In my imagination, a hidden bookshop is about as exciting to happen upon as a pirate’s lair or unmapped island or lost, underwater city. Of course, in any self-respecting bookstore, all these other wonders and more do exist—between covers, on the shelves.
My five-year-old son and I, one Saturday morning after his ice skating lesson, wandered into Churchmouse Bookshop at St. Mary the Virgin Anglican church, which is tucked away on a little side street in Victoria’s community of Oak Bay. Housed in the back of the main church, the shop was as substantial as a small library, the selection broad and tempting. It was abuzz with busy volunteers and locals browsing the shelves. Coffee and cookies were available, as were tables and chairs where people sat chatting, knitting, reading.
My son found a stack of picture books on a little stool and began to resort them. I found myself chatting with Craig Hiebert, St. Mary’s reverend, who told me the sturdy, beautiful bookshelves on wheels had once been pews in the very space where we were standing. A handy parishioner had transformed them.
Now that this roomy and inviting bookshop space existed in the back of the church, the folks at St. Mary’s were hoping the community would make use of it. Maybe for story times, Craig said. Maybe book readings. Maybe music. I met Kim Foster, Churchmouse Book’s volunteer manager. I learned that she, too, shared this vision, and spent her time here not as a parishioner—which she is not—but simply as an engaged member of the community. I was delighted, intrigued, and won by the openness of this place. (It didn’t hurt that one of the bookshop volunteers had, by now, taken my son in hand: she’d found some scraps of paper for him to cut up, and loaned him mini sewing scissors for the purpose.)
Next thing I knew, Churchmouse After Hours, a monthly coffeehouse, was born. Here’s the deal. We gather one evening a month. We pick a theme. We invite people to come armed with a poem they love, a short piece of prose or very short story (or excerpt), a song they can sing or play. We engage in a couple of hours of exploration of our theme, by turns playful, serious, silly, arresting, troubling, unexpected, profound.
We expressly ask our literary “Churchmice” to share written work by others, even if they are accomplished authors themselves. Our hope is to create a space for anyone to participate, not just writers, where people feel comfortable sharing something that has touched them, stuck with them, delighted them, given them pause. Many of us are makers, yes, of stories, poems and songs, but many more of us are readers and listeners. At Churchmouse, we read or are read to—or both—sing or are sung to, tell or hear stories. We both give and receive.