If you’re a Catholic in Melbourne, you’ve visited Central Catholic Bookshop. It’s an iconic part of Catholic Melbourne, and one of only a handful of Catholic bookshops in the country.
Located next to St Francis’s Church and Melbourne Central, Central Catholic Bookshop is a local Catholic landmark, selling books, music, and devotional items to the faithful in the heart of Melbourne. The bookshop has traditionally been a source of comfort and community. Typical customers would include those who would come in to browse after Mass at St Francis.
Since the church and bookshop doors have been closed, both the shop and the people who love to shop there have had to learn to adapt to life online.
But store manager Jennifer Nowell explains the shop is as busy as ever. With Masses online, the bookshop has become a major contact point for Melbourne’s faithful.
‘Each day we’re sending more parcels out than the day before,’ Jennifer says.
Sales have revealed some valuable insights about the lives and faith of Melbourne Catholics in lockdown. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s more traditional reading material that is soaring in popularity.
Amongst top-selling new release titles, the common element is that they fall on the more traditional side of the spiritual spectrum. ‘An author, Fr Michael Gaitely MIC, put out a new book called 33 Days to Greater Glory. It’s solid spiritual material, and it’s been selling like hotcakes.’
Restrictions have not affected people's desire for reading material that will aid their spiritual journey. Rather, Jennifer explains, it's doing the opposite.
‘People are buying the Weekday Missal,’ Jennifer adds. ‘It had been out of print for months. We got them in again two weeks ago and since then, they’ve been flying out the door. Even though people can’t go to Mass, a lot of people are taking the opportunity to read through the Missal at home.’
And it’s not just their regular customers. ‘We’re getting a lot of internet sales from people from all over Australia. And from people who haven’t ordered from us before. I suspect they heard about us through social media.’
Jennifer explains that she has used the lockdown as an opportunity to increase their social presence online, both on Facebook and Instagram.
‘When we had to shut the doors, I thought, I’ll try this. We’ve greatly increased our followers online. We started late last year, and it’s been a really good way of getting information out.’
Now Jennifer posts every day or two, and people have responded positively. ‘Especially when we have competitions. The online response increases a lot.’
Jennifer notes that, since the lockdown, buyer behaviour has changed. ‘People might have bought a couple of books on the history of the Church but now they’ll also buy a rosary and some candles too. People are buying a lot of candles, perhaps lighting one when they say a prayer. Candles are one thing that I am constantly re-ordering.’
Some popular items seem to be especially reflective of the COVID era.
‘St Benedict medals are selling well. He is traditionally associated with protection, and I think a lot of people are putting them up in their houses or wearing them as a protection against infection, and spiritual dangers. We’ve also been selling a lot of statues of St Michael who is also a protector against evil.’
These sales correlate with a wider interest in traditional pious practises, Jennifer says. ‘We’re selling more rosary beads, a lot of scapulars, a lot of prayer books, especially ones where people consecrate themselves to Mary. All those really traditional devotions are really taking off.’
And it’s not just established members of the community, but rather people who seem to have limited exposure with these elements of the faith.
‘We’re spending a lot of time on the phone with people who need advice on how to pray the Rosary, what a scapular is, how they consecrate themselves to Mary, and people asking which blessing a St Benedict’s medal needs.’
‘Anything that has to do with old fashioned devotions,’ Jennifer says, noting that the lockdown has realigned the community’s focus. ‘It’s made people concentrate on what’s important and take the time to think more seriously about life.’