When I first met Archives Books, it was a brick building nestled at the base of the foothills of Pasadena.
As an undergrad student in Biblical Studies, it provided a breadth and depth unmatched by any other brick-and-mortar bookstore (this was 2005) and it was exhilarating to see spines that matched footnotes, bibliographies, and articles that I was reading.
It was about an hour from campus, which made for a perfect road trip and set next to a wonderful Lebanese restaurant which was the backdrop for conversations about all of the things that matter. With oversized photographs of Beirut around us, we were transported to a world much more ancient than our southern California dormitory.
As my research changed from New Testament exegesis to contextualization and World Christianity to progressive theology, I found new shelves to explore and get lost in. I met new authors who stretched me and substantiated an ideal of diversity of thought existing under a single roof in a mutual endeavor for Christian scholarship. As I passed through churches, jobs, and degrees, Archives remained a place of inspiration.
Yet Archives Books was passing through its stages as well.
Following a corporate bookstore experiment at Fuller Seminary, Archives relocated and became a campus bookstore which seemed like a perfect match on paper. As much as I enjoyed the coffee shop, class materials, and Fuller swag, the distinctive features of Archives were lost. It’s sprawling used book section and the diversity of authors traded for alignment as the seminary’s auxiliary.
Moving off-campus to their current Fair Oaks location was one last chance to be independent, yet never seemed to take hold. There was no charm of the old neighborhood and the tall ceilings made the shelves look miniscule. With fewer and fewer people, there were fewer moments to strike up conversations with a stranger about de-mythology or poststructural hermeneutics or variant translations of scriptures. These were the stories that enticed people to experience for themselves, convert, and become customers.
I think my dad told me about it one time. Or maybe an older student or professor. It was the type of place that lived in lore moreso than reality. Maybe that’s what made it so sacred. But a speciality bookstore is not immune to reality. I have no idea about the reasons for closing, but it surely involved economics. Maybe if they had stayed a Seminary bookstore. Maybe if they aligned with a denomination for a subsidy. Maybe if they restricted their shelves to conservative evangelicals and made room for self-help pulp. But those decisions would have eroded what made Archives into an icon.
My last pilgrimage was February 6, 2020. I wandered the stacks with my four-year-old and found a couple books: a compilation of homilies by Oscar Romero, a book on narrative theology by one of my Fuller profs, a monograph by a legend in anthropological linguistics, and a documentary sourcebook of inculturated theology.
The Library of Alexandria has burned and we are left in a vacuum. But like the libraries of Timbuktu in Mali, the knowledge and memories that passed through Archives Books live on the bookshelves of thousands of seminarians, pastors, neighborhood theologians, and all the patrons seeking to enrich their faith with the fullness of their minds.
Thank you, Archives, for your place in my journey of faith seeking understanding.