It is midday in the city.
The sidewalks hum with busy office workers out paying their bills, doing their banking or grabbing a bite to eat on the run.
As the decibel and stress levels rise, a few smart people step off Charlotte Street and enter into an oasis of calm and contemplation.
A smiling Italian gentleman greets them, as does the soothing music, subtle lighting and sight of other unhurried customers.
Welcome to some retail therapy of a different kind. Welcome to the St Pauls Book Centre.
The Society of St Paul have operated their city bookstore since 1996; a subtle blend of retailing and evangelizing that would definitely bring a smile to the face of Fr James Alberione.
Fr Alberione was the founding father of the Pauline Family, a group of ten religious institutes that now has a presence on all the continents.
The Pauline Family’s famous charism flowed on from the special enlightenment that came to Fr Alberione on New Years Eve, 1900.
During that special night which spanned two centuries, Fr Alberione felt the Lord charging him with a new mission to proclaim the good news to all peoples with the dynamism of St Paul.
Standing on the threshold of a new century Fr Alberione saw the instruments of communication, many in their infancy, as the most rapid and effective way of making Jesus Christ known.
At the time of the founder’s death the Pauline Family was present in over 50 countries, including Australia.
Australia has three Society of St Paul communities in Melbourne, Sydney and a small one in Brisbane.
If you visit the book centre most days of the week, especially on a Sunday, it’s more than likely Fr Bruno Colombari SSP will tend to your needs.
Fr Bruno feels the Pauline Family made a very wise choice of their patron saint.
“As the apostle of evangelization St Paul went everywhere with spirit, zeal and vision so it is easy to see why we are very fond of him,” Fr Bruno said.
“Our charism is very clear, to spread the good news in the mass media and we do that very successfully.
“Consider that in Italy we have more or less one bookshop in every city or that our magazine, Famiglia Cristiana, has a weekly print run of 1.5 million.
“Here in Australia we publish books and liturgical bulletins, plus as the Pauline Family we have bookshops in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney,” he said.
In the true spirit of disseminating the Gospel message, especially to those furthest from the faith, the Society of St Paul often like to think of their book centre’s as a Cathedral.
“I think our charism is the right one for today because Fr James said your parish is not the small church, it is the world,” Fr Bruno said.
“Of course in this day and age, with fewer and fewer people attending church, it is a way to tend to the spiritual hunger, which never diminishes.
“The people may not be in the church but if for example you have a book or TV or radio, then how many people can you reach,” he said.
That reach is certainly proven daily with a steady stream of people gracing the book centre.
Fr Bruno finds it especially encouraging seeing the mix of different faiths who drop by.
“We have everybody coming in and browsing and it’s always funny because when you serve them you chat with the customers and ask if they are Catholic,” Fr Bruno said.
“I like that about Brisbane, because it is an open church, and of course one of the priorities of the Archbishop is ecumenism – the dialogue of people of different understanding.
“We have a very good relationship with the Anglicans so often times a lady might reply that she’s a reverend.
“I like to celebrate freedom of the mind and of the heart, and here you have the opportunity to compare your creed with other creeds,” he said.
Of course the stocking of different religious texts occasionally provokes ill feeling among some patrons.
“I try to be very open and I respect everybody but for me it causes great suffering when I meet people with a closed mind,” Fr Bruno said.
“People ask how we can sell a certain book in a Catholic bookshop but the simple truth is we must serve everybody.
“I say to them while this book may not be good for you, for somebody else, who needs to know or is testing their own beliefs, it is good.
Another noticeable trend is the number of young people who come into the store on a Sunday.
“I am always on the counter those days and we try and make them our priority because if they come into the bookshop they are coming because they’re looking for something,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s enough to say a kind word but other times they may have problems so you recommend a book.
“With this type of evangelization you meet a lot of people with different problems and its important to listen to them and help them,” he said.
Fr Bruno was born into a family of four children in Mantua, a small but beautiful city near Milan in the north of Italy.
On April 27th this year he was privileged to be among those present at St Peter’s Basilica, Rome for the Beatification of Fr James Alberione.
It completed a large circle for Fr Bruno, for as luck would have it he had only just joined the Society of St Paul in 1971 when the opportunity presented itself to meet the founder in one of the last moments of his life.
“Pope Paul VI came to visit Fr Alberione and I remember everything about the Pope’s visit and the death of my founder, so it was a wonderful experience for me to make the pilgrimage this year for the beatification,” Fr Bruno said.
“The celebration and the joy were tremendous and I also had the chance to meet with many people I hadn’t seen for 20 or 30 years.
“Imagine my joy when these young people come up to me and ask if I remember them – they are now are priests or nuns,” Fr Bruno said.
The only major difficulty Fr Bruno finds in running the book centre is ordering books quickly.
Often times people come in armed with a magazine article saying a certain book was already available overseas and could a copy be ordered in.
“Unfortunately Australia is not just across the road, so things can take a little longer to get in for customers,” Fr Bruno said.
It will surprise very few that the bible remains the bookstore’s perennial bestseller.
“Of course you sell your bibles and books to parents for their children’s First Communion and Confirmations but really the thing that affects sales most is when a teacher recommends a text to students,” Fr Bruno said.
“A perfect example was during the recent Synod preparation days, when the Archbishop used some specific music as a background to his address.
“In the weeks that followed I was amazed at how many copies of that CD we sold,” he said.
As the work is rewarding in itself, retirement is not even on the horizon for the softly spoken priest.
“My motto is to work and disappear,” Fr Bruno said.
“You must try to offer and spend all your energy for the kingdom of God.
“It is clear that I am here as a religious person, serving the will of God and my superiors; I discovered once I accepted this, that is the best way to be happy,” he said.
Having been sent to Australia in 1987, the superiors are obviously happy with the work Fr Bruno is doing, however, he would not be fazed should the call for a transfer come.
“If they sent me to Paris or to Africa I would be happy, I’m ready to go anywhere,” Fr Bruno said.
“I don’t cry anymore because you are here not for yourself but your mission.
“If they ask me to go there, then alright, I’m going,” he said.
And what books would this unassuming vendor stack his own suitcase with if posted to places unknown?
“I would take Thomas Merton, the Christology of Walter Kasper and finally the Bible, although in a few versions, because I like to compare,” he says with a smile.