By the Book
For this alumni couple,
“The Next Chapter”
is the best one yet
It’s a Saturday afternoon, and you’re strolling down the shop-lined sidewalk in La Conner, Washington, watching boats drift lazily along the Swinomish Channel beneath the sweeping arc of the Rainbow Bridge. You’ve just enjoyed a lunch of blackened salmon at a local café. And as you reach the end of the road, you find yourself at a quaint bookstore and coffeehouse called The Next Chapter.
When Sharon and John
Connell say that their
like home, they’re
not kidding. They live
above the shop.
Memoirs. Mysteries. Epics. Adventures. Poetry. Art. You’re impressed by the array of colorful volumes spread across the shop’s display tables. And alongside Independent Book Sense best sellers and “Oprah’s Book of the Month,” the owners have included volumes of contemporary religious insight, recent works by Philip Yancey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Anne Lamott, Henri Nouwen, and Frederick Buechner. The new-book smell mingles with an earthy aroma of fresh-ground coffee. And, well, there goes the afternoon.
Near the coffee-and-dessert counter in the back, beneath the children’s literature loft, a man delivers three hot lattes to customers lounging in comfortable chairs by the fireplace. This is John Connell, and the woman neatening the C.S. Lewis display is his wife, Sharon Lofdahl Connell. Both Seattle Pacific University graduates of 1971, they own the bookstore and welcome guests like fond family members. It’s not hard to understand their choice for book of the week: Dennis Bakke’s Joy at Work.
This living-room environment makes The Next Chapter one of the region’s most popular stops. The Connells regularly serve community clubs, book clubs, retreat groups, and writing circles. The customers’ frequent thank-you notes are sometimes about more than just literature, says Sharon. “We’ve had so many testimonies from individuals who have said, ‘You might not have been aware of it, but you served me all day. I’m going through a very difficult time, and only here was I able to find some peacefulness and some safety.’” John adds, “Over the years, it’s been interesting to see how many pastors have found it a place for retreat.”
The Connells’ satisfaction is the fruit of hard work, big dreams, a love that was born when they met in high school, and a lasting Christian faith. After developing “mission-oriented” convictions together at Multnomah School of the Bible, they married in 1968. When the couple graduated from Seattle Pacific three years later, they moved to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Illinois, where John earned his master’s degree in the philosophy of religion.
It wasn’t a bookstore but a successful building- materials store in Oak Harbor, Washington, that kept John and Sharon busy for the next decade. Meanwhile, they raised two boys, Travis Connell ’95 and Caleb Connell ’97, who went on to make memorable soccer-field maneuvers for SPU. But the Connells weren’t finished expanding their own field of dreams. They narrowed a long list of ideas to their favorite: a bookstore.
“We loved the dynamic of people coming into your store, and the diversity of being on the street,” says John. “You become involved in so many people’s lives.”
In 1996, they closed the doors on building materials and embarked on a six-month search for “the next chapter” of their lives. The Oregon Coast offered promising opportunities. But during a stop at La Conner’s Calico Cupboard — famous for hearty meals and gigantic cinnamon rolls slathered with fresh raspberry jam — Sharon sat admiring the historic building across the street, and the dream took hold. Built in 1890, withstanding a century’s storms, it seemed the ideal spot. Three weeks later, they owned the building.
And they didn’t stop there. John has served for years as the La Conner High School soccer coach, and Sharon is the Chamber of Commerce president. They’re also leaders in the local arts and business communities, and at the Skagit River Poetry Festival. “We’re passionate about ideas,” says Sharon.
While they cherish their spiritual-writing collection, the Connells insist that The Next Chapter is not a “Christian bookstore.” “We’ve worked very hard to maintain a balance, to be a general bookstore that has a good offering of thoughtful Christian literature,” says John. “We’ve purposefully set it up so it provokes a thoughtful response.”
The Connells’ love for thought-provoking discussion was nourished during their years as married students at SPU, where instructors “de-mythologized” the world for them. “Seattle Pacific opened the world up to us in amazing ways,” John remembers, “in practice and, particularly, intellectually. It made us comfortable with ideas that were different than our own, and that is still a very important thing for us.”
“The bookstore continues to be a very rich personal experience,” John says. “It ties in so well to what we believe participating in the kingdom of God is about. That’s the defining motivation for The Next Chapter.”
— BY jeffrey overstreet
— PHOTOS BY MIKE SIEGEL
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