To most passersby, the bright red sign that advertises Bookafé, which opened last November in Koreatown, likely reads as a portmanteau of “book” and “café.” This is not incorrect, since both those things can be found inside, but squeezed into the Brazil-based chain’s name is also the Portuguese expression “a fé,” which means “to the faith.” And indeed, on closer inspection, all the titles that line this book café’s shelves are meant to bring caffeine addicts to Christianity.
The Bookafé on Bloor Street is Canada’s first, but the four-year-old institution already has some 200 locations in Brazil, and about 40 in other countries worldwide. According to the Toronto franchise’s manager, Renê de Napoli, the concept was brewed up by Chinese businessman-turned-missionary Dong Yu Lan in 2009 while he was in Peru to give a conference. Dong was killing time in a Starbucks when he realized that half the café’s patrons were Christians also waiting for his talk to begin. Dong, who had often preached that churches should be open for longer hours, began pitching the concept of a non-denominational, non-profit Christian café everywhere he went.
On a recent Saturday night in Toronto, de Napoli—who wears the same short-sleeved brown polo as the rest of his volunteer staff—unfolded an anonymous prayer request that had been deposited into the small black box that sits near the cash. “Please pray for me to get regular sleep,” he read aloud. “I have severe insomnia and, in the last year, have had only one complete night of sleep. Pray also that a godly man will love me enough to marry me.” Other deposited requests included a woman who wanted to pass her hairdressing-license exam, another who hoped her cataract would not need surgery, and a young man from Korea looking for a job. The group of 15 bowed their heads as de Napoli translated the wishes into proper prayers, asking for help while adding the allowance that God may have a plan of which the group is not yet aware.
As well as leading this weekly prayer, and additional Bible study on Wednesday and Thursday nights, the 37-year-old Brazil native is always on hand to chat about the books, most of which are bound transcriptions from Dong’s conferences. Although he will accept the title of manager, de Napoli said he would be more accurately referred to as a colporteur, a centuries-old French term for a travelling missionary who hands out pages from the Bible and religious texts. “At Bookafé, the colporteur is a person who knows the majority of the books,” he explained. “If a person is passing through something difficult in his life, the colporteur can find a book that would give him the proper medicine at the proper time. You’re not going to give milk to a grown man or steak to a baby.”
Joanna was exploring her new neighbourhood one evening in March when she spotted Bookafé. “I came in for a latte and the WiFi,” she explained. Her visit overlapped with a Bible study group and she decided to stick around. “One verse was about an early Christian, Stephen, being stoned to death for his faith,” she said. “It sparked me to think about how lucky we are to live in a society that accepts diversity of faith and has a strong commitment to freedom of speech.” A lapsed Anglican, the 45-year-old customer service representative wanted to rediscover her spirituality. “Who knows how long it would have taken if it hadn’t been right there in front of me,” she said.
Tom Garlington, one of the café’s five volunteers, heard about Bookafé through his local church. The unemployed 27-year-old was in the midst of a deep depression, living with his parents and staying up until six in the morning playing computer games. Now, he works at Bookafé four or five days a week. “I make coffee, mop the floors, clean countertops, or dust the shelves,” he said. “Anything that needs doing.” Consequently, his mood and motivation have improved and he’s considering going back to school to become a massage therapist.
Some Torontonians, however, don’t appreciate evangelism with their espresso. “They start looking around and turn their backs and get out,” de Napoli said. And unlike the managers in Brazil, he set up shop without an established foothold in his city’s Christian community. For now, offerings from a group of Brazilian businessmen pay the rent, but he doesn’t know how long that will last. He remains hopeful that his Bookafé will eventually sustain itself.
One thing is certain: If de Napoli’s café does make money, it won’t go into his pocket. The surplus of this Bookafé, he said, will simply beget more Bookafés.
Bookafé, 682 Bloor St. W., 647-352-6657.