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Last fall on the outskirts of Birmingham in a strip mall between Morrison's cafeteria and Kinko's copy center, the state of the art in spiritual retailing opened its doors: Disciples, the first "Christian superstore."

Not surprisingly, Disciples boasts perhaps the nation's biggest single retail concentration of Bibles, Christian books, and music. But its 100,000 titles cover only 60 percent of the 25,000 square feet of floor space. The rest is devoted to Christian-theme greeting cards, collectibles, T-shirts, and other products, ranging from angel figurines to $300 paintings of eagles.

And while nearly everything Disciples sells has religious themes, it is merchandised with as much style as any high-gloss Madison Avenue media campaign.

Couches and high-backed leather chairs invite book browsers to relax, while seven "listening stations" at the ends of aisles allow music customers to hear specifically promoted releases. A 52-inch television screen plays children's videos; three other TV sets and a personal computer offer parents and children the opportunity to "test drive" Christian games and other software.

There is even a 1,000-square-foot coffee bar and periodic performances by local Christian musicians.

"People have tended to think of Christian bookstores as just Bibles and commentaries," says Mike Murray, Disciples' director of store operations. "That's just a small portion of what we do."

A LARGE, VOLATILE MARKET: Disciples exemplifies the new reality of the commercialization of Christian culture: Unprecedented product variety, sophisticated marketing, and a retailing philosophy that focuses on competitive pricing and high customer service.

In fact, more mainstream retailers are themselves establishing separate sections of ...

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In the Magazine

January 8, 1996

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