For more than sixty years, the Christian Science Reading Room, on the ground floor of an old house at 306 E. Liberty, has been a quiet oasis downtown. As its surroundings grow denser, taller, and busier, the contrast between the hum of the street and the tranquility inside is starker than ever.
Time has not stood entirely still. The Reading Room actually is three rooms, redecorated about five years ago with a restful shade of yellow paint on the walls and cool green carpeting. The furnace had to be replaced recently. The place now has Wi-Fi, a computer, a printer, a boom box, and a selection of audiotapes and DVDs, in addition to ancient bound volumes of Christian Science periodicals, the print edition of the Christian Science Monitor (back issues are free), a selection of Bibles and concordances, books by and about Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and, yes, greeting cards and calendars.
In the back room, city noises are barely a whisper, and its two overstuffed chairs and antique desk, with two windows facing mostly greenery, encourage lingering.
Traffic is “fairly light,” says Douglas Jackson, First Reader of the local branch of the church. “We might get thirty visitors a week on average.” Since the room is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day but Sunday, that’s about one per hour.
“They’re people that have an interest already and want to buy literature, read, or have a quiet place to think or pray,” says Melinda Powers, one of two part-time librarians who receive a “small stipend” for managing and staffing the facility.
“We do have a number of, I guess you call them street people, not coming here specifically for Christian Science but to get an idea about the Bible or prayer,” she adds. “One young homeless man who just moved here from Florida asked the librarian to pray with him, then asked her what ‘hallowed’ means. He’s gotten to know everybody and comes in and asks people to read to him. During the art fair, we’ve had people tell us they experienced healing just by being here.”
The building was donated to the church around 1950, when it moved its sanctuary from Division St. to Washtenaw Ave. “I don’t think our church could afford it now,” says Powers. It’s one of about 1,200 Christian Science reading rooms nationally. The first reading room was opened in Boston in 1888, nine years after the church’s founding and six years before the cornerstone of the original Mother Church was laid there.
“Reading rooms were a commonplace back in those days, much like Starbucks,” says Jackson. “They were social gathering places where people would stop in and read the news. It was [Eddy’s] idea to have a reading room for the church and make available not only her book but the Bible and other religious literature.”
Christian Science was the fastest-growing American religion in the early twentieth century. It has never made its membership numbers public, but the number of “branches”–all Christian Science congregations are considered extensions of the Mother Church–has declined from about 1,800 in 1971 to about 1,000 today.
“We used to have a dozen or more churches in Detroit, and now there aren’t any,” Jackson says, “but suburban churches and a society in Detroit, not technically a church, still jointly maintain a reading room there, in the Millender Center.” One of the former churches is now Wayne State’s Hilberry Theatre.
As far as Jackson knows, the local branch and Reading Room are here for the foreseeable future.
“Our branch church continues to evaluate our properties over the years,” he says, “and, currently, we have no plans to move or alter either the church building or Reading Room.”
Given its location, the Liberty St. space has attracted surprisingly little attention from developers. “Our neighbor Herb David, when he had his guitar studio, kept wanting to buy our property and expand his space there,” says Jackson. “Apart from that, I’m not aware of any commercial interest in it.”
It’s not just stunningly quiet. It’s also, says Jackson, hassle free. “This isn’t just for church members,” he says. “Anyone can come in, and we don’t proselytize.” And they validate parking.