Thinking Out Loud

April 23, 2013

Will There Be a Resurrection of Christian Bookstores?

Filed under: books — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:23 am

Guest post by Larry WillardThis article appeared last week by permission of the author in our affiliate blog, Christian Book Shop Talk; but we thought it should also be seen by readers here. Larry Willard is an owner of Toronto’s largest Christian bookstore, Faith Family Books; and Castle Quay Books, one of Canada’s largest publishing companies.

Larry WillardFor the past five years I have been speaking about the great Christian bookstore Tsunami and how you and I unintentionally helped the demise of hundreds of loyal, well-established Christian bookstores in Canada and the USA without even trying. You have heard how bricks and mortar bookstores were just another example of the 8 track tape whose time had passed and death was inevitable. But many are beginning to doubt that is accurate and I hear more confessions that people miss the whole array of products and services that they offered and wish they could help to bring them back. And though I am not a prophet, I want to risk saying that I still see a need for some of those lost services and I believe the brick and mortar bookstore is in the midst of going through a metamorphosis and some will soon come out of their cocoon resurrected as “a better creature than ever.”

I always insisted that my contribution (and no doubt yours) was unintended and so we are innocent of their death. I always went to local bookstore but like you, all I wanted was a “good deal” for my hard-earned dollars so I increasingly went to the lowest bidder. As my mother used to remind me, “A penny saved is a penny earned! (Oh dear…seeing what has happened to the penny, I guess we’ll have to modernize that adage as well). So I was following her wise counsel” I didn’t expect there would be such a consequence to my saving “a few cents here” and “a few dollars there!” But it happened. And that “lowest-cost” mindset eventually killed the local Christian establishment.

There is nothing sinful about being frugal and trying to get the best deal whenever we buy something but there is a “bigger picture” we need to be aware of as we make our choices. The personal benefits of “always getting the best deal,” regardless of the overall impact, leads people to unwittingly cooperate in the decimation of local establishments, what ever their services, and in the end, what does it profit us if we gain a few dollars and lose our jobs and institutions as a result. What if my own job were next as a result of this mindset?

We Christians are different than a worldly community or local burger joint. We are a family with a particular mission and a unified focus that has an eternal outcome. We need to support each other above “just making a profit.” Christian institutions need our support if they are to continue to offer the full array of resources and services that our community has benefited from over the years. They just can not survive the continuous erosion of sales diverted to “on-line” or “big box” lowest price-discount retailers. The bookstores and other providers need those sales to sustain their models. They offer more than just books that someone can get anywhere. They offer a specialty that could be lost if we are not thoughtful.

Now, people are beginning to notice the value of their local Christian store as they try buying a good Christian book at one of the large secular bookstores of our country. Except for a few top titles there is scant selection and little depth. These are bookstores that place the Bible, the Koran and a number of new-age titles in the same section and label it “Spiritual Enlightenment.” Try finding a good “serious” book at these stores. Try sending a new Christian there to pick up a book to help them in their spiritual development. Nothing replaces the vast selection of the traditional dedicated Christian bookstore or the staff that use years of knowledge and wisdom to suggest just “the right title.”

And, on-line shopping can not replace taking a book in your hand and running through the pages before you buy it. Looking at several titles on a topic and deciding if the content is solid before buying it. It’s harder to do that on-line. It’s hard to even see what the selection options are on-line. And most good books are not even available at the larger secular chains and finding them on-line requires you to know what the title is when you start.

Do you now own a lot of books that turned out not to be what they looked like in the on-line photo? Were the real costs of online purchases, with the hefty freight costs, and foreign exchange rates not a great deal after all?

Yes, local Christian bookstores needed to go through a metamorphosis. I think they will have to look more like a Christian Chapters with their gifts, books, music café and more. They must make the customer experience exciting and as inexpensive as possible. Our new stores must be more like communities where people come to have coffee with friends and then do some quick shopping. The selection of gifts, cards, movies, music and books must be better than ever. They need a lot more Canadian authors and artists and they need to be changing to meet a customer’s newest needs all the time. So it is not for the faint-hearted.

But above all…they need Christians to help them survive. How terrible if one day there wasn’t a place to browse for the latest releases without scanning mounds of web pages for an hour. Everyone wants a good deal. We shop for the best price and shake down a sales rep if we think we can. I am not recommending that you forget about getting a good or fair deal and just pay anything to keep your Christian retailer in business. I just ask that you give them a chance or the next tsunami for that industry is just around the corner.

Sometimes there is a greater “good” we serve when we pay a few cents more and sustain the service of the “touch and feel” local Christian retailer. If all of us practice the “best deal” model in everything we purchase, one day we also may find ourselves out of a job because someone wanted to save a dime or dollar. I still have high hopes that there will be the resurrection of the Christian Bookstore to become a new, exciting and sustainable entity. I hope that is true of many Christian service providers.

Larry Willard

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5 Comments »

  1. “what does it profit us if we gain a few dollars and lose our jobs ?” Good quote…I am guilty of abandoning my local book store for the ease of click and shop. Sometimes when you add the shipping the savings disappear…then again, I can shop at my convenience and without a 20 minute drive to the only remaining Christian Book Store store within easy driving distance. I agree with your article though and I think I will try harder to actually physically shop and keep my brothers and sisters in Rochester employed.

    Comment by Cynthia — April 23, 2013 @ 8:49 am

  2. While I agree with Larry on some of his points…”local Christian bookstores needed to go through a metamorphosis. I think they will have to look more like a Christian Chapters with their gifts, books, music café and more. They must make the customer experience exciting and as inexpensive as possible.”… I’m not sure I agree with statements like “We need to support each other above “just making a profit.”” God gave us the admonishment to steward His gifts. Unless we’re considering our local Christian Bookstore as part of our charitable giving, I see no directive in Scripture to pay higher costs and throw our money away.

    Too often we as Christian think we can get away with “well, we’re Christian, so you should support us”, but I don’t think that’s true. We are Christians. God gave us gifts and abilities to be creative and wise. We should be showing each other (and the world) that being Christian doesn’t mean being second-rate. Stores like BestBuy and FutureShop are suffering because the world would rather stop by to look and then go home and shop. Just as they have to redefine themselves, we as Christians need to understand that same thing when it comes to our Christian stores as well. If I can find any book or CD or video I want online and have it delivered to my door (or downloaded directly to my PC) for a cheaper and easier experience, then I’m afraid I, and the rest of the world, will do just that.

    Sorry guys. Christians have the resources to be better than the world, and so we should be.

    Comment by mwlahn — April 23, 2013 @ 9:26 pm

    • As a handful of readers here know, this is a question I wrestle with on a daily basis, and I’ve written about this extensively here and on a book trade blog I edit. I think that stewardship is an important value; we need to be responsible stewards of the resources we’ve been given. I also think that mission is an important value; in the case of the retail ventures I’ve been part of, we adopted the phrase ‘Marketplace Ministry’ to describe what we do. The issues currently plaguing the Christian bookstore industry have occurred because people decided, in a word, stewardship trumps mission. I don’t see that as a universal principle.

      But that said, I’ve also encouraged a program called “WebMatch” that is made available to those customers for whom stewardship is all that matters. Better for a Christian retailer to only make ten cents on a book than nothing, and far better to keep the relationship. The program also betters the online alternative by offering a 90-day price lock regardless if even a single extra copy is needed later, and also offers over-the-counter exchange of any damaged or defective title.

      The only issue I have with making stewardship the predominant value is when it is practiced by people who the same evening, think nothing of ordering a $35 entree at the local fine dining establishment. Straining at gnats, that is.

      Comment by paulthinkingoutloud — April 23, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

      • We impoverish ourselves when we narrow the definition of ‘stewardship’ down to simply saving a buck.

        There’s more to stewarding the kingdom than hanging onto our cash. We are called to nourish, support and build our relationships, each others’ giftings – our salt-and-light-ness. The Christian bookstore, in whatever shape it evolves over the next decade or two, can continue to be a place where believers meet, and non-believers are embraced. The prayers and conversations that happen in those unchurchy environments can continue to put down roots into peoples’ hearts.

        And that is worth investing in, with or without what passes for “excellence” in the world.

        We’re called to so much more than building bigger barns.

        Comment by Ruth Wilkinson — April 25, 2013 @ 5:12 pm

  3. Great article!

    I have to admit, that I have no use any longer for the Christian bookstores in my area. They don’t carry the kind of books I read, and I don’t need trinkets. They always sell everything at full retail.

    With the advent of tablets, I would be surpirsed if bookstores still exist in 30 years. Who will be printing books to sell?

    When I need a book or a reference work, it’s off to [name of online vendor] I go.

    Comment by Jim — April 23, 2013 @ 11:38 pm


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