Have you heard this one? A Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian walk into the deli section at the South Beach Publix supermarket. As they go to take their numbered tickets from the red dispenser, they see that it is perched atop a rotating display of Christian-based inspirational books for sale.
The Jew says: "Jesus Christ! And so close to the kosher salami!"
The Muslim says: "They sell pork products we can't eat and books we don't want to read. Why do we even come here?"
And the Christian says: "Hey dudes, why don't you go whine in the wine department along with the other sour grapes?"
OK, lame joke. But it did surprise me the other day to see this book carousel stationed in the Publix at The Shops At Fifth & Alton. There are some generic inspirational books mixed in with the bible-related tomes, but the mission statement of the publishing company Choice Books -- an "inter Mennonite/Anabaptist book evangelism ministry" -- is clear: "To share the good news of Jesus Christ in the general marketplace through inspirational and wholesome reading material for shoppers across North America."
Not that there's anything wrong with that...except what about separation of church and supermarket? That's the question we posed to Alex, the assistant store manager of the Alton Road Publix.
"The rack is not specifically for Christian books," Alex explained. "They're just books that sell very well. There's no specific religion to them." When I said that they sure looked Christian based, he replied "I don't know. I've never really looked closely at the books. We got the rack about a month, two months ago. Any title has to be authorized by Publix Supermarkets, and then Choice Books brings them in."
The paperbacks generally range from $8 to $14, and some individual titles sell up to 50,000 copies. There's an element of impulse buying at work here, and Choice Books CEO John Bomberger has a theory as to where that impulse comes from. In his 2001 Annual Report, he noted that "God's Spirit nudges many people to purchase these books."
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Alex was exceedingly polite and professional about the whole matter. He promised to look over the books and to "speak to the vendor to see if they can just sell the ones that have no religion at all. We want to keep an even playing field where nobody gets offended. That's the last thing we want to do."
He said he would speak with the appropriate people on Monday (today). We'll keep you attuned.