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 2006 and 337 in 2005.

And yet. To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the Christian bookstore's demise may be exaggerated. "Are we seeing the death of Christian retail? Certainly the old way of doing Christian retail is dying," CBA president Bill Anderson tells CT. "Christian retailers no longer have the corner on the market. The stores who are not willing to meet customers' expectations in terms of customer service, convenience, and core inventory are struggling."

Ironically, Christian books have never been more popular. "Blockbusters like The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose Driven Life ended up doing more harm than good for Christian booksellers," says Lynn Garrett, senior religion editor at the book industry journal Publishers Weekly. "The general-interest bookstore chains, discounters, and 'big boxes' picked them up and sold huge quantities at deep discounts that Christian stores couldn't match. I think that contributed to Christians getting in the habit of buying their books in places other than Christian stores."

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Independent Christian retailers find themselves appearing overpriced, and dependent on backlist and items with higher margins, such as gifts. Music, which once played an important supporting sales role, went digital, and music sales began shrinking faster than a wool sweater in a hot dryer. Other competition—Internet booksellers, book clubs, and direct-to-consumer sales by publishers—nibbled away at profits.

Christian bookstores, especially independents, aren't the only ones facing marketplace pressures. According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), the national trade association for general independent bookstores, membership plunged from 4,057 in 1996 to 1,625 in 2006. But three straight years of net store openings have brought the membership level back to around 2,000. ABA CEO Avin Mark Domnitz calls the most recent gains (115 new stores last year) "very good news and an indication of a growing trend among communities that are recognizing the unique contributions of local independent businesses."

Many industry insiders who look at Christian store closings point to undercapitalized stores with undertrained owners. Even when a storeowner is successful, when it's time to retire, he or she discovers that it's difficult to sell the business. Andy Butcher, editor of Christian Retailing magazine, notes: "Consolidation has also been a major, more recent trend with the Christian chains acquiring some of the long-time independent stores whose owners were coming to the end of their career life."

Of CBA's current retail membership, 46 percent are single-store independent retailers, 39 percent are chain stores (including nationally owned large chains and smaller, independent city or regional chains), and 15 percent are campus, camp, or church bookstores (see "Bringing the Bookstore to Church").

Consolidation here is comparable to what's happened in the drugstore and hardware industries. Family Christian Stores, LifeWay Christian Stores, and other large chains, with a range of 25 to more than 300 stores, bring efficiencies to the marketplace. Many independents join marketing groups and associations, some numbering as many as 600 members (Munce Group). Then they can gain access to slick catalogs, conferences, consulting, and group purchasing, while keeping their autonomy.

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Even so, it can be tough to sell books. Jim Seybert, an Arroyo Grande, California–based consultant, says that 41 of 100 people he surveyed for Christian Retailing reported frequenting Christian retail stores less often in 2007 than in 2006. The most common reason given was more convenient online buying, followed by pricing and selection issues.

More troubles: Britt Beemer, president of America's Research Group, says Christian retail needs new "AA" locations. Think upscale lifestyle centers with a Brio Tuscan Grille or P. F. Chang's. "When we ask consumers why they don't shop at a Christian bookstore, they say they don't have one to go to. It's a visibility problem. When you have a 'C' location, you doom yourself in the beginning." Beemer also says some Christian bookstores "look terrible from the outside and don't advertise well. Many look like 1955 and have stayed there."

But, Anderson insists, most Christian retail stores are not just surviving—many are thriving. "Numerous stores tell me about growth—some even double-digit growth—and about plans to open new stores. These are stores that have created a unique shopping experience and made real connections with their customers so that there is clear value to shopping in their stores."

CBA is working to get retailers up to speed. The association recently scrapped its beleaguered winter trade show when vendors complained that fewer and fewer retailers were showing up. Instead, the association held a three-day CBA Industry Conference in Indianapolis this past January to identify problems and brainstorm solutions. Retail everywhere is "going through massive change and re-evaluation," Anderson says. "We are looking for new business models, new formulas. We have to rethink, reposition, and rework."

Problems of Publishers

With sales to so many new market channels, one might wonder if Christian publishers need Christian bookstores anymore. A recent survey showed that 52 percent of Christian products (not just books) are sold through Christian retail stores. That does not mean that Christian retail is the primary channel for these publishers. Fiction, an important category for many Christian publishers, often finds a home in alternative channels. Bethany House (with best-selling authors Beverly Lewis and Janette Oke), a division of Baker Publishing Group, sells about 70 percent of its fiction outside the CBA, according to Carol Johnson, vice president of editorial.

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Can publishers bypass Christian retail altogether? Not likely. The Christian bookstore remains important because it keeps publishers in tune with their customers, Zondervan's vice president of sales Verne Kenney says. Kenney compares Christian publishers and CBA stores to trendy apparel wholesaler Patagonia and its first customers (outdoor stores specializing in climbing gear and apparel). Patagonia depended on those stores to indicate what was working and what wasn't. "In the same way, CBA retail stores are the front line for CBA publishers to know what sells."

Readers might wonder, however, whether Christian publishers could be financially tempted to publish books that only large chains, mass merchandisers, and general market outlets are interested in—volumes that can sell at least 10,000 copies. Such a development would imperil niche books and take some of the ministry emphasis out of Christian publishing. But the recent advent of easy online self-publishing, the flexibility provided by web-based retailers such as Amazon.com, and new technology enabling quick, small press runs would seem to ensure that even a niche book can find a home, somewhere and in some format.

Perhaps nothing has impacted independent retail book sales as the Internet has. David Lewis, Baker Publishing Group's executive vice president of sales and marketing, says that while CBA independents account for less than 15 percent of the company's business, Internet sales constitute more than 20 percent.

The privately held Christian Book Distributors (CBD) is a discount direct-mail cataloger that has successfully used the Internet to enhance its paper-generated sales. While CBD's core audience buys Christian reference book sets and theological works, vice president and senior buyer Rick Brown says 10 to 15 years ago the company realized the need to broaden its offerings to the layperson. Brown says it is not CBD's intention to put Christian retailers out of business: "We believe we provide a complementary service."

Not only has the venue for buying books changed; the books themselves are morphing. Some speculate that it won't be long until downloadable books supplement paper books or replace them.

Jay Weygandt, who recently closed his bookstore (see "Locking the Doors for the Last Time"), got a wake-up call when he purchased a Kindle, Amazon's $399 electronic reading device introduced last fall. Kindle can store 200 e-books at a time. Readers may choose from 100,000 books, including more than 1,500 Christian titles. Weygandt says he downloaded an niv Bible to his Kindle in less time than it took him to walk to his Bible department. And at $9.99, he said it cost less than what he'd pay at wholesale. "These are huge changes in how content is communicated."

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Surprising and Delighting

Stores of the future, Kenney at Zondervan says, may allow consumers to browse a library of books online and burn a disk at the store, with the store collecting a fee. "The best in-store experience will combine digital and in-store products."

Kenney tells CT that price will not be relevant to the store. "You don't walk into a Wal-Mart and expect good customer service; you don't walk into Macy's and expect to get a bargain. A healthy CBA bookstore will know who they are and what their value equation is—and this might have a lot of different looks."

One "look" might be found at the House of James in Abbotsford, British Columbia. It began as a coffeehouse ministry to young people in 1970. Fifty-four-year-old owner Lando Klassen, who has sold books since he was 19, has taken the store through four location changes and from a 12 x 40 space to a 7,200-square-foot store (with a 5,400-square-foot expansion planned for this spring).

House of James hosts live shows by country rock, blues, jazz, and folk musicians. The store carries cookbooks, garden books, hiking guides, and classical music. "We should have some titles that non-Christians will recognize," Klassen says. "Otherwise, our stores can be pretty scary to some, too foreign. I am always looking at how I can give people more reasons to come in."

Klassen worries that the typical Christian bookstore is bland and predictable. "Folks are looking for something different. We should surprise and delight our customers."

In order to offer "something different," bookstores may need to become "third places," a term coined by author Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place. Third places are inviting alternatives to home and the workplace (think Starbucks).

Bookstores as third places may have different looks. A new generation is divvied up into diverse "tribes," according to David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and coauthor of UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters. A tribe of more traditional Mosaics or Busters might shop in a conventional Christian bookstore, but fewer young adults are doing so.

For this generation, "physical places are important," Kinnaman says. "They need to feel comfortable in the space you create. They are wired to be loyal to their friends—a loyalty that supersedes loyalty to retailers."

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Traditional Christian bookstores are often embraced by more conservative Christians as safe places to shop, with no worries about sexual content, profanity, or wild theology. The larger Christian chain buyers may consider themselves gatekeepers of appropriate content.

However, Kinnaman notes that this newer generation "is less willing to be sheltered and cloistered. Adults might think they are 'dining with the Devil'—but younger adults are more comfortable thinking of themselves as exiles in a Babylonian culture. They tell us, 'We don't need you to caretake our content—we can make these decisions.' They are skeptical of places that feel antiseptic or too polished."

You'd think Bill and Tina Beyer had Kinnaman's words in mind when they opened their 5,600-square-foot SKIA store last May in Bentonville, Arkansas, a stone's throw away from Wal-Mart's headquarters. According to its website, SKIA is a Greek word that means "shadow" (as in refuge).

SKIA has 10 television screens that continuously loop skateboard and snowboard videos with Christian themes. The music veers from alternative to contemporary Christian. Its coffee and smoothie bar plus free wi-fi invite the community to "hang out for hours," Bill Beyer tells CT. It has liberal open-to-close times of 6 A.M. to 10 P.M. (11 P.M. on Fridays and Saturdays). You might see a youth group gathering over pizza, a businessman sipping a latte and working on his laptop, and a teen putting together a custom skateboard.

Yes, skateboard. A "build your own board" area with an array of custom parts for purchase shares space with 900 square feet of trendy alternative Christian apparel. "Our heart," Bill Beyer says, "beats for the younger generation."

Almost as an aside, you find that SKIA has books, Bibles, and music. "We don't want it to be just a store you come into to buy Christian stuff," he says. "The core is the ministry—changing lives. SKIA is where you can come and be ministered to when the church is closed."

These same words might apply to C28, a California-based 11-store chain with wholesale, retail, and Internet sales of alternative clothing for the 18- to 30-year-old. At C28, flat screens suspended from the ceiling play the latest alternative Christian music. The sales clerk may sport spiked hair, body piercings, and tattoos. Comptroller Kevin Miller likes it this way: "The kids who work here look like the other kids. They pray with the customers who come into the store, though, and tell them about Jesus."

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C28's mostly mall-situated stores average about 1,800 square feet and do about $850,000 annually. Their competition is other surf-and-skate apparel stores such as Hot Topic, Zumiez, or PacSun. C28 plans to open four new stores this year and have 20 stores by 2010.

Kids are hurting, looking for purpose and direction. "They want something real," Miller says. "A lot of kids will never go to church, but they will go to the mall, and we can break down the barriers there. When customers tell us, 'I heard you are the store that prays for people'—that's where the joy comes from."

"The store that prays for people"—that's how we wanted our independent Christian bookstore in Bloomington to be known a few decades ago. Comparable stores today, however, must rethink their ministry models to survive and thrive as competition increases and the book itself changes. Displaying shelves full of books that meet niche needs but sell very few copies may be an indulgence today's retailers can't afford. Competition may force them to discover previously unrecognized needs among Christians and the general public. But isn't that what Christian ministries have always done?

Still, I wonder—when the pastor runs out of Communion bread on a Saturday night, who will he call for help?

Cindy Crosby, who writes for Publishers Weekly, spent her teen years running the cash register at her parents' independent Christian bookstore.



Related Elsewhere:

"Locking the Doors for the Last Time" and "Bringing the Bookstore to Church" accompanied this article.

The 2008 books issue of Christianity Today also included the annual book awards.

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