I was just a little kid, looking way up at my mother, holding her hand as we walked across the crowded parking lot toward Newton’s Christian Bookstore. The storefront sign, spelling the store’s name in big, blocky, white script, was familiar to me; we had been here many times, and each time I came home with some kind of prize. I always felt a rush of excitement in my little boy heart when I saw that sign in the distance. I knew my mother would buy me something. The feeling was similar to Christmas morning, visions of shiny new things dancing in my head.
Mom always stopped to speak with the lady who worked the counter before she did anything else. They were big people with big, permed brunette hairdos, and I didn’t understand their world. The music of their chatter didn’t mean anything to me, except that as long as it continued, I was free to wander the store and peruse the various wares. One free-standing, clear plastic rack with multiple, vertically-stacked compartments on all sides interested me the most – this was the toy rack. If I was getting a prize today, it would likely come from this rack. My little legs couldn’t carry me there fast enough!
The store atmosphere was very clean, subdued, and awash in fluorescent light. Very soft music flowed from the speakers mounted here and there – the soundtrack to a godly life, I remember thinking. Shelves full of books and cassette tapes lined the walls, and other shelving and racks full of glass baubles and various items peppered the floor space. I cared about none of that, and made my b-line to the toy rack. What fun would await me there? I perused the many offerings – rubber balls, tops, plastic airplanes, pens, miniature pocket-bibles, spring-loaded doohickeys, foam animals, all sorts of things that would eventually wind up lost beneath couch cushions or in the woods behind my house. I knew I had to choose carefully. I had to find a diamond in the rough – something that I actually wanted, not some cheap piece of plastic junk just for the sake of getting something.
While searching for a treasure, I evaluated the quality of each item, touching and trying and judging the craftsmanship. Here’s a shiny pen, with fluid in its translucent plastic end, and little bits of glitter that float around, the words “Jesus loves you” revealed to be printed on the inside when the glitter settled. Kind of a cool idea, but man, this thing felt like it wouldn’t take much to break, and it was already kind of coming apart near the threads. This item wouldn’t be too bad, except for the sinking feeling upon the realization that this object was designed to send me a message. I didn’t want a lesson, I wanted something cool! Did they have any without the writing? Rifling through the rest of the pens, and waiting for the glitter to settle, my heart dropped a bit more. Not a single one without some sort of message in it. Next compartment, please. This one has little photos of Jesus, glowing white for some reason, framed in gold plastic. Nope. Next. Ooh, there’s a gun-looking thing with an enclosure of metal things on top, and when you pull the trigger, the metal things spin open and reveal… a plastic miniature Jesus.
The music in the store was getting on my nerves a little bit. Were there any real toys in this store? The most viable implement of fun I found was a small, white matte rubber ball, and even that had a cross on it. At least it didn’t require reading. On the other side, the fluorescent orange price tag: $2.99. Two-ninety-nine?! How was I going to convince my mother to spend two dollars and ninety-nine cents on a rubber ball that I could get for a quarter in a vending machine at the pizza parlor? Desperation crept like electricity up my spine. The odds of coming out of this store with something I actually wanted were getting really, really bad. My mom’s conversation with the cashier was coming to a close; their voices trailed down instead of up, and I didn’t want anything I had seen. For some weird reason, my stomach felt turned inside out. There was something cheaper about these trinkets than the trinkets themselves.
To this day, when I encounter people selling Jesus, I remember those cheap plastic toys; and I long for something real.