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Church bookstores are the fastest growing segment of Christian retail

The Gathering 2009 will bring hundreds of bookstore operators together for training.

By Ronald E. Keener

Geni Hulsey came into the church bookstore business with just a table near the café at First Baptist Church, Houston, TX, that over 15 years grew by dint of hard work and foresight into The Garden Bookstore at her church. She was an organizer of The Church Bookstore Gathering, that is an educational and trade show meeting where training of store managers is their chief goal. The Gathering 2009 will be at the Ramada Orlando Celebration Resort and Convention Center near Disney territory in Kissimmee, FL, Jan. 7-9 [the churchbookstore.com]. Hulsey is also president of the Church Bookstore Network.

A highlight of The Gathering 2009 will be “a prayer meeting to pray over the leaders in the industry, the managers of the stores, the vendors who we deal with,” says Hulsey. A Web site will be opened for live prayer requests.

Hulsey’s Garden Bookstore has 2,000 square feet and does $550,000 in annual sales; there are five full-time, two part-time and eight volunteers involved. The church has weekly church attendance of 4,200.

Church Executive conducted an e-mail interview with Hulsey recently about this growing field within the church and its impact on ministry:

Generally, how well are church bookstores doing as an industry group?

Church bookstores have emerged as the fastest growing segment of the Christian retail channel. Many industry veterans will remark to us how attending our event reminds them of the days when the number of independent stores was growing. They love the feel of excitement, energy and hunger for knowledge that these newcomers bring to the table.

It is our focus to help educate them and to offer various levels of support as they grow and expand in their positions. At one of our recent meetings we asked those in the room how many were planning to expand their space in the coming 24 months and almost half of the hands in the room went up. So this growth is exciting to the publishers who are looking for places to sell more than just the Top 10 titles of Christian books.

What indicators does the church bookstore business use to measure its growth and health?

As more and more independent store owners close or sell their stores to chains, we have seen the number of stores decrease that sell backlist titles. Church stores offer publishers the opportunity to have places that have a regular traffic flow of people who worship every Sunday and give them the opportunity to reach the person sitting in the pew.

Christian Booksellers Association statistics say only 15 percent or so of people who worship regularly ever visit a Christian bookstore.  So church-based stores give suppliers access to people who have not been shopping in a traditional CBA store.

What two or three challenges or problems do church bookstores face today?

Training, training and more training!  Since church stores have limited budgets to attend training events, a publication like The Church Bookstore [a bi-monthly periodical] has offered them invaluable help. It is our hope that The Gathering 2009 will give many the option to receive timely training. One aspect of training is to educate the congregation about the “why” of retail within a church. My personal focus this year is to help stores spot the trends and make adjustments so they can be financially strong and healthy.

Can you give a brief description of the growth and strength of the Church Bookstore Network?

Our growth is most visible by the increase in the number of subscribers and the growth of our event in the past four years. When we first published The Church Bookstore in July 2005, the issue was distributed to 3,000.  The past issue, just three years later, is being distributed to more than 6,800 and to more than 3,400 different church store locations.

What challenge faces churches thinking about growing and professionalizing their stores?

The primary challenge is convincing the leadership of the church — administrators, financial directors, pastors — that the leadership of the bookstore needs training. Even though the church leadership wants a bookstore, they still have a hard time reconciling ministry and retail.

Are church bookstores a megachurch thing or do they go beyond that?

When I first came to this industry and consulted with other churches, I really encouraged those who were not megachurches to find other means of supplying resources to their congregations, such as allowing a local independent store to provide a book table. But with fewer independents in smaller town and rural areas, we find even small churches attempting to provide some sort of resource center for their members.

What few things should smaller churches do to offer this service?

I really believe smaller churches should stick with the basics: Bibles in the translation used by the pastor or leadership; books recommended by the church leadership; any Bible studies their small groups are doing, and maybe a few Bible accessories like highlighters and tabs.

How does a church bookstore support other departments and ministries of their church?

Supporting the internal customer is sometimes harder than the external. In order to meet the needs of the leadership of the church — books the pastor will mention or that will be studied in small groups — requires being a part of the planning, being in staff or team meetings, and staying in touch with all of the ministries of the church.

The manager of the store has to be keyed into all of the activities of the church and be willing to go to the staff members or lay leadership and ask what the store can do to support that activity or event. The congregation is usually looking for what the leadership mentions or the best sellers that they have heard about in the media.

What should people expect to receive who attend the next Gathering?

The main thing is that we have given 100 percent of our focus on helping to meet the needs of church-based stores in their unique niche of ministry. And the people leading our training sessions are people who are in the trenches with them, who can relate to every challenge that comes their way.  We will continue to offer this basic training at The Gathering 2009.

In addition, we are adding a focus of training for stores that want to grow their sales of Christian cards and gifts. We are inviting the stores that have proven best practices in this area to come and lead sessions at the event. Sales of Christian gifts are one of the fastest growing and most profitable departments in Christian retail today.

What added values do bookstores bring to the congregation?

If we cannot be a support to the overall mission of our individual congregations, we bring nothing to the table. But, I believe without fail, we do that. We supply resources that underscore what comes from the pulpit and Christian education division of our churches. We provide selections of gifts, cards and leisure reading that are encouraging and morally sound. We provide a level of service and caring that will not be found in the local Big Box store. And, above all, we provide staff that is willing to pray and minister to anyone who comes in the store.

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