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Surviving the Bookstore Tsunami
Fifty Christian bookstores have closed their doors in the past 16 months. Are Christian bookstores finished now that the Internet and large discount chains are here?

Have we really considered the cost of saving a few dollars?

… what does it profit us if we gain a few dollars and lose our jobs and our industries?

In the last 16 months some of the oldest, largest and most established companies in the USA and Canada have disappeared completely. Tens of thousands of jobs have been lost and our country will not be the same for years to come as a result. President Obama has come under heavy international criticism for suggesting the solution to averting future similar economic tragedy would be to "buy American." As Canadians we shudder, but he makes an important principle that we need to consider. The personal benefit of "always getting the best deal" will be lost if we each save a few dollars but then lose our industries in mass.

Everyone wants a good deal. But if, in pursuit of the best deal, people have unwittingly cooperated in the decimation of local industries, in the end, what does it profit us if we gain a few dollars and lose our jobs and our industries?

In our own country almost 50 Christian bookstores across Canada have closed shop in the past 16 months. The reason is essentially the same principle. In saving a few dollars we left our traditional Christian institutions in jeopardy. They needed our support if they were to continue to offer the full array of resources and services from which our community has benefited over the years. But they could not survive the continuous erosion of support from sales that were diverted to online and "big box" retailers. They needed those sales to sustain their models. Yet everyone was surprised when they all disappeared.

Some stores lost were almost Christian household names – stalwarts serving the Christian community for more than 75 years. Almost surreal, it was as though some great rogue tsunami quietly swept across the country, obliterating one national treasure after another, with no respect for size, age or reputation, until a horde of store corpses were left scattered in its wake. Great retail chains like Blessings Christian Marketplace – a chain of 19 stores – and R. G. Mitchell with 11 stores, or Christian Publications with three showed the tsunami was no respecter of Christian content.

Friends and media asked if I thought the Internet or at the "big box discount" stores had killed the local Christian store chains. They questioned, "Did I not agree that the day of the 'bricks and mortar' Christian bookstore was finished now that the Internet and large discount chains were here?" I disagree so much with that notion that I recently joined a friend to open a large Christian bookstore in Scarborough, despite the trends, and despite the contrary business climate. My logic is this: I think we are ready for a new model of Christian retailing.

Let's agree that the Internet has become a quick, attractive and inexpensive alternative to the traditional bookstore meeting many of our needs. But people are noticing 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. 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.

OK, so you will just turn to the Internet. I was one of the people who switched to the convenience of on-line but I missed taking a book in my hand and running through the pages before I bought it. I wanted to make sure the content was solid. I couldn't do that as well online and the books were not even available at most of the larger secular chains. I missed carefully reading the blurb on the back cover and then reading excerpts from the foreword or the chapters that grabbed my attention. It was difficult doing that on-line.

Do you own a lot of books that were not what they looked like in the on-line photo? Were the real costs of online purchases, with the hefty freight costs, not the great deal after all?

There is value in the local Christian bookstore. 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’s experience as exciting and 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. But they need Christian's 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.

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 and fair deal and just pay anything to keep your Christian retailer in business. I just ask that you give them a chance.

Have you visited your local Christian bookstore lately?

Originally published in the Evangelical Christian, November/December 2009.

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