The phone rang Saturday night at 8:30, just as we were putting our two toddlers to bed. The caller was a pastor with an emergency: while getting ready for services the next morning, he discovered his church was out of Communion bread—a familiar problem. Jeff jumped in the car and drove downtown to our small Christian bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana, to provide it.

From 1983 to 1993, we sold everything from curricula to candles, Communion bread to contemporary fiction. We read the books we sold and enjoyed hand-selling them to customers, many of whom we knew by first name and reading preferences. Serious reference volumes and niche books that met a felt need stayed on the shelf, sometimes collecting dust, waiting for the right pastor or customer to walk through the door. We talked with seekers, prayed with those who were hurting, did impromptu counseling, and hosted midnight music parties and pastors' breakfasts. Our staff members were encouraged to drop what they were doing if someone needed to talk. And we weren't alone. Bloomington had three other Christian bookstores, all with the same sort of books, products, and ministry heart.

Today, not one of the four is left.

Riding the Roller Coaster

In the past two decades, Christian retail has taken a roller coaster ride. The CBA (formerly the Christian Booksellers Association), a Colorado Springs–based trade association for retailers, says that as recently as the mid-'80s it had 3,000 members of an estimated 4,000 Christian retail stores. Today CBA has 1,813 members of an estimated 2,800 stores.

According to CBA, just 98 stores were added in 2007, compared to 589 in 2006 and 437 in 2005. Store closures continue, although they've slowed: 160 in 2007, compared to 286 in ...

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