When I was a teenager, my brother would occasionally drive me to Avenue Road in Toronto to a small basement bookstore called Reformation Book Service. Even the address was funny: 2045 1/2 Avenue Road. There we would find the owner, Bob Shaker, an older gentleman who would inevitably be reading, but would but the book down and prepare to visit. I remember these visits lasting hours — unhurried, pastoral, insightful hours.
This was long before Calvinists were a thing. There was no ministry called Desiring God. Tim Keller was not a household name. The YRR (Young, Restless, Reformed) were not in vogue, and Bob Shaker was probably one of those men who would be horrified to find himself on the trendy side of any movement.
I don’t remember coming to his store with any particular book in mind, but I don’t think I ever left empty handed. Inevitably our conversation would take some turn, and Shaker, like an old apothecary, would remember some long-forgotten cure contained in a book two rows over on the bottom shelf. His was the best kind of bookstore. There were no books from the bestseller list: no books promising your best life now, or recounting a little boy’s trip to heaven. I have a feeling that most of the books were written by people long dead. There were books there you couldn’t find anywhere else. You could have told me that his many of his books were snatched from Spurgeon’s personal library and I may have believed you.
I don’t know how he stayed in business. How he made the rent or paid himself is beyond me. Of course, it never really seemed to be about money.
A few years back — I can’t remember exactly how many — I happened to see a large table full of books for sale at Toronto Baptist Seminary. These, I learned, were what was left of Reformation Book Service. The store had closed, one of the last of its kind. Bob Shaker was not there, which is funny, because I have a memory of him sitting sadly to the side in an armchair watching as students picked over his legacy. The imagination is a funny thing.
Of course, the books were not really his legacy. I learned last week that Bob Shaker passed away, just shy of his hundredth birthday. Church historian Michael Haykin writes:
He was a friend and mentor to hundreds of pastors who came to his bookstore not simply to buy books but to spend time with Bob. Here many well-known preachers visiting Toronto would come … In his latter years I went to see him regularly at the bookstore, where he dispensed nuggets of practical Christian wisdom about Reformed theology, how to work with other evangelicals, the need for a solid Canadian evangelical witness, his love for T.T. Shields (he never ceased to admire him) — and then after an hour or two we would pray together. What a rich prayer life he had.
I’ve read many comments the past few days that have revealed the depth of Shaker’s impact.
A man who loved the Lord set up a bookstore with some of the best books available. He used his humble bookstore as a front of sorts for mentoring countless numbers of pastors, professors, and ordinary Christians. He invested his life and prayed like a man who understood what’s at stake. He did all of this well under the radar. I can’t help but think of Hebrews 11:38: he’s the kind “of whom the world was not worthy.” His life is over; his impact isn’t, and I look forward to seeing him again.