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

November 16, 2010

Losing a Christian Bookstore, Even in a Small Town, Is Sad

The staff at the Christian bookstore where I hang out several days a week has reason to be concerned.   Christian bookstores have been dropping like flies over the past few years.    For all the reasons you know, plus in Canada, one extra one:  Deflation.

Deflation is what happens to a business when its costs are going up, but the retail price of its products are going down.   It happens in Canada because the retail price of Christian books is indexed to the U.S. price, and the Canadian dollar has been holding its own during a period where the U.S. dollar has been battered on world markets.

So while our brothers and sisters in the U.S. have lost their stores because their economy has been so devastated, the resulting effect on their dollar means stores here have been hit hard because our economy is so strong, relatively.   (Don’t worry if you don’t get that.   I’ve been writing a blog for two years now just for Christian retail store owners, and not all of them fully understand the full ramifications of selling in deflationary times.)

The staff have been cautiously asking questions about the long-term direction of our little set of two stores.    I’ve told them not to be careful in asking questions.   This is a rough time for brick-and-mortar bookstores of all stripes, and every question can be on the table.

But I’m not really sure how to answer their questions.   I feel like God was in this when we established it all those years ago.   I often tell the stories of how God brought our little business into being.   But I don’t always see God at work in the day to day maintenance and ongoing operations of those stores.   There are encouraging moments, but mostly the sense we get is that things are slowly drawing to a close.

There are two reasons for this.

First of all we live in a province — Ontario — that is currently governed at what most of my readers would call the state level by a liberal government that is very, very anti-business.   Especially small business.   There is not enough space in this blog to list all the things that they have ‘undone’ during their time in power.  And are continuing to ‘undo.’   With all due respect to any entrepreneurs reading this who happen to live where I live, you’d have to be nuts to start a small business in the province of Ontario.

Second, one of our stores is located in a town where mathematics has dictated that one local church actually holds the deciding vote on which way our store there will go.   How can I explain this?   Remember a past Presidential election when it all came down to the Electoral College votes from the state of Florida?  Well,  Florida didn’t ask to be in that position.   They didn’t know, going in, that it would all come down to their state’s ballots.   But the mathematics of the situation ended up handing them the final election decision.    In this case, a local church that is ordering many, many, many packages of Christian resources per month online is holding the deciding vote.   And we’ve told them that.  And we’ve told them we’re sorry that the dynamics of the situation has ended up where it is.

A Christian bookstore has a whole lot to offer a local community.   I’m determined not to be another casualty — we even joked a few years back about being the last one standing — but with each passing day we see the proverbial marker writing on the proverbial whiteboard.

The only lighter moment today came from my youngest son:  “So, Dad, is there any way you can get paid to write a blog?”

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