Day to survive when many other stores have gone by the wayside. Pursuing off-site and online sales have been an important element, too—Warren runs book tables at conferences and events and handles Internet orders.

Also key to the 27-year-old store’s longevity has been serving the broad church: Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, his own background. That requires being “ecumenical yet unashamedly rooted in your own tradition,” he says.

Ecumenical focus

Building bridges between different parts of the church makes sense from a business point of view, but more importantly to Warren, it’s also biblical. “However you define the church—and that’s a whole theological issue of its own—we share in the body and blood of Christ in some way, so how seriously do we take the other?”

That includes being open and real with customers, acknowledging that they may be able to serve you, by broadening your knowledge and experience of God, even as you seek to serve them. “It means you’re honest with them and that means you state forthrightly what you believe without hedging, but also admitting that there are things that are a little bit fuzzy, where the edges are not quite as sharp,” Warren says, “and calling out for help in defining them.”

For other retailers interested in reaching beyond their own Christian stream, Warren recommends doing due diligence in learning about the key thinkers and writers of other traditions. Then apply the Golden Rule to visitors from different church backgrounds. “Take them as seriously as you would like to be taken by them.”

From the start, Warren didn’t want his store to be “pigeonholed as a religious bookstore.” He wanted it to be “larger than that—the best that has been thought and written.” Though he didn’t set out to open “an evangelistic tool, in a certain way it has become something along those lines.”

Eighth Day encourages thoughtful conversation not just through its inventory but by partnering with the Eighth Day Institute, founded by a former employee, in hosting an annual symposium. The event brings together key thought leaders from the three main traditions, with an opening reception at the store.

Intellectual Honesty

Being spiritually and intellectually true means carrying important books that he might not agree with personally, Warren believes, “because those books have shaped the world, and we have to be honest about that.”

That’s where the likes of Mein Kampf and titles by “God is dead” philosopher Friedrich Nietzche fit in. “There are not many things I can think of that are more reprehensible,” he acknowledges of Hitler’s work, “but it’s a book that was seminal, so for somebody who wants to know about that, it has to be there. I’m trying not to hide my head in the sand.”

Having said that, he doesn’t just ring books up for sale without comment. “We try to be very honest about book selection,” he says. “If we think someone is choosing a book that’s not what they want, we tell them so. We try to be honest about its qualities.”

With 40,000 books squeezed into around 3,000 square feet in a former three-story house, space is at a premium. That means most books are shelved spine-out. Face-front positioning is given to “quirky” books—those people may not have seen or that capture attention. They also serve as category headers.

Having worked in his family’s business, Warren opened Eighth Day after a tragic accident left him a widower with two young children (he later remarried). Seeking a fresh start, he remembered student-day discussions with friends about what would make the perfect bookstore and decided to try to make that dream a reality.

Special Interests

Early on Warren realized in-store traffic would not be enough to sustain the business, pursuing customers further afield. The mailing list for an annual catalog of Eighth Day’s specialized inventory grew to 30,000 before the last issue was produced in 2012; Warren hopes to resurrect it soon.

He also quickly learned the value of providing book tables at special-interest events: good sales are guaranteed with a well-curated selection appropriate for the topic, and buyers get introduced to Eighth Day. Warren estimates having provided book tables at around 700 events over the last near-three decades.

“I’ve heard it compared to a restaurant that does catering on the side,” he says, “because it’s a volume aspect of the business, and at certain times of the year just pivotal. I also get really great feedback at these events, and learn so much about important new books, and what people are appreciating.”

Servicing events in this way is a dimension of the book business not easily duplicated, for those willing to put in the effort of boxing up as many as 3,000 books for an event. But “very few do the grunt work that’s involved” in selecting, driving, setting up, and breaking down.

Given the store’s emphasis on rare and lesser-known titles, it has long carried a wide range of used books. “There are hundreds of books that are out of print, but that are great books and so they fit right into our inventory philosophy, and they give you a variety of inventory that you can’t find in a store that stocks exclusivity new books,” Warren notes. “People love stumbling across something they would never have expected to see.”

A lifelong book lover who could happily spend all day poking around in the dusty corners of the Internet for little-known gems, he has learned to be somewhat pragmatic. There’s the balancing act between new orders and accounts payable, and the need to apply his late father’s business maxim: “Don’t fall in love with it, just sell it.”

 

Digital Limits

Yet while he embraces online sales and digital publishing, Warren remains a lover of hand-selling and hard copies. “I believe in the physical encounter with the book, whether you’re reading it or selling it,” he says a tad wistfully. “It can teach you things that you can’t learn otherwise.”

Digital reading’s only advantage is convenience, he firmly believes. “When you read a physical book, you’re learning things through your body, through the senses, at the same time you’re learning things intellectually.”

That sense of the transcendent nature of his store is also reflected in its largest non-book category: icons. Eighth Day has a large selection of symbolic Christian art, much from monasteries that support themselves through sales of the reproductions. The store also carries some music, mostly liturgical and chant.

Being featured in The New York Times brought a brief spike in business but long-term, Warren sees Eighth Day’s future depending more on word-of-mouth recommendation than publicity. To that end, he’s thinking about ways of developing the store’s sense of being a “third place”—where people like to hang out—without sacrificing its core asset, great selection.

Meanwhile, there’s always that next great treasure to find. “I’m never done creating that perfect inventory,” he says. “There’s always something to look for, some missing pieces that need to be filled in.”

-Andy Butcher