Pastors who appreciate Christian bookstores are hungry for efficient service.

Is the Christian bookstore a ministry or a business? Is it a valuable extension of the church or simply a separate entity profiting from the boom in Christian literature?

If you were to ask Christian bookstore owners and managers, 98 percent of them would say that their stores are a ministry—a valuable service arm of the church. Yet, studies done by CBA, the Christian Booksellers Association, indicate that many Christian leaders do not support Christian bookstores. In light of this fact, we need to reexamine the role of Christian bookstores and their relationship to the ministry of the church.

Roger Lund, coowner and manager of Good News Bookstore in Olympia, Washington, said, “People come into our store looking for something to fill needs in their lives, and we are often able to help. We’ll send a book home with a pastor, too, and say, ‘Hey, read this and see what you think.’ The other day I gave a book to a pastor after strongly recommending it. He took it home and later bought a dozen copies.”

Confronted by important issues and desiring to help their people effectively, some church leaders recognize that Christian bookstores and the material they sell are valuable resources. Good Christian books expand understanding, inspire, challenge, guide, and encourage spiritual growth and evangelism. “Many authors today are getting down to the nitty-gritty aspects of Christian life and presenting them in different ways,” says pastor Timothy Grassinger of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Colorado Springs. “This is good, not only for the people who read the books, but for us as pastors. We should be familiar with a broad cross section of Christian books so we can knowledgeably direct our people to books that may help them.”

Jon Edwards, minister of education at Pulpit Rock Church in Colorado Springs, feels that Christian bookstores complement the pastor’s ministry in the local church. “If I give a book to somebody that will help him in his personal life, that helps me in my ministry. We’re in business to bring people to maturity in Christ. When people feed their minds with Christian literature rather than sit in front of the television set, the literature is helping us achieve our objectives.” Church leaders are beginning to see that reading congregations strongly support their pastors’ vision, objectives, and long-term goals.

Dr. James Kennedy of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida keeps in regular touch with local Christian booksellers. They often ask Kennedy to forewarn them if he’s going to dwell on a significant book in his sermons, because they will be deluged with requests for it afterwards. “If my congregation listens to me for 25 minutes a week and then ends up reading good Christian literature 4 to 6 hours a week, their edification has been greatly expanded,” Kennedy says.

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Booksellers are also noticing that church leaders have a growing interest in Christian books. “Pastors, for example, are more concerned about issues,” says Volney James, manager of the Zondervan Family Bookstore in Colorado Springs. “The other day, a pastor came into my store and asked, ‘Is there anything new I should know about?’ I was able to expose him to new products, and he in turn is relaying that information from the pulpit, through his staff, and in counseling sessions. Concerned pastors who are looking at problems within their congregations and trying to deal with them in more than a superficial way are seeking answers in Christian books.”

Although Christian bookstores are increasing at the rate of more than 30 a month, there are no statistics that can show how much the average bookstore’s outreach has increased. There are just too many variables, such as differences in individual ownership, store type, local market, inventory, and location. But a new CBA operations survey indicates that sales volume among member stores is increasing beyond the rate of inflation. Bob Alm, CBA’s membership services director, says, “If booksellers don’t work a lot harder in today’s economic climate, they won’t make it. But generally speaking, the stores are growing in public outreach and service.”

In recent years, many Christian bookstores have tried to become more conscious of their service. Bookstore managers are training their personnel effectively to help people select products that will meet their needs. The old-fashioned, somewhat disorganized stores are slowly giving way to attractive stores with carefully organized merchandise that makes shopping more enjoyable. Booksellers sponsor seminars and workshops to help train church workers and introduce them to the latest teaching aids. Also, an increasing number of educated young men and women are choosing to become Christian booksellers.

June Gardner, director of children’s ministries at First Presbyterian Church in Colorado Springs, has learned how to make good use of the local bookstore’s services. “The store saves me a lot of time. One of the employees, a former Christian education director, is well aware of our needs. I call her, ask what she has on a particular subject, and she’ll research it for me. When we needed help with children’s church, she brought out some books and said, ‘Here, take these to your meeting, look them over, and choose what you want.’ ”

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Christian bookstores, like other retail businesses, must be operated efficiently. According to CBA figures, most Christian bookstores operate with private capital that has come from life savings or mortgaged homes. Unless the owners apply good management techniques, however, the capital soon disappears. “Many stores that have not operated with a good balance of ministry and business have exhausted their capital,” says John Bass, executive vice-president of CBA. “For this reason, we concentrate on teaching good management practices. Our membership failure rate in 1979 was 6.5 percent, much lower than the national average.”

The average Christian bookstore sells $80,000 worth of retail merchandise in its second year and earns an average profit of slightly more than $3,000. Because the dealer discount on books is only 40 percent and the discount on curriculum is 10–15 percent lower—well below that of many other retail goods—the bookseller is pegged into a rigidly controlled operating costs structure. If he discounts his goods, he cuts his profit margin down to nothing. He requires the full 40 percent to pay his costs for rent or mortgage payments, utilities, advertising, skyrocketing shipping costs, rising payroll and business taxes, loan payments, and wages and salaries. In addition, he must maintain an adequate inventory in light of escalating prices on his products. According to the new survey, the average yearly net profit for all CBA stores is 4.5 percent. Most booksellers could take the money they have invested in their bookstores and make more money by placing it in a local savings account.

Christian bookstores typically do not pay their employees very well. Employees often find they have to work many hard hours on the sales floor and that they must consider a portion of this to be ministry. “It’s difficult,” says Dolores Rainey, CBA bookstore consultant, “for bookstores to produce enough money for salaries to adequately pay the type of personnel they’d like to have.”

In order to serve their customers fully, booksellers work hard to evaluate market needs, maintain adequate inventories, and remain knowledgeable concerning available literature. “Our biggest problem,” comments Dave Hanson, owner of Chapel Bookshoppe in Colorado Springs, “is that we can never carry all the material people want. There’s so much material out there, and special ordering is a major part of our business.”

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“We can’t just order unlimited quantities of books,” Volney James adds. “We have to put a definite lid on the amount of total merchandise we can stock. If I took several of every book that publishers sell, I couldn’t contain them.”

The inflating cost of books is increasing booksellers’ replacement costs and hurting customer relations. “We are not the only industry plagued with that problem,” James says, “but our customers are vocal about it and some think we’re trying to rip them off. We then explain that although the book was originally priced at $19.95, it came invoiced to us at $22.95 less our 40 percent discount.” Some booksellers continue to sell merchandise at the old prices, but must pay the new publishers’ prices. As a result, they are drastically reducing their working capital.

In spite of the bookstores’ slim profit margin, some publishers bypass them entirely. “In most cases,” John Bass says, “publishers will not sell at below retail prices to anyone except a bookstore unless a large quantity is ordered. Book tables don’t legally qualify for discounts.” In years past, bookstores often gave discounts to pastors even though Federal Trade Commission laws prohibit offering discounts to one individual and not to another except on the basis of quantities purchased. Despite rising costs, some booksellers continue to offer discounts to church leaders, and many church leaders still expect them. But other booksellers take a dim view of individualized discounting.

“One of our frustrations,” James says, is that many people think that if money is made on something it’s not a ministry. Churches, for instance, want us to set up book tables and discount the books, the idea being that if we give 10 percent off, our literature becomes a ministry and if we sell it for the full price we’re just ‘making money on it.’

“But if a pastor isn’t supported by his church for his services, then are his efforts a ministry? If he is paid, then are his services just a business for him? If we can’t keep our doors open, if we can’t pay our staff and our bills, it doesn’t matter what we call it. It’s a bad testimony, not just the loss of a ministry. The tension between business and ministry always exists, but my best pastors don’t ask for a discount. They tend to be realistic in terms of the total management of money and the total operation of a business. They realize that they can’t pay their churches’ bills with promises.”

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Booksellers desiring to serve church and lay leaders effectively must initiate communication themselves. If they give church leaders and laymen reasons for supporting Christian bookstores, the support will come. “When church leaders realize that we are helping their people reach a certain level of spiritual maturity and aren’t just a business, they will be willing to support us,” says Dave Hanson. “A large percentage of church-going Christians don’t enter Christian bookstores because they don’t know what we offer.”

To bridge the gap, some booksellers speak to adult elective classes; they show class members how to select and buy books that will make a real contribution to their own lives and the lives of others. Other booksellers get on their local churches’ mailing lists, attend ministerial meetings, send newsletters to individuals and churches involved in music and education ministries, hold vacation Bible school workshops, distribute tickets for local community events, and offer to provide book tables for special church events.

Unfortunately, many church and lay leaders find that their local Christian booksellers are not communicating with them effectively. Some booksellers have not clearly defined their goals, hesitate to approach different churches, or have little or no staff to serve the churches adequately. Pastors who appreciate Christian bookstores are hungry for efficient service. “I don’t see bookstores actively soliciting business from the clergy and churches,” comments Timothy Grassinger. “They mostly [just] open their doors at 9:00 A.M. and close them in the evenings. If I owned a bookstore, I’d try to drum up more business. I’d make friends out there rather than wait for people to come to my door. Maybe the bookstores could send me a monthly publication listing new titles and descriptions or send out a catalog listing books pastors are using.

Still other pastors want the bookstores to be more attractive and service oriented. “I don’t go into one store,” Jon Edwards states, “because it frustrates me. I know they have what I’m looking for, but it’s difficult to find. Half the time, after I leave the store without finding what I want, a store employee will call me back a week later to tell me they have the book. A Christian bookstore ought to be set up so customers can walk in and find the most helpful books on subjects they are interested in.”

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Many pastors want bookstores to evaluate more carefully the books they stock. They don’t have the time to sort out the good Christian books from the shallow material that gives easy answers and has no substance, and they hope that Christian booksellers will do some of the sorting for them. “Some bookstores are discriminate in what they are stocking and some are not,” James Kennedy says. “I’m thankful that the one near us stocks very good books, not just a lot of fluff.”

It all boils down to whether or not the Christian bookstore is viewed as a ministry or as a business. Christian leaders should think about how the local Christian bookstore can complement their ministry in the local church. And Christian booksellers should take the initiative to do all they can to be a supportive service arm of the church.

A former book editor, Stephen Sorenson heads Sorenson Communications in Colorado Springs.

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