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Catholic bookshops are pulpits and the pews are getting empty

St Paul's Book Centre manager Fr Thomas Manimala pulls out a book
Reading up: Pauline Father Thomas Manimala was in Brisbane doing work from the St Paul’s Book Centre in Brisbane’s CBD recently. Photo: Joe Higgins

A CATHOLIC treasure trove sitting outside St Stephen’s Cathedral has nourished evangelisation in Brisbane archdiocese for 23 years, but now faces “big problems” that could shut the automatic door forever. 

St Paul’s Book Centre, which sells Bibles, spiritual books and religious items, was a city-favourite and cultural hub for many Brisbane Catholics.

But dwindling vocations and soaring costs were behind talks going around that management might shut in the near future.

Pauline Father Thomas Manimala, who oversees the Brisbane store from his office in Sydney, said the shop was essential to evangelisation in the archdiocese. 

“Our bookshops are pulpits,” Fr Manimala said.

Every St Paul’s Publication book had a note written on the inside of the cover, which said the members of the society placed at the centre of their lives “the mission of evangelisation through the modern means of communication”.

Fr Manimala said the society just wanted to reach out through Jesus Christ.

“He is the Way, the Truth and the Light,” he said. “That’s our whole message.”

St Paul’s has closed stores in Toowoomba and Parramatta in recent years, and each time there was a community outcry after the store was shut.

Now at Elizabeth Street, Fr Manimala wanted Brisbane to know about the problems before it was too late.

“There are big problems,” he said.

Fr Manimala said the media outlet of the Church was difficult to run but was vital to the ongoing survival of Catholicism.

It was the canary in the coalmine. 

If Catholic bookshops were suffocating, the faith tradition would follow.

The issues struck both supply and demand.

A decrease in vocations for the Society of St Paul caused a spike in costs because without religious to run the stores and write the publications, the society had to pay salaries for shop managers and fees to authors. 

A decrease in general vocations also decreased demand from seminaries and institutes for updated theology texts or new works. 

Another difficulty he said was that without the presence of their members in the book centre, it was hard to ensure the continuation of the quality and care the members of the Society of St Paul offered with their presence.

The decline in vocations was common to many orders but, unlike orders who ran schools or hospitals, St Paul’s relied on narrow margins and no support from governments or others.

Catholic schools were in high demand because children always needed quality education; Catholic hospitals were in high demand because people always got sick.

A United States online monopoly could not deliver your child’s physical education class or an x-ray scanner to your door.

But online giant Amazon could deliver books and make price competition almost impossible.

“Competition from Amazon and e-books eats up our bookshops,” Fr Manimala said.

The reason Amazon could get away with selling so cheaply was because of its high-volume trade across all publication genres, including religion.

Religious publications in isolation were not in high demand so, even though St Paul’s moved online, the online store could not save them. 

One thing Fr Manimala would like to see was better reading habits among parents. 

He said if Catholic parents were not reading Catholic books, Catholic children would not either. 

Encouraging and cultivating reading habits among Catholic parents and children through parish ministry could make a difference in ensuring the survival of Catholic book centres, he said.

Fr Manimala said in the present situation  greater collaboration and contributions from the archdiocese was essential to ensure the continuation of their book centre ministry.

“You see this (bookshop) builds up the faith and helps in evangelisation, and they may have to make some contributions,” he said.

“It’s the same with media everywhere.”

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