As 24-7 Prayer gather in Belfast, Muddy Pearl’s publisher Stephanie Heald recommends a visit to a favourite local bookshop.

If you are gathering in Belfast this weekend, and find you have an hour or so to explore the local colour, or just wanted to connect with and bless the local economy, may I recommend a stroll down Queen Street to a wee treasure trove.

One quiet afternoon at the Gathering in 2019 I wandered down to the Faith Mission, armed with my list, gleaned from the recommended reading in the backs of books like Pete Greig’s How to Pray. NB Health Warning: these days, carrying a ‘want to read’ list like this can be disheartening for a bookshop lover. Whether it’s a Waterstones or a Christian bookshop, they seem to stock everything except the very books I’m looking for! One day in early 2018 I took Publishing Scotland’s ‘20 best books of 2017’ to the Waterstones flagship shop on Piccadilly (gotta love that basement schooldesk café) and they had not one single title on their shelves! I understand the reasons, but these days I try to email the manager and order ahead if there is time.

However, this bookshop is not that. On this quiet autumnal afternoon in Belfast, I made my way past the inevitable cards and gifts to the real shelves, densely stacked. This, I quickly realised, was not the sort of shop where you find only a handful of recent American bestsellers displayed face out, or a church bookstall with only approved titles. This was a bibliophile’s wonderland, where they know the real meaning of the word ‘stock’: they keep it on their shelves to be discovered by bookworms like me. It’s an eclectic mix, a ‘storeroom of treasures old and new’ (Matthew 13:52), some titles going back fifty years that you thought were out of print.

And there, right there, just sitting patiently on the shelves, were Gary Thomas and Martin Laird squeezed in between William Barclay and Dallas Willard. Just waiting for me to ‘take up and read’, no extra delivery charge, waiting time, or guilt about packaging. And when at first I couldn’t find the David Benner, I asked the very friendly assistant behind the desk, who put down her coffee, saying, I know we don’t have Opening to God but I’m sure we do have a copy of Sacred Companions somewhere, and bustled off behind a stack, soon to reappear, holding it triumphantly aloft, was this what you were looking for?  Knowing I would be travelling back to the Middle East a few days later, to a country where there are no Christian bookshops and delivery is censored, I settled for it. It was a good decision – as you’ll see from Crystal Cryer’s recent recommendation.

And in autumn 2019 little did I know what lay ahead. During the long afternoons of lockdown, screen-sick and unable to travel home for almost 18 months, reading on my desert rooftop in the early evenings and weekends, day after day, became my spiritual lifeline. How I fed on and savoured the well written words of truth, in that haul of good books from Faith Mission that I’d stowed in my luggage. Thank you, thank you Faith Mission.

And if by any chance Steve Barnett’s excellent 24-7 Prayer conference bookstall runs out of Muddy Pearl books, whether that’s Phil Anderson’s Lord of the Ring, Jill Weber’s Even the Sparrow, or Bill Cahusac’s delightful That Gentle Whisper, then don’t worry, you will more than likely find them at the Faith Mission. Mark Conroy will put you right. And after all (fun fact), @Pete Greig’s great great uncles founded the Faith Mission in Edinburgh some years ago, and from there, Duncan Campbell was sent out to the Isle of Lewis, to spark that last revival. So, wander down and take a wee look – you never know when you’ll be near such a good bookshop again.

(And P.S. for transparency, the good folk at the Faith Mission have no idea I’m writing this piece and they certainly didn’t pay me to. But they do stock our books.)