Debbie King walked into Guardian Church Goods store with her granddaughter Haley Draeger, 13, like the two had done throughout their whole lives. It was a blistering July day, but the store provided both relief from the heat and from the stresses of today’s world, as the two stepped back in time.
The 67-year-old grandmother said she’s always taken her grandchildren to the Guardian. It is tradition for King, remembering the Catholic store fondly from when she was even younger than Haley.
“I still have the little rosaries and a little blue case of the Blessed Mother. It was plastic and it would close down and set up. I was her age or younger when I got it,” and it’s still in her sewing box today. “It was little things you could afford. It just brought our faith into our home. And of course the parents and grandparents bought other items, but for me, I could get something out of my allowance and be a part of my faith.”
“Found a book,” her granddaughter said with a smile, walking up with a book of saints. She’ll begin confirmation classes this year, hoping the book would lead her to the right saint.
After 67 years, Guardian Church Goods will permanently close at the end of August. It is the only privately owned Catholic bookstore and gift shop in Arkansas. Owner Michael Lipsmeyer, who took over for his father in the mid-1980s, said it’s time, though it’s been “a blessing.”
“I always enjoy being around the religious articles, I find joy in that,” he said.
In 1950, the Guardian Church Goods store opened at 311 West Second Street in downtown Little Rock by what was then The Guardian (now called Arkansas Catholic). While the newspaper had first published in 1911, the Catholic gift shop became another way to financially support the operation of the publication besides subscriptions and advertising.
Edward F. Lipsmeyer worked at the Catholic gift shop for several years, taking great care of the merchandise, which included books, sanctuary candles, rosaries, saint medals, crucifixes and religious vestments. Before buying the store, he worked as a traveling salesman, selling barber and beauty supplies throughout southern Arkansas.
In 1966, when the newspaper office moved to St. John Center, the diocese sold the store to Edward and his wife Madge, who ran it for about 20 years.
“He liked the Guardian and he liked selling religious articles. He liked it when he worked there before and he felt kind of a calling to that,” his son Michael Lipsmeyer said.
Lipsmeyer and his wife, who were members of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock, had a quiet reverence for both their Catholic faith and the customers. They most enjoyed selling items like candles and tabernacles to churches and passed on the love of the store to their seven children, particularly Michael.
“My father was very customer-oriented. He taught me to pay attention to the customers,” Lipsmeyer said.
In 1968, the store moved to 411 West Seventh Street where it still is today, less than three blocks from the Cathedral. In a July 5, 1968, Guardian article, it said the Lipsmeyers had “devoted themselves to building up the stock and expanding the store’s market area.” A photo showed the smiling Lipsmeyers watching their son Mark hang up a sign stating, “We have got to move!” advertising great savings.
Touted then as the “only Catholic religious articles outlet between Memphis and Oklahoma City,” Michael Lipsmeyer said that is still generally the case today, except for local parishes and religious orders that also run gift shops.
For the more than 30 years, Michael Lipsmeyer, a parishioner at Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Little Rock, has taken the same quiet care for customers as his father.
The married father of three said the store still helps furnish sacred items to at least 50 parishes. The candle business is big and for the Cathedral, he’d often hand deliver the correct-sized candles whenever they needed more.
“Clergy today are so busy, they don’t have the time like they did to come to the store,” he said. “… So that’s probably been the biggest change. When I’m talking to the church about ordering or buying, I’m talking to the secretary.”
The customers themselves have always been product-driven, trying to find items like a beautiful rosary for a niece’s First Communion or a spiritually fulfilling book. Bookkeeper Barbara Hartwick, who came to work at the store in December 1990, said it was always fun to find unusual items that people considered a long shot for the store to carry.
“When people come in and say, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy and you probably have never heard this before. I want to sell my house’ and we say ‘Yes, that’s a St. Joseph statue,’” Hartwick said. It’s a custom for some people to bury a St. Joseph statue as a prayer of intercession to sell the home. “But you always know when they start, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy’ … they want the home-sell kit.”
Her younger sister Brenda Lister, a sales representative manning the front counter and phones, said she will miss the people most and finding a religious article that “works for them.”
“Some of them will come in, ‘I’m looking for the perfect gift,’ and they’ll be pleased with,” what they find, she said.
Customer Debbie King said she and her husband Deacon Butch King, parishioners at Immaculate Conception Church in North Little Rock, always went to the Guardian for wedding gifts.
“Our standard gift is we give them a crucifix for their home. I don’t care what’s on their wish list,” King said. “And I’m like, “Where am I going to go?” after the store closes, to “personalize the gift that’s right for that couple, to put Christ in their homes.”
Guardian relied on an old-fashioned system of trust, often billing customers after an order was delivered rather than asking for money upfront. But Hartwick said it was rare the store had to take on costs for customers who didn’t pay.
Draeger said even though most young people spend their money online with a few clicks and it’s shipped, there’s something special about coming to the Guardian, holding an item before buying it.
“It’s like cozy and it feels like you’re just at home. And you can always find something,” she said. “… Especially like the statues, my brother gets statues like almost every year, and the joy of coming and seeing them before you buy them.”
Lipsmeyer has been trying to sell the store for three years and though they found about four or five prospective buyers, ultimately none panned out.
Even though there is a slew of places Catholics can find religious items online, comments of “we will miss you,” many thanks and disbelief flooded the Guardian’s Facebook page.
Shawn Hallman, secretary of the Cathedral, posted, “Thank you for taking care of the Cathedral’s liturgical needs for many years. We will truly miss you! Michael, you have truly spoiled us. I will now have to learn the sizes of the many candles we use! Happy retirement!”
Lipsmeyer will be able to spend more time with his wife, Louene, as they travel between Missouri, Colorado and Alabama, visiting their eight grandchildren.
Even though it’s an end of an institution, Lipsmeyer said he can fondly reflect on how the memories go beyond merely selling items. It was always about making a connection of faith through a religious article.
“The religious article part, I like that the best, bringing that to the people,” he said.
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