According to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), there are now more than 2,321 independent bookstores. Between 2009 and 2015, the number of general market independent bookstores grew by 35 percent.
Sadly, Christian bookstores are not on the increase. Instead, they have been steadily declining for years. It seems like almost every week I read about another Christian bookstore closing. Rarely do I see news of a Christian bookstore opening. Last year the Christian publishing industry took a huge hit when Family Christian closed—losing 220 stores in one fell swoop (there were 240, but 20 were purchased to be run independently).
I believe there are three reasons why Christian bookstores have suffered while independent bookstores have thrived.
1. Lack of depth of inventory.
Christian bookstores tend to play it safe. They only stock bestselling books and books by well-known Christian authors and personalities. In other words, they only stock books they believe will sell well.
The issue with this is that consumers can get these books at the big box stores. Why would I take extra time from my busy schedule to go to a Christian store to purchase a book by Max Lucado when I can pick it up at Walmart with my groceries? Why would I bother to browse a local Christian bookstore when there is not much new material to discover?
Shortly after the start of the new millenium, when Christian publishing and bookstores were still in their heyday, Barna warned Christian retailers at the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) that unless they broadened the books they offered for sale and included books with more meat and less fluff, that they would suffer. It appears these were prophetic words.
Recently, the Board Chairman of the CBA, The Association for Christian Retail, told Christian retailers: “Let’s return to carrying a healthy book inventory. If the life-changing impact of Christian books is leaving our stores, along with our most faithful customers, this is our chance to re-align our mission and responsibility to the church to be the place to discover new authors and Christian thought from foundational authors.”
2. Failure to embrace Indies.
One of the reasons that general market independent bookstores are thriving is because they have embraced the Indie author. With almost one out of every five books purchased penned by an Indie author, booksellers cannot afford to overlook this massive group of enthusiastic authors. Local Indie authors have the power to bring the community into the bookstore.
Sadly, Christian bookstores and CBA, The Association for Christian Retail, have failed to embrace Indie authors. Other than establishing a Creative Pavilion section at their annual trade show (a tabletop area for authors), CBA has done little to encourage their member stores to work with Indie authors. They have not championed a “Christian Indie Author Day” for their stores, unlike the secular market has done with “Indie Author Day.” Nor have they developed guidelines their members stores can implement to help these stores be more confident that the Indie books they carry will be quality Christian material.
3. Using an outdated model.
Starbucks thrived because they marketed themselves as a “third place,” a space where people can share and enjoy a cup of coffee with friends and colleagues away from work and home. Many independent bookstores are also setting themselves up as “third places.” They are striving to be a place where friendly staff know and remember the names of their regulars. They are also a place for the community to gather over all things related to books and reading.
It seems that most Christian bookstores are maintaining the old model of simply setting up shop and expecting customers to come because they are interested in what the store is selling. Wouldn’t it be nice for Christian bookstores to be a “third place” for Christians and seekers to gather and encounter God without the formality of a Church building or service?
I know I don’t have all the answers. Bookselling is a difficult business. However, comparing and contrasting the general market independent bookstores with Christian bookstores does show some glaring difference that I believe account for the current state of the industry.
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