By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published September 21, 2006
In its nearly 60 years of service, Notre Dame Bookshop was more than just a store that sold books and Catholic gifts.
It was a community, a place for people to gather and share their grief over the loss of a loved one, their joy in the joining of two people in holy matrimony, their elation in the baptism of a new grandchild.
As people browsed among the bookshelves, searching for answers to the questions found in their hearts, they found kindred souls with whom to share their emotions. As soft Christian music echoed throughout the store, they asked questions about the Catholic faith or searched through the stacks for new ways to pray.
But times changed, and the quiet bookshop that had opened in 1948 was a simple establishment, carried on the backs of the volunteers and staff members who had tended it with love. It was no match for the corporate giants and Internet sellers that threatened it. And so on Sept. 2, Notre Dame Bookshop closed its doors forever.
In the late 1940s, Bishop Gerald O’Hara, bishop of the Diocese of Savannah-Atlanta, suggested the need for a Catholic bookstore to serve Catholics in Georgia, who at that time made up only about one percent of the state.
The late Suzanne Spalding Schroder initiated the dream of the store and along with dozens of volunteers, worked hard to make it a reality. First headquartered on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, the store—after a fire—took space at Sacred Heart Church. In 1970, Notre Dame moved to the grounds of Ignatius House on Riverside Drive, and eventually the store made the move to its final location on Buford Highway.
The store first began as a mail-order business. In a 1981 Georgia Bulletin article, Elena de Give, one of Notre Dame’s first volunteers, recalled the early days of its existence.
“We began with one bare store in Buckhead—(Schroder) paid the first year’s rent out of her own pocket,” recalled de Give. “We had one shelf of used Catholic books, one missal, one rosary, a Bible and a couple of medals. We were supposed to sit there and take orders.”
But eventually stock was bought, and the store became the browser’s haven that it was for decades to come.
Jane Murphy, who served at Notre Dame for over 30 years, looked fondly around her office in early August. She rattled off the names of dozens of women who had made the store a success for over 60 years.
“It was about scraping and scheming. We didn’t go to Harvard, we had no business sense, but God kept us open. I don’t think any of us really ever thought of it as a business. We thought of it as a mission,” she said. “I feel sad (about the closing) but I also realize it’s time.”
Ann May was also on staff for over 25 years and spoke of the many people she had met at the store. Shoppers would come in with inquiries about the Catholic faith, she said. Others would be grieving the loss of a loved one and would come to the store, searching for books, but would leave instead with a sense of peace.
Murphy said working at Notre Dame had been “very fulfilling.”
“We were here for a reason,” she said. “But we’re also leaving for a reason.”
On the hot August day, the bookstore was quiet. Soft piano music set the background as a few shoppers came in, browsing the sparse shelves.
Therese Russo had been shopping at Notre Dame since the late 1960s. She’d often come in, she said, for gifts for confirmations and first Communions.
“I’m very sad that it’s closing. It’s the end of an era,” she said.
The parishioner from Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Atlanta said that she’d met some “wonderful and very helpful” people at Notre Dame.
“I come in here all the time,” she said. “I have found the most wonderful things here, just by happenstance.”
As times change and consumers turn to online shopping, Russo said that they miss out on valuable opportunities.
“You miss that human contact, that community that is so important,” she said.
May added that though she was sad to see the store close, she is grateful for the opportunity to serve it.
“We really have been a community,” May said. “It’s serendipity, the Holy Spirit. That’s why we have stayed alive so long. You could open the door here and just feel the presence, the good vibrations of everyone who had been here before. It’s been an experience like no other.”