As Barnes & Noble struggles, Christian bookstores succeed

Inside Beacon of Hope, a Christian bookstore, in Springfield, Ohio.

At a time when chain booksellers are closing stores or going out of business entirely, independent Christian book retailers are growing.

The Association for Christian Retail says its members reported an 8.6 percent sales increase in 2012. Many Christian stores are growing as the publishing industry struggles, by turning their stores into destinations for the faithful, branching out beyond books and riding a cultural wave that’s expanding the market for Christian media.

All of this is on display at Beacon of Hope, a family-owned bookstore in Springfield, Ohio. On a hot July day, it’s also a beacon of air-conditioned refreshment. The café’s blender cranks out ice cold coffee drinks.

Regular customer Linda Sandoval stops in frequently for both liquid and spiritual nourishment. She likes the wide selection, live events, atmosphere, and especially, the devoted staff.

“Honest, I’m not getting paid for this interview, but I love the people who work there,” Sandoval gushes. “I just respect them so much for what they do.”

That kind of connection is why sales at Christian stores like Beacon of Hope add up to around $5 billion a year. The store cultivates community ties by creating an environment that’s an extension of church meeting rooms.

“We have a lot of Bible studies,” says manager Aaron Kastein, who is also a member of the family that owns the store. “A lot of church groups have come in and to a point where they sometimes ask if they can schedule a timeslot to get in because it can sometimes be crowded.”

Steady crowds mean more sales. And the business is about much more than just Bibles.

“One of the things that Christian bookstores have done over the years is they’ve expanded beyond Christian bookstores,” explains Ron Sellers of the market research firm Grey Matter.

There are now Christian books in every publishing genre, from thrillers to romance to self-help to history. And books are just part of what’s on offer. As Christian movies expand, improve production quality and lure Hollywood stars, Christian bookstores are offering up DVDs and tie-in products. They’re looking forward to a big-budget adaptation of the Left Behind series, best-selling novels that marry Tom Clancy-style action and thrills with Christian themes. Nicolas Cage will star.

Gifts are increasingly important to Christian retailers. At Rainbow Shop in Bismarck, North Dakota, Christian-themed greeting cards, toys and games are all big sellers.

“Our gift line has done tremendous,” says Matt Mitzel. “It’s really hard to buy gifts online. People like to see their gifts. They like to feel them.”

Visitors shopping for a baptism at his store can hand-pick a gift, book and card in one trip, something that would require multiple sites and shipping fees online. Christian retailers also tend to gain customers when economic conditions are rocky and people seek spiritual guidance for financial stress.

“In difficult times, People tend to turn toward God,” says Curtis Riskey, president of the Association for Christian Retail. “Our stores have been there with God’s word and the Bible and the wisdom that it holds.”

Small Christian retailers are showing wisdom of their own, in successfully convincing the faithful to shop local.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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