The Better Book Room, a Christian retailer based in Wichita, Kan., closed down last fall after more than 50 years in business. The economy was part of the problem. So was the store’s location – a fading downtown neighborhood.
And, said owner Tim Johnson, so was the popularity of Christian books.
“We’ve got competition we didn’t have years ago,” he said, citing Barnes & Noble, Borders, Wal-Mart and Target. “Over the past few years, we were selling a lot less of the really popular titles.”
Million sellers such as Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” and the “Left Behind” novels by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye have transformed a specialized part of the book business into a billion dollar, highly competitive market.
But wider recognition for Christian books has actually hurt Christian booksellers. Books like “The Purpose Drive Life,” which once would have been sold exclusively in Christian stores, are now available at superstore chains, department stores and price clubs such as Sam’s, often at much lower cost.
“When you have some books getting so much attention, and available in so many places, the consumer’s thinking shifts to, `I don’t have to go the specialty store to get this book,'” Bill Anderson, president and CEO of the Christian Booksellers Association, said.
“The problem for Christian booksellers is that best sellers are what we call ‘traffic builders.’ So it isn’t just a matter of losing sales on a few high-profile titles. It’s the additional items that don’t sell because people aren’t coming to the store.”
According to Anderson, membership in the CBA peaked at around 3,000 in the early 1990s, but has been falling in recent years, with the economy and consolidation – big stores buying out little stores – also factors. Current membership is 2,370, a drop of 95 from a year ago.
Anderson cited a couple of ways in which the CBA is trying to rebound. In April, it began running ads on the Christian Broadcasting Network. The CBA also has persuaded such publishers as Waterbrook Press and Thomas Nelson to include information in the books on how to find a local Christian store.
And the CBA is looking to increase business with local churches, an area of surprisingly little activity. Anderson noted that years ago Christian stores sold Sunday school materials and other products to churches, but that churches eventually bought directly from wholesale suppliers.
Now, stores are looking to renew, and expand, those ties. Lemstone, a Christian bookseller with 37 franchises nationwide, began a program last fall that enables stores to set up outlets in local churches. Four such stores have been established so far.
“I think for a long time there was a `money changers in the temple’ concern among churches. But some of that is breaking down,” Rusty Bland, Lemstone’s vice president of marketing, said.
Seeking to match the ambiance of the superstores, Christian retailers have installed coffee bars and listening centers. One store, the For-All Bible Center in Joplin, Mo., improved sales with big discounts for best sellers, a risky strategy for smaller stores.
Store manager Chris Leiter said the strategy began last summer after he overheard one customer encourage another to buy “The Purpose Driven Life” at Wal-Mart.
“Here you had somebody right in our store telling someone else to go our competitor. I heard her say, `The price here is $14.97, but you can get that at Wal-Mart for $12.47,'” recalled Leiter, who eventually dropped the price to $10.99.
“We didn’t make much money on that book, but the customers who bought it ended up buying other things. We’re telling our customers, `You are important to us. … You have no reason to shop elsewhere.'”
Christian booksellers think of themselves in ways similar to independent store owners in the secular market. Their prices are often higher but they compensate with broader selection and better service. And, like independent retailers, they’re idealists under pressure to become entrepreneurs, trying to balance a religious mission with practical business methods.
“We try to help them understand that it’s not a matter of balancing the two, but that the two are integrated,” Anderson said. “We make it clear that their motive is ministry, but that their method has to be business. They need a well run, pleasing store or they will go out of business.”