Thinking Out Loud

September 15, 2017

When Information Took a More Leisurely Route

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:01 am

There was a time before the internet. It seems like long, long ago but in fact most people had no knowledge of the net 25 years ago. It was a land before dial-up.

Working in the Christian bookselling environment back then was probably much more frantic than it is now. Stores had more staff working each shift. There was more buy-in from individuals and churches, and far less market fragmentation. From a marketing perspective, Christian publishing may not have had the sophistication it has today — nobody was talking about branding back then and not much was making the New York Times lists — but there was a great deal of product movement.

Customers were just as pumped about the latest album from The Imperials as they were the newest commentary from Warren Wiersbe; it wasn’t that Fred only bought music and June only bought books.  Christian bookstores had line-ups at the cash register and sometimes line-ups at the doors in the morning waiting for the store to open.

So in a pre-internet age, how do you keep these customers updated on current and forthcoming releases? Historically, the answer was printed catalogs and order forms. But there was one other tool at the bookseller’s disposal: A microfiche subscription from Spring Arbor Distributors.

The Spring Arbor microfiche arrived in the mail weekly. As I remember it, Title (sets of usually 3 – 5 sheets) came weekly. Author sets arrived every other week. Music and Video were monthly, and there was a long wait for Category coming once every quarter. Actually, the Category sheets provided the most interesting diversion; after all, if someone liked one type of book, they just might like something else which was similar, and the category codes could be quite specific. (This was a precursor to today’s “Other customers also bought…”)

So information traveled at the speed of the U.S. Postal Service. Even then, in the small store where I worked we didn’t think we needed that data with great immediacy. So we shared a subscription with another store. They got them first and mailed them to us. Then we took our set and sent it off to one of our satellite stores. (We were a chain of three stores at the time — too cheap to buy our own subscription — and libraries were always selling off fiche readers as low as $25.)

Fast forward a few years: The ability to search online made the fiche readers redundant, as the ability to order online made the Spring Arbor Telxon units redundant. These weren’t the same Telxon units you see in the grocery stores today being used to check inventory. But we’ll save that one for another day, since the kids probably won’t believe we placed a suction cup on our phone to place orders.

More background:

By this point Spring Arbor was the leading independent distributor of Christian products in the United States, having also acquired smaller companies like Gospelrama (music) and Unilit (magazines), owning warehouses in several states, but also having competition from companies such as Riverside and Anchor Distributors. Spring Arbor itself was acquired many years ago by Ingram Content Group which is the largest independent book distributor in the world.

The microfiche reader was a great tool, but there were several different manufacturers. This is important because you always wanted to have an extra bulb on hand. Having the bulb blow without owning a back-up basically shut down your ability to do sweeping look-ups for customers, resulting in having to fall back on print catalogs. But which catalog to choose first? If you lived in a smaller town, it could be a week or two before you made it into the city to buy a new bulb. Imagine a store today telling customers their internet will be back up in ten days.

The reference at the end to suction cups? Quite true. You placed the unit’s large black rubber piece over the phone’s mouthpiece, and listened to the earpiece for a signal to press the button that would send your purchase order consisting of numbers you’d previously typed in. We did this. We did not think it strange. We were embracing the brave new technology. But the black suction cup left us thinking it probably wasn’t exactly cutting edge. When it was time to pack up the units and ship them back, I kept wondering what the Telxon people did with them next.

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