How the 'Oldest bookstore in America' has kept its doors open for centuries

Matteo Iadonisi Image
Monday, May 15, 2023
How the 'Oldest bookstore in America' has kept its doors open
The Moravian Book Shop has brought stories of perseverance, heart, and faith to the town of Bethlehem for nearly 300 years.

BETHLEHEM, Pennsylvania (WPVI) -- "This bookshop has been in this community since 1745," said Carol King, retail manager at the Moravian Bookshop. "Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians came over to do missionary work to educate the women and natives."

The Moravian Church then appointed a man named Samuel Powell to operate a book store. It had several different homes before landing on historic Main Street in 1871, where it now resides.

What started as a gathering place to share biblical texts soon began to grow and include other denominations besides the Moravians. It is now touted as the 'oldest bookstore in America' and the 'oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world.'

The Moravian Book Shop adapted with the times and lived through the creation of the United States of America, world wars, economic depressions, pandemics, and now the age of the internet.

It's been a one-stop-shop for much more than books throughout its history.

"When I was in sixth grade, my girlfriend and I used to walk the railroad tracks," said King. "We would stop into the bookshop to get a honey stick."

Once spanning an entire block, the Moravian Book Shop was known for its candy counter, deli, linens, fine clothing, ghost stories, and more. But as time went on, some of those vendors dispersed. Now, much of those items can be found in their own independent stores along Main Street.

But the most recent and pivotal turning point for the Moravian Book Shop was around 2018, when it almost ceased to exist.

"In 2018, the Moravian Church said they wanted to get out of the retail business and, would Moravian University be interested in continuing to keep the doors open for the Moravian Book Shop," said Michael Corr, Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Moravian University.

Now, the Book Shop is managed by Moravian University and day-to-day operations are carried out by Barnes & Noble.

Staff and customers hope it lasts another 300 years as a community pillar in Bethlehem.

"The history is amazing. It's absolutely amazing and I'm proud to be a part of it," said Carol King. "I'm just really am glad that these doors are open."

To learn more about the Moravian Book Shop, watch our video above or visit their website.

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