Christian Bookstores Closing

I follow a gentleman on Twitter by the name of @bryanbrock. Bryan and his wife own and operate a Christian bookstore in Bel Air, Maryland that they are closing because they have not been selling enough books to stay open.

Bryan and his wife are no slackers when it comes to operating an independent bookstore. The store carries a range of Christian books including books for both Protestants and Catholics. They have used the Internet and social media to market their bookstore. You can find Bryan on Twitter, he hosts a blog, the couple hosted an online bookstore (as well as their physical store), and they even posted product preview videos for customers.

So what went wrong? The economy? Maybe.

On his blog, Bryan listed 13 random thoughts he has had about closing his store. I will share three here:

  1. Sad but true: you can make more money closing a store than keeping it open.  We are seeing excellent traffic this month that we would not be seeing otherwise.
  1. People talk about finding great prices on CBD and Amazon even as they lament that we are closing.
  2. I’m not an economist, but I believe we are currently in a deflationary cycle where people are just not willing to pay what the manufacture says a product is worth.

Yes, businesses close all the time. Yes, we are in a recession and businesses are being hit hard. Maybe I am a pessimist, but I suspect that even when the economy recovers, Christian bookstores will not recover.

Consider the following three points:

  1. For a number of years, Christian bookstores have not carried the breadth and depth of books they needed to sustain their customer base. Most have catered to best sellers and best selling back lists. A good segment of the Christian population has stopped using their local bookstores to find the meatier Christian books they crave. At ICRS in 2006, George Barna issued a challenge to Christian retailers to carry less fluff and more meat in the books they stocked.
  2. The U.S. Census Bureau found that bookstore sales peaked in 2005 and have declined steadily ever since. The recession did not hit until 2008, yet sales of books began declining two years prior to the recession. The reason book sales are declining is not a money issue; it is a larger societal literacy and reading issue.
  3. Our society is becoming increasingly depersonalized and anonymous. We shop at chain stores and eat at chain restaurants. In urban areas, the sense of community and shopping locally to sustain the community is lost. As a result, small, independent businesses face a steeper mountain to succeed.

Keep in mind that every Christian bookstore that closes means one less place for Christian publishers to sell their books. Every place for selling books that the publishing community loses equals fewer sales. The competition in selling books is growing. The book selling environment is becoming an ever increasingly more difficult place to succeed.


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8 thoughts on “Christian Bookstores Closing

  1. I’m an author, not a bookstore owner, so I can only speak from observation. My observation from attending ICRS this past summer is that the CBA and the Christian bookstore movement has been a largely baby boomer fueled movement for the last 30 years, and it’s running out of fuel. The major ads, talks, and acts at ICRS were predominantly for and about aging baby boomers, and I should say, aging baby boomer Christian bookstore owners.

    iGens do not go to Christian bookstores, and they were largely invisible at ICRS. They read less, watch and listen more, and do not value book ownership in the same way. The Internet is the “Christian bookstore movement” of their generation; brick and mortar is their parents’ world, not theirs. Add to that the decline in biblical literacy and faith in the coming generation and you have a perfect storm hitting the CBA movement. As a 58yo author and ministry leader, I’m caught in it, too, trying to figure out where we’re going to fit.

    The beginning of the CBA sales decline in 2005 is an interesting date. If the peak of the baby boom generation (1946-1964) was around 1955, they would have been 50 in 2005, and their children would be a huge wave of iGens in their early 20s, a new generation of adult buyers raised on the Internet. I’m not sure the independent Christian bookstore movement can reinvent itself. It’s probably time for a whole new model.

  2. Thanks for your additional great insights Clay. I agree that ICRS and the bookstore movement has been geared toward baby boomers and that the older generations value book ownership more than the younger ones. I have a blog post coming out on that early next month based on a study of who is buying books. One interesting point I read recently was that ebooks are not generating “more” sales for publishers, rather, they are replacing dropping print sales. So ebooks are not a “new” revenue maker, just another avenue to keep sales, especially with the younger generations.

    I also think the “new model” idea is also true. Bill Anderson, president and CEO, of CBA, The Association for Christian Retail, recent resignation appears to point to the fact that he felt a new model was needed and he was not the person to help make that happen (as a Baby Boomer himself).

  3. such intriguing trends remind me of two good business books on my shelves: “Stop Setting Goals If You Want To Solve Problems” and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”

  4. As a second-generation bookstore independent CBA owner (we’re in our 26th year) I can tell you that it is a chicken and egg problem. Yes, our stores in general have catered to baby-boomers. In our case, we’ve strived to keep up-to-date with things like in-store music sampling and burning, comfy leather couches, updated fixtures, etc. We’ve also tried to make sure that we are still a BOOK store predominantly, with books and bibles making up well over half of our sales. On a personal level, as a reformed type, I value “meaty” books and have gone out of my way to stock them.

    Having said all that, our sales are about half of what they were a decade ago. I haven’t yet ventured into social marketing (I’m not sure but Twitter may be the next pet rock), but we do have a substantial email list and communicate regularly that way as well as traditional catalogs. I believe people simply don’t read like they used to, and certainly not in printed books. As to whether we’ll survive, in our present state, very few of us will. The problem is, no one seems to have a good solution to what a viable state would be. The ones I’ve heard offered tend to come from people with no idea how a cash-strapped small business must operate, nor have they ever had to juggle all the balls a small business requires, all the while trying to glorify Jesus.

  5. I feel for you Doug, as I do for most Christian bookstores. I agree, people are not reading books like they used to. Most people’s reading is superficial: emails, short blog posts, text messages, etc. I tend to think we are in a cultural shift. Almost half of the current adolescents in America are not graduating from high school; they are dropping out. A culture steeped in the thirst for knowledge (or at least for academic pursuit) is going by the wayside. There may not be a new model until there is a cultural shift.

  6. Christian bookselling/retailing is a very tough call at the moment. Here in the UK we’ve witnessed the collapse of two of our major Christian bookshop chains this year: first, the SPCK bookshops, torn to shreds by J Mark and Philip W Brewer; then the Wesley Owen stores, abandoned by Biblica.

    A number of independents have also closed down; yet we see signs of hope — in Chichester, local churches rallied round and managed to save their store; and the changes have triggered a lot of creative thinking across the blogosphere as people rise to the challenge. I’ve compiled a list of some of the postings: The Future Shape of Christian Bookselling … hope readers here find it helpful.

  7. I just closed my Christian bookstore yesterday. I went from a $1,000,000 store in 2010 to $650,000 this year. With my rent in a major outlet mall being so high, coupled with declining sales of physical books and bibles due to e-readers and internet competiton, I had no other alternative. It is now my family or my business…and I chose my family. As I have two years left on my lease, please pray for God to show up big as I exit the mall early.

  8. Such sad news. I will pray for you and your family. I know that God works all things together for good. It may take awhile, but He is faithful and he does repay what the locusts eat.

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