Ringing the bell for retail Print
Written by By Andy Butcher   
Monday, 20 April 2009 10:31 AM America/New_York

‘Fresh recruits’ give stores a new face and focus, defying economic downturn

altUndaunted by the challenge of the economic downturn, a wave of newcomers to the industry is ringing the bell for Christian retailing.

Among those bringing a new face to the industry is a Canadian trio whose made-over Bell Tower Books is trying to reach beyond traditional evangelical circles by opening up a lounge to the local arts community and carrying some popular general market titles like those featured on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show.

“God is sending in fresh recruits, charging up the whole team like in a basketball game,” said CBA President Bill Anderson of the industry’s new arrivals, reporting an average of 15 new trade association members a month. “One of the main characteristics I observe is their conviction that God has called them. They have a realistic sense of optimism, and a sense of need for more Christian retail stores.”

altLeading the way at Bell Tower Books is Dave Sohnchen, who was manager of the former Christian Publications outlet in Kelowna, British Columbia, that was bought out by Jim and June Brown last year.

The 4,000-square-foot store celebrated a grand re-opening in March, unveiling The Belfry—an informal upstairs meeting area where “bell ringers” who pay a $60 annual subscription can meet and borrow books and other resources supplied by the store’s management team, free of charge.

“I knew that things needed to change somewhat in terms of how we did business,” said Sohnchen, whose store’s new mission statement is summed up as CHIME—communal, holistic, integrated, missional, engaging. “We are trying to engage our culture,” he said.

Meanwhile, New York City’s famous Brooklyn Tabernacle has given new life to its bookstore operations, closing the two former Timeless Treasures locations and replacing them with Bell Tower Christian Gift & Bookstore.

The store is a member of the Munce Group, where sales and service coordinator Danielle Woods said though times were tough, “the rate of retailers looking for marketing help is relatively steady, if not growing.”

Newcomers were motivated by ministry, she told Christian Retailing. “Christian retailers want to keep their doors open so that the lost and hurting can walk through them. What characterizes the average new Christian retailers is an evangelistic heart.”

That is the case with Patricia Hill, whose Christian Books and Gifts ... And Then Some in Philadelphia, is due to open June 1 after two years of preparation. Leaving the corporate world after more than 30 years gave her the opportunity to fulfill the long-held dream—shared with her pastor husband—of opening a Christian store.

The new business would be able to put valuable resources in the hands of church members, she said, and reach out to “those who maybe grew up in church but are not there now, and maybe they will be led to go back to the house of God.

Hill said she was not discouraged by the financial crash that had occurred since she started planning the new store. “We are walking into this knowing where the economy is, so there’s no way to go but up. That’s the way I see it. I know that this is God’s will.”

Nor did last fall’s slump deter Dan and Dayna Panella, who were in negotiations to buy Vine & Branches Christian Bookstore in Lodi, Calif., from Phil Biddle. The pair decided “there would be no better time to buy the business,” said Dan Panella. “I felt that if there is any place people are going to be spending money it should be at a place like this, because hopefully they would be focusing on God instead of the latest video game or whatever.”

With a grand re-opening at the end of March, the 4,400-square-foot store has been given a fresh logo, reorganized with a more contemporary look and re-stocked to reach younger consumers. “We didn’t want people to think that all we sold was Bibles, especially if they had never been in the store before,” Panella said.

Opening Abundant Life Christian Store in Aiken, S.C., at the beginning of the year was a “leap of faith” for Kay Mortimer, an accountant who decided to venture into Christian retail after learning that Haven of Rest, a Christian store that had served the city for almost 20 years, was due to close with the owner’s retirement.

While some Christian products can be bought at places like Wal-Mart, Mortimer said she believed Aiken still needed “a place where the focus is the Word of God and His kingdom.” Customers of the former store a couple of blocks away have welcomed the new business, she said. “I believe the support is there. We are trusting that God is leading us, and He wouldn’t lead us down a path to failure.”

Although the new direction of stores like Bell Tower Books has been welcomed by many, with Sohnchen reporting a good number of first-time visitors, not everyone is impressed. Bell Tower’s new approach was criticized in an e-mail sent to churches in the area that warned the store’s Web site included Wiccan and gay and lesbian materials.

“Anybody who has come to us directly with criticism or concerns have had them quickly put to rest,” Sohnchen said. “We just open up our hearts and what we believe God’s vision is for this store. When they hear and see it, they immediately say, ‘Yes, I get it.’”