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History's Headlines: Bethlehem book shop sees another Christmas as world's oldest book store

History's Headlines: Bethlehem book shop world's oldest

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bethlehem has become the Lehigh Valley's go to place for Christmas and few places in the Christmas City say holiday like the Moravian Book Shop.

Even in the heart of summer this emporium of commerce offers exotic ornaments and winter holiday items. And at this time of year it is particularly into the season. It sometimes seems to be an old Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover come to life. In an era when independent books stores are closing every day and even the giant mega book stores that ruled the 1980s and 1990s are disappearing, the Moravian Book Shop endures. 

But behind its Victorian façade, which has been the shop's location since 1871, is even more history. It was back in April 2000 that the store's manager noted an on-line item stating that the Joseph Smith & Son Book Shop, founded in Glasgow Scotland in 1751, had decided to close its doors.

This made the Moravian Book Shop the world's oldest book store. It was founded in 1745, at a time when the Stuart pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie was trying take back the British throne from that upstart German prince George II (he did not succeed), and the Moravian village overlooking the Lehigh was barely four years old.

How did the Moravian Book Shop get its start? Well it all began in a tavern-more particularly the Crown Tavern-across the Lehigh River in what is today South Bethlehem. Even though it was little by the mid-1740s it was already clear Bethlehem was heading for bigger things. Ever since Moravian leader Count von Zinzendorf had given the city its name in 1742, people, Moravians mostly, were flocking in. And there were many non-Moravians who were curious about what this unique community was all about.

To meet this need, and to keep the non-Moravians from just entering the community without permission, Zinzendorf decided what was needed was a "a house of entertainment," i.e.; a tavern. And so the Crown Inn was created. To help run the new facility the church leadership picked Samuel Powell and his wife Martha, English converts to the Moravian faith.

Powell and his wife arrived in Bethlehem from Philadelphia on September 30, 1745. The couple had been part of one of what the Moravians called "the Sea Congregations" that were among the first of the church to come to the New World, arriving in Philadelphia from England in June of 1742.

The early records show they were from Whitechurch (Album Monasterium in the German language Moravian records), a market town not far from the border with Wales in the county of Shropshire. Moravian records call it "the county of Salop" a name the Normans used for Shropshire after their conquest of England in 1066. Powell's occupation is listed as "brazier," applied as that time for someone who worked in brass or was a coppersmith.

Exactly why Powell was selected to fulfill the position of innkeeper for the little community is unknown. But to this day one of the most prominent buildings in Whitechurch is the Black Bear Inn, which was founded in the 1660s. Perhaps outside of his occupation Powell or his wife had some experience running or at least working at an inn.

The inn opened early in October and was an immediate success. And for reasons that are unclear, the following month, November of 1745, the Moravian leadership decided that it needed a book store. So they declared one open and put Powell in charge of it.

There is nothing on the record to explain why they decided they needed a book store. There might have been many reasons. For one thing Moravians were regarded as outsiders by many of the other German speakers in the Lehigh Valley. While some embraced them others were uncomfortable with their communal lifestyle.

Some thought their religious rites smacked too much of the Roman Catholic Church. And others-especially in the 1750s after the French and Indian War broke out with much violence on the frontier-were convinced Moravian were too friendly with the red man. They may have felt that selling books was a better way to explain themselves and even win converts.                        

Another reason may have been to provide their own people with good, legitimate, religious instruction. Many religious people on the Pennsylvania German frontier were horrified by the lack of an educated clergy. They were used to pastors in the old country, who were funded by the local governments of the German States, and educated in classical languages and biblical scholarship. It was perhaps a way of showing that Moravians were a faith that valued education.

Unfortunately we do not know exactly what books were sold at the first Moravian Book Shop. Undoubtedly they were largely works of religious devotion and hymn books.  Whatever they were it is difficult to imagine how Samuel and Martha Powell had time to run the Crown and the book shop. For the eight months they were running both of them more than 200 visitors were booked at the inn. Among other things they had to decorate and order everything from curtains to candlesticks.  Meals had to be provided along with hay or oats for a weary horse. Although we know the cost of the food and house wares used at the Crown, no one apparently thought to record what they brought in from the books they sold.

For unknown reasons in the spring of 1746 the Powells had had enough of book store running and left Bethlehem and returned to Philadelphia.

Their future may not have been prosperous. On September 10, 1762, Samuel Powell was buried in the city's potter's field set aside for the poor. It was later converted to Washington Square Park. But it might have pleased him to know that his name is preserved in history as the first manager of what is now the world's oldest bookstore.

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