Christian bookstore becomes a ministry of love

By Michelle Martin
Sunday, November 27, 2016

For Phil Bujnowski, running the Mustard Seed Christian Bookstore at 1143 W. Sheridan Road is a ministry.

It’s also a challenge, one that has gotten more difficult over the past four decades as the bookselling business has been upended.

“We’re suffering from the plight all brick-and-mortar stores are suffering, but the ones that have a niche are doing a little better,” said Bujnowski in an interview at St. Peter’s in the Loop, where Bujnowski has a second job as sacristan.

The Mustard Seed has adapted by carrying more used books, often inventory received from convent or church libraries or the personal collections of longtime customers. Some customers will bring in a bag of books to give to the store and then buy a few more while they are there.

“Those customers are what keeps me going,” Bujnowski said. “We’ve been fortunate that people will donate their books to us, and that’s pure profit,” Bujnowski said. “The prices aren’t as high, but the margins are higher. I don’t keep up with all the current titles. That’s not what people are coming to us for. Even when I did, they would come and review it in the store and go buy it on the internet, because it cost less, and I can’t really fault them for that.”

The store has roots in Bujnowski’s experience in the charismatic renewal movement in the 1970s, when he traveled to Rome and the Holy Land with a charismatic renewal group. While he originally joined the trip to go to Rome, he found that it was 10 days in the Holy Land that inspired him.

When he came home, and read an article about how the Bible in its various versions was a perpetual best-seller, he thought he could do something with that.

“Remember, this was when a lot of Catholics were just getting into reading and studying the Bible,” Bujnowski said.

So he started selling Bibles, religious books and other religious articles from the trunk of his car. After three years, he had built up enough customers and enough inventory to need a storefront.

His location across from Loyola University’s Lakeshore Campus was a boon, especially when about a third of the students at the Institute for Pastoral Studies bought their class books from him, and men and women religious studying at Loyola would buy books from him to send to their home countries.

Now the Institute for Pastoral Studies has moved to Loyola’s Water Tower Campus, and most students but their books online anyway.

The internet has taken away many of the new-book sales that Bujnowski and other local booksellers used to rely on, but it also has provided an outlet for him to sell many of the books he receives as donations, especially those that are more secular, Bujnowski said. That provides several hundred dollars a month.

Some of those books find their way into one of the store’s three display windows, especially books that Bujnowski believes will be attractive to the people who use the bus stop at the busy corner of Sheridan Road and Devon Avenue. “That allows me to sell a book on someone like Frank Sinatra,” he said.

In a neighborhood that’s home to immigrants from around the world, he’s found that books on English grammar tend to sell well.

Now the store is open Monday through Saturday with the help of two part-time employees, who keep things going while Bujnowski works at his other job or makes pickups of used books.

Bujnowski credits the dedication of those employees — “They haven’t had a raise in years. They see it as a ministry.” — and a reasonable landlord who values having small entrepreneurs as tenants for allowing him to keep the store going in a changed business environment.

Frank Carlton, who has been buying books at the Mustard Seed since it opened, said it’s worth it to him to make special trip to the shop, both to donate and to buy books.

Part of the draw is Bujnowski himself.

“He comes closer to living the Christian life than just about anyone I’ve met,” he said. “And the store has a lot of good things.”

Bujnowski and his staff are always pleasant and helpful, and happy to special order books if necessary, Carlton said.

While Bujnowski and many of his customers are Catholic, he started Mustard Seed as a Christian bookstore, and he carries works by non-Catholic authors. Top-sellers for him include works by the pope and authors such as Henri Nouwen, Ronald Rolheiser and C.S. Lewis. The King James Bible is among his biggest non- Catholic sellers, as are books by T.D. Jakes.

“I think it comes out of the charismatic renewal, trying to bring people together,” Bujnowski said of his store’s ecumenical bent. “It’s not about your theology. It’s about ‘How do you love and serve your neighbor?’”


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