Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a small historic village (population just over 75,000), in the Lehigh Valley is home to the Moravian Church, a fiercely Protestant organization founded just outside of Prague in 1457. The Moravians settled in Pennsylvania in 1741 and founded the village of Bethlehem. Today Bethlehem is typical of the contemporary Rust Belt, an awkward juxtaposition of extreme poverty with hip restaurants, breweries, and shops just a street away. It is also the home of Lehigh University and Moravian College.
The Moravian Book Shop (bookshop is split into two words on Moravian’s signs) is located on Bethlehem’s Main Street, perhaps the only street worth visiting, with the exception of its historic buildings that are certainly worth a trip. According to the Moravian Book Shop website, it was founded in 1745 by the Moravian Church and has been in operation ever since. This makes the Moravian Book Shop the oldest bookstore in the United States after a bookstore in Boston on the corner of School Street closed to make way for a Chipotle. One would think that the owners would try to capitalize on this distinction with more effort. Yet, the Moravian Book Shop is ordinary in every sense of the word.
The building that houses the bookshop is stunning. Its old, German-inspired architecture is a cousin to the Dutch model one sees scattered throughout Pennsylvania. The bookshop itself is disappointing. Once inside there is nothing to distinguish it from a million other bookstores across the country. In fact, even Barnes & Noble, that Goliath currently on life-support, seems to have more character. The stock is made up of entirely new publications, but because of its size, that stock is severely limited. I entered the bookshop through a door that immediately delivered me into a gift shop selling Christmas ornaments (Bethlehem considers itself “Christmas City, USA”), locally crafted jewelry, and a small café. Once inside I had to make my way past counters of goods before I actually got to the bookstore. It reminded me of a rabbit warren, with its twists and turns, its small pockets and dim lighting. In fact, I have seldom been in a more disheartening and boring bookstore.
It seems that the Moravian Book Shop’s only claim to fame is its longevity. This itself is a wonder in a world so dominated by big chains and global capital. Still, the uninspiring feel to the store once inside left me disappointed. After having visited the oldest bookstore in the world in Lisbon, I came away with the feeling that the bookshop’s sense of history is as ephemeral as a New York City restaurant.