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In an early scene of the film American Fiction, Monk (Jeffrey Wright) is noticeably upset. He moves a stack of his books—he’s a Black scholar and author—from the African American section of a chain bookstore to the more appropriate Mythology section which is the focus of his work. When confronted by a clerk for this unauthorized move, Monk explains his reasoning. The clerk doesn’t buy it and states that it is standard corporate policy to assign Black authors to the section Monk thinks is too limiting.

Product placement makes a difference.

This scene reminded me of a visit to a bookstore in La Conner, Washington, north of Seattle. Set on the corner of prime real estate in this tourist town, it had a sense of welcome the moment one entered, so much so that I asked a man, who proved to be the owner, what he had in mind when he designed it. He said that he and his wife decided to make this their ministry after graduating from seminary. They wanted a bookstore that was, by design, not the kind of Christian bookstore where only Christians would feel welcome.

Their customers would be people of faith or no faith. While the shelf categories mirrored those found in most chain bookstores, the difference was that customers were invited to join in book discussions on matters of faith. Books by C.S. Lewis were prominently featured, but so were books about world religions, agnosticism, or atheism. The book discussions took place around overstuffed chairs and couches in front of a roaring fireplace, with coffee and donuts provided.

The owner told me of the time Eugene Peterson visited the bookstore. Peterson noticed its quirky nature and asked the same questions of the owner. He then told the owner about his mischievous practice, like Monk’s. Peterson would visit chain bookstores, look for his titles, and liberate them from the Religion section ghetto, placing them instead in the Business or Computer Science or International Travel section. It gave him great delight to imagine someone discovering The Message. Perhaps even buy it and hear the gospel. Maybe the Spirit moved when the books were moved.

Product placement makes a difference.

My wife served on the board for a local resale shop which served two area Christian schools. Volunteers staffed the endeavor, and proceeds went to reduce tuition costs. One day as she volunteered and wandered over to the books section, she met the woman in charge of sorting and stacking donated books. She was happy to share the fact that she rejected any Harry Potter donations, lest wizardry cast a spell over a young reader. As the conversation developed, my wife noticed the risque Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelf. When she asked why that was there, the woman replied, “Well, that’s in the Home Decorating section.”

Product placement makes a difference.

In a related and developing story with international and lasting importance, the Elector of the Palatinate, Frederick III, has ordered the Heidelberg Catechism authored by Zacharias Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus removed from the Human Sexuality section of every bookstore in the realm and returned to the Education section, honoring its original intention to serve as a manual for catechetical instruction, nothing more, nothing less.

Sometimes, product placement makes all the difference. By design.

Dave Larsen

Dave Larsen, humorist and storyteller, is a member of Hope Christian Reformed Church in Oak Forest, Illinois, along with his wife Sally. He is the retired Director of the Bright Promise Fund for Urban Christian Education in Chicago.


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