Saturday, September 06, 2008

Is There Still a Need for Christian Bookstores in Canada? - Lindquist

A recent letter from the president of Mitchell Family Books urging customers to buy books and other product from them has, I’m sure, caused more wringing of hands about the state of Christian bookstores in Canada. With the Blessings chain now gone except for four stores in western Canada, and Mitchell obviously considering changes, one wonders what the future holds and how many other bookstores are either struggling to keep going or already gone. Of course, the Canadian branch of the Christian Booksellers Association disbanded a couple of years ago, so perhaps few are keeping track.

Now I know that difficulties in bookstores aren’t unique to the Christian sector. I am one of those who mourn every time any bookstore closes, and over the past ten years various issues have caused all kinds of fluctuation in the bookstore community across Canada. And though I may at times mourn, and at other times want to knock some sense into someone’s head, at the end of the day I have to ask myself if, in the great scheme of things, it really matters? Has the day of the brick and mortar bookstore come and gone? And most particularly for this blog, is there still a need in Canada for bookstores that have a Christian focus?

As I thought about this question, several very different ideas popped into my head, and I realized I need to answer this question in two ways: objectively, as a Canadian small-business owner who is also the daughter of a small-business owner and the wife of a business change consultant, and who therefore has some awareness of the principles of effective businesses; and subjectively, as both a producer and a consumer of the products in the bookstores.

Since including both my objective and subjective ideas on this situation would make for an awfully long blog, I’m only going to do a small part here: my objective thoughts.

Objectively speaking, the first question that comes to me is, “Why do Canadian Christian book stores exist in the first place?”

In the broadest sense, Christian books have always existed. From Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress to Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Whimsey Mysteries, books with a Christian faith perspective grace the shelves of most bookstores and libraries. The truth is, through the ages, many of the greatest poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists have written from a Christian faith perspective. Agatha Christie would fit here. So would John Grisham.

But there are also other books that were more overtly “Christian,” whose focus was less on being great literature and more on educating and teaching people on the faith.

A lot of these books date back to the late 1800’s, when people such as Dwight Moody saw that there were few available materials for helping Christian grow in their faith. Dwight Moody began producing small books to fit this void.

By the 1930’s, there were books and other materials being produced by a number of publishers in the United States, including Moody Publishing. Slowly, stores sprang up across the US and Canada to sell these materials. Even in Canada, these stores for the most part had American roots.

So on an ideological basis, Christian bookstores came into existence to provide resources for Christians to help in their growth and their ability to witness to others. On a practical level, they also separated the good from the bad so that customers could trust that the books before them weren’t going to be offensive. (I am not concerned here as to whether that was a good idea or not - just the facts.)

The number of Christian bookstores slowly increased in both the US and Canada, and the number of publishers also increased—in the United States. Unfortunately, while Canadian publishing, aided by government funding, began to flourish in the 1960’s, Canadian Christian publishing barely existed. True, a few denominations published a few books, but they were predominately “in-house.” A few publishers such as Wood Lake Books and Novalis managed to work within the mainstream. A few small publishing houses sprang up and tried to do royalty publishing. And there were also a few vanity or subsidy publishing houses. But for the most part, Christian products came from American Publishers.

In the 1950’s, R. G. Mitchells became the first Canadian distributor, bringing books up to Canada from Christian publishers in the United States. Eventually, several other distributors came into existence, all either offshoots of American publishing house or relying on American products: Ausburg Fortress Canada, Cook Communications Canada, Word Alive, Foundation, etc. Some small distributors have come and gone including Rainbow House, my first distributor. And of course, more stores opened and were sold or closed, and so forth. But, basically, the situation remained unchanged until the advent of the internet and the fallout from having a few “Christian” books sell in large quantities, thus alerting the mainstream publishing houses and book outlets that there might be some money to be made in Christian publishing. But we’ll get to that later.

So it seems to me that objectively speaking there were three key reasons for having Christian bookstores in Canada:

1. To provide a place for American Christian publisher to sell their products

2. To provide overtly Christian products to help Christians grow in their faith and ministry

3. T
o provide “safe” materials for the Christian consumer and his (or more likely “her”) family

But times have changed. How are things going now? I decided to do a SWOT analysis to discover what I think.

Strengths of Christian bookstores

They have generally been safe places to find books to give as gifts – you knew you could trust a book from Moody, Zondervan, etc.

They can carry a number of books on each topic, and not just the bestsellers

If you are looking for a book on a specific topic – prayer, marriage, raising children, you should be able to find something good.

Because many see it as ministry, staff will often do all they can to help you find the perfect book

There is a sense of belonging, rather than just being in a store, in many of them

You don’t have to worry about the content of what your kids pick up

Weaknesses of Christian bookstores

Many of them are small and don’t actually have a lot of books - may have more giftware and other items

Popular books are often higher priced than on the internet or at Costco

Some of them are more gift stores than bookstores

Some of them are dangerous for small kids because of all the breakable giftware: at Walmart, your kids are in a cart and you can relax more

You may well have to order the book you want and sometimes it’s not available or takes a long time to come in

Many stores are in out-of-the-way locations

Many of them don’t have the finances to keep up technologically

Many of them order one book at a time and therefore may not have adequate stock

High reliance on American books

Threats against Christian bookstores

Higher overhead and smaller orders lead to higher prices on books

Because of the almost complete reliance on books published in the US, the change in the value of the dollar created massive problems for most bookstores, and many haven’t quite recovered yet

Walmart, Costco and other stores often carry popular books at much lower prices

If you can get a book while at the mall, why go to another place and pay more?

More and more people are buying from the internet, where you can find pretty well anything you might want

Used bookstores on the internet make getting older materials easier

The younger generation isn’t reading as much, or they’re reading on the internet or on book readers.

The ability to download music has decimated CD sales

Some churches bypass bookstores and buy materials in bulk directly from the publisher

Photocopying of materials

Use of projectors instead of hymn or chorus books

Churches having their own on-site bookstores

Statistics have long shown that very few Christians have been going to Christian bookstores

Reliance on doing things as they have always been done, and not looking for new ways to do them

Opportunities for Christian bookstores

Some of them are good at
fostering a sense of community

Cater to those who are not comfortable ordering from the internet

Foster loyal customers who are motivated to keep the stores open

Cater to people who prefer to hold the book and look at it before buying

Create reasons for people to come in because it’s “the place to be”

Go back to their reasons for existing and study the validity of those reasons in today’s market, and determine whether or not there might be new reasons

Use new technology to their advantage

Cater to, and create, an atmosphere conducive to those who LOVE books

Can you add any strengths of Christian bookstores? Weaknesses ? Threats? Opportunities? Please do comment.

This blog kind of grew as I started writing it. To read my subjective thoughts and my ideas for what we might see in the future, please go to my own writing blog,

N. J. Lindquist is a Canadian author, publisher, and speaker who is a God-follower.

If you want to know what N. J. is thinking about life in general, go here.

If you want to find out about N. J.'s upcoming workshops, go here.

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N. J. writes a regular column on the body of Christ for Maranatha News.

N. J.'s main website is here.

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1 comment:

Tuneman said...

It is much sadness that I report that RGM has declared bankruptcy. Yesterday was the end of RGM and MFB as we know it. The whole company (all employees,all divisions) was walked out at the end of the day and the locks were
changed and the trustees have taken-over and will be communicating officially to all customers and vendors.

I feel badly for the hit to the industry.. The other Cdn retailers that will suffer, the other Cdn distributors, and ministry partners and of course vendors.

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