October 29, 2020

Thirty-Two Rooms and No Way Out: Adventures in Bookstore Claustrophobia

claus.jpegThis post is an odd soup. Call it one part “Second Half of Life,” for just getting old and pathetic; one part “In The Study,” for the sermon idea I’ll get out of it; and one part “Parable, Metaphor and Illustration” for what you can do with it. Laugh at me, with me, and then think about it a bit.

And if this is your bookstore, don’t put me on your mailing list. I won’t be back unless I’m getting paid by a psychiatrist who has me wired up.

On our second visit to my daughter and son-in-law (married in June of ’06 and now living in a neighboring state), I had expressed my hope that we could visit some bookstores in the metro area nearby. Noel and Ryan found two excellent bookstores and we made a day of visiting them this past Saturday.

I love a used bookstore. Our first stop could have occupied me all day. I stood in front of the Shakespeare section for a long time, and spent another part of the morning on the Biblical/Theological aisle. There was lots to be found, and I soon had a small bag of bargains, as did the rest of the family.

The second store was across town, and on the way we talked about what we knew about it: Thirty-two rooms of books, according to the advertisements. Thirty-two. Many bargains, and books of every kind. It sounded exciting. We found a parking place and soon we were there.

It was obvious that this store was one of the high-profile businesses in its historic neighborhood, but it was just as obvious that the buildings involved were old, multi-story and narrow. Typical of some historic downtown shops in upscale commercial districts.

We followed the signs around to the main entrance, and along with several other people, we entered the store.

I’ve been in a lot of bookstores. My idea of a bookstore is of a spacious and ample room, often a very large room. It would never occur to me to take a house of tiny rooms, connected by tiny, narrow hallways and tiny, narrow staircases and make it into a bookstore. But it had occurred to someone, because I was in it.

There were thirty-two rooms all right, and none were bigger than my kitchen. Many of the “rooms” were closet-sized. The “hallways” were connectors that one person could navigate. The space between shelves was just as narrow. The doorways were narrow, and the stairwells were just wide enough for one average person to fit in.

You could not stop and browse. You had to constantly move. Unless you were an extremely slim person, no one could pass you without considerable body contact.

There were signs everywhere. On the walls. Doorframes. On the floor. Everywhere on the floor. Every doorway had an abundance of signs pointing up and down to various rooms. I’ve never seen so many signs of so many different kinds.

At first, all of our family–five of us–stayed together. We thought we were traveling through some narrow rooms on our way to larger rooms. No. This was as good as it got. One narrow room after another, up and down confusing stairwells and down narrow, disorienting hallways. Before long we were separated.

There were many doors to the outside….and all were emergency doors, blocked and barred with alarms and signs. Apparently the only way in or out was the side door on the first floor.

7855729p1.jpgSomehow, I managed to follow the signs to the “Religion” section. I was already unimpressed with what I was seeing. A lot of worthless overstock and bargains. The “Religion” section turned out to be another tiny, crowded, unmanageable room, much smaller than my living room, and full of new age nonsense.

I decided to head back to the entrance and wait for everyone else in our group.

I began to walk.

Up stairs. Down stairs. Into rooms. Around. And around. And around. Down stairs. Into another room. Through a door. Into a hall. Into a room. Is there an exit? Yes. No. It’s an emergency door.

Where am I?

Down the stairs. Into a room. Into a hall. Up the stairs. Around. And around. And around.

Signs? All the signs pointed to rooms of books. Not a single one pointed to the actual exit. Dozens gave directions to emergency exits, but I never saw one to a real exit.

Now, while you imagine me running around like a rat in a maze, let me say that if asked before Saturday if I were claustrophobic, I would have said, on a scale of 1-10, maybe a 3 in the right circumstances.

Crowded elevators don’t bother me. Crowded rooms don’t bother me. I don’t like to stand in lines, but that isn’t because crowds have an effect on me. I’m simply impatient. I rode crowded–and I mean armpit-to-nose crowded–subways in Boston, Chicago and elsewhere without any thought of claustrophobia.

I do recall riding the “pod” to the top of the St. Louis arch and thinking, “This is a bit crowded. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in this.” There must have been a little moment of panic that lit up in my brain that day, because the feeling I met Saturday wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.

When I was a youth minister at a large church, I had some boys in a Bible study who liked to go caving. I went with them on a couple of occasions, and wound up crawling on my belly in a passage about a foot and a half high, with frequent water in the passage. I was, to tell the truth, scared to death, but I handled it and made it without any problem.

Now….back to me imitating a hamster in a cage. I have now been wandering in this bizarre, crowded, maze of a store for about fifteen minutes. In my brain, a claustrophobic sensor is blinking noticeably on my mental dashboard. It is interesting, because I know that I am in no danger, that I will get out and that I am safe with other people. But my brain is racing into another gear. I am feeling a kind of discomfort that I don’t like. I am hurried and a bit frantic. While I try to hide what I am feeling, I am sure it’s obvious to others.

I am starting to breathe in the beginnings of a hyper-ventilated pattern I know well from terror-stricken kids. Mostly, I am embarrassed and angry to be feeling this way. Really angry. I am worried about my family, but I especially hope I don’t meet the manager, because I am not in a good frame of mind and I could harm him.

Eventually, I find myself in one of the lower rooms, probably the largest room in the store, full of books for children. There are two doors. They are blocked emergency doors. I can see our car from my view behind one of the doors. This is particularly frustrating, because I feel I have been everywhere and I cannot find my way out.

I turn to start back up the stair for the 5th or 6th time, and I come face to face with two older ladies, perhaps in their early 70s. They look at me, and they can tell all is not well.

They appear compassionate.

I ask them, “Can you tell me how to get out of here?”

One says “Are you claustrophobic?”

I say, “I never thought so, but then I’d never been in here before today.”

They laugh. Apparently I am not the first to have this kind of a day. (I can only imagine what small children go through in this freakish building.)

And so they begin to lead me up the stairs. They talk about how confusing the store is, and how easy it is to get lost. They have a brief disagreement about how to get out, but in less than 2 minutes, I am back at the main entrances. I thank them genuinely, and I go out the doors into the cool air of freedom.

I sit down on a bench and look at the store. I hate this place, and I never want to come back. I feel terribly cheated, plus old and embarassed.

In a few moments, Ryan and Noel appear. We decide to call Clay, who says his mother is with him. In a few moments, we are all reunited outside.

No one has bought a book. No one wants to return here. Ever.

I begin comparing the experience to hell, and my deliverance to salvation. If I were David, I would write a Psalm.

Denise has been laughing at me because she knows I will make it all into a sermon illustration at the first opportunity. She’s quite right. That bookstore is like the fallen world. Lots of worthless information. Lots of directions. Rooms. Halls. Stairs. And utter confusion.

I was lost. If I just kept reading the information and signs, or small-talking with the customers, I wouldn’t have noticed what a hell I was in.

When I did realize I was lost, I asked for help. Two evangelists were there to not only tell me the good news, but to show me the way. Why they were at this terrible secular bookstore (in a gay neighborhood, I’ve heard) and not at the Christian bookstore, I don’t know. Just think how they could have been such better witnesses if they had been in the Christian bookstore. I’m just grateful for a couple of missional compromisers in the right place at the right time.

If you know me, you know I’ll get one good one out of it. It’s a fine metaphor.

If you put me in such a place, and told me I could never get out, I would be in hell.

Instead, I am outside with my friends.

As it is, it’s just a bad memory of being a claustrophobic, frightened, scared little boy for a few moments. It was a window into the feelings that millions of people live with all the time. No meaning. No way out. Trapped. Not terrorized, but simply afraid that this is all there is, and we, like rats in a maze, are pointlessly running from place to place with no purpose and no escape.

I am glad for my deliverance. As the Psalmist said, now it all seems like a dream, and my freedom is appreciated all the more.


  1. And of course, as with the real world, it helps to have a map and/or guide book — which supposedly is available at the entrance. Anyway, nice post, so I will say as they do as you leave their store, “Danke schoen!”

    From Vienna,


  2. I know exactly which bookstore you visited! The photo helped give it away, too. How does the fire department put up with shops like this? What a death trap that would become, with old paper and wooden shelves and no fire escape…

  3. Great metaphor.
    you just described my dream world! I love small spaces. They make me feel comforted and nestled.
    And to be lost in a world of books where no one could find me! Ah, now there’s the life.

  4. Reminds me of Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester, Kent. That’s another rambling maze of a shop. The difference is it’s a pretty good bookshop.

    My idea of a bookstore is of a spacious and ample room, often a very large room.

    Yoinks. Secondhand bookshopping in the UK would come as a major shock to your system… 🙂

  5. Do you know the escher drawings? That’s exactly what I imagined in your story. Do a google images search if you’ve never seen them before.

    I had a dream once that I was trapped inside a world like one of those drawings with my unsaved sister. At one point we had a giant snake chasing us through the maze. I stopped the snake from chasing me by reading a passage of scripture that was highlighted in an open bible that was on a table. This made the maze world become sensical. I remember desperately trying to convince my sister to read the passage but she refused to believe that it would do anything for her. Consequently she continued in her lostness and attack by the snake. Your experience and illustration reminds me of a lot of my dream.

  6. I’ve been in that store. Boy, what a place! A good friend took me there several years ago because he knows how much of a bookstore nut I am. I agree with the closed in feeling you got. Did you have as hard a time finding parking as we did? One consolation I got after leaving was going to the good German restaurant nearby afterwards. If you ever find yourself in NYC, I highly recommend that you visit Strand Books on Broadway. It’s crazy disorganized. But oh do they have a selection. I got Calvin’s Institutes and a three volumn collection of American religious creeds for insanely cheap prices. And at least at their lower Manhattan site, the main room is quite large. So it has that spacious feeling, thought there are usually so many people milling around that it still feels crunched. But they’re all fellow book-nooks, so it’s all good. Much better than the one in Columbus! Thanks for the reminder though!

  7. I get the same feeling when I’m around people… and when I’m by myself.

  8. “If I were David, I would write a Psalm”
    Too funny 🙂
    It is interesting how being delivered out of any kind of suffering makes us realize how much we have to be grateful for.