The Amazing Shrinking Bookstore…

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary has long enjoyed a reputation within North American evangelicalism as a relatively large, relatively good school.

Even here, however, the mission of running an excellent theological bookstore has shrunk to, well, this: A closet with a sign saying to buy what you can’t see there on the shelves from an online company that will share the profits with the seminary. (HT David Wood for the recent photo.)

See if you can spot all the services you’re not getting, for which you pay a slightly higher price at a real bookstore:

I’ve written previously about bookstores here.

0 Responses to “The Amazing Shrinking Bookstore…”

  1. blake

    How many of these seminary bookstores are using old capitalist methods to compete with that which they can’t compete? They need to explore other alternatives if they want to be economically viable. I attend a small Mennonite seminary of less than 200 students. Our bookstore is run as a co-op among students, faculty and anyone from the community that wants to join. Our bookstore isn’t huge (we don’t have the physical space for a large bookstore) but it has managed to become competitive. I buy more than $1000 in books every semester and often the bookstore can get me everything I order for 20-25% less than if I ordered from Amazon. Seminaries would do well to be creative in their business practices and hire people who have backgrounds in business management.

  2. Ryan

    I think the problem is systemic. I use Amazon (or whatever else is absolute cheapest) so I can eat and pay my tuition to Regent who can then pay you enough to live well in West Van and buy overpriced books at the Regent Bookstore. Its a closed system. Take a pay cut, drop tuition rates, and I’ll be happy to buy from a seminary bookstore. Either that, I guess, or I can starve.

    • John Stackhouse

      This nasty little comment seems not to come from an actual e-mail address, since I tried following up personally with whoever sent it. (Apart from the mean spirit, the facts are weirdly wrong: I don’t live in West Vancouver, but North Vancouver; Regent doesn’t pay me enough to live in either town; and the bookstore prices at Regent are strongly competitive, normally 20% if not more off cover price on almost everything, including textbooks. So it’s a strange little comment.)

      I hereby invite “Ryan” to contact me directly by e-mail or I’ll remove this bit of vitriol from the blog as bogus.

      • Ryan

        Please note the typo on the email address from before. There was an extra ‘h’.

        Ryan

        • gingoro

          Ryan
          My dad taught for about 20 years at what is now Tyndal college in Toronto. They had a small house in north Toronto that they were only able to afford because my mother worked as a elementary school teacher plus they got a couple of small inheritances that helped out. Dad also did fill in preaching fairly often to help out. I doubt that Regent is able to pay it’s profs much more than Tyndale could. Financially my parents would have been much better off if dad had remained a high school teacher or principal. Dad had been an elementary school principle when I was young. I expect that John Stackhouse could do a lot better financially elsewhere and frankly suggest that you apologize to him.
          Dave W

  3. gingoro

    I find most Christian bookstores not worth visiting as they seem to sell mostly trinkets along with a few books. Occassionaly I find a good book there but rarely. When we lived in Toronto there was a Christian bookstore called the Reformation Book Store. The owner knew his books and if I described what I was looking for then he could point me to the right area to look for it. Usually I walked out with five to eight good books.

    Here in Ottawa we live about seven or eight blocks from Chapters in the market area. I used to find it a good destination but now there is no where to sit down and browse so I have given up finding interesting science books there.

    Instead what I do is record references to good books that I find in various blogs and then order from Amazon. Somehow I never manage to catch up so my list has about 25 books that I have yet to order. The ability to look inside some of the books on Amazon helps but does not make up for being able to sit and read a bit here and there. I think one of your books is on my list.
    Dave W

  4. Frederick Harrison

    Methinks the problem lies with the low prices the majors like Amazon can achieve from volume discounts from the publishers. The small bookstores can’t hope to match that but they can build a niche in having the books matched by staff that are capable of advising customers as to what they need to read and why. Most of the staff at the majors have to be generalists rather than specialists as regards their inventory. Look the bestsellers in spirituality in Amazon – would you expect to see them in a seminary bookstore, or have a staff person in a seminary store recommend them? Deepak Chopra or John Stott? Richard Dawkins or C.S.Lewis? Dan Brown or D.A. Carson?

    Selected buying of remaindered or overstock titles can boost the overall sales and profit margin of small stores, as can a used section that discriminates between fluff and substance. But the rental costs plus staff costs are what limit most small bookstores. That and customers choosing to support the big box stores.

    It’s the Wal Mart vs. local business argument.

    Another factor has been the cutting of inventory amongst the big publishers/suppliers. Key texts that were once relatively inexpensive are now going to print-on-demand at substantially higher prices and shorter discounts. The big chains who have sufficient inventory can delay or moderate the price increase; the smaller stores don’t always have that option.

    The other problem with seminary bookstores is that they do well at the start of classes but face slow periods near Christmas and in the summer when the students are not there. They need to establish a customer base outside the seminary that can carry them through the slow times.

  5. travisbarbour

    John,

    I couldn’t agree more with your thinking on book stores both here and in your blog from last August. The excellent Regent book store played no small factor in my decision to attend there…

  6. poserorprophet

    Wait, so how much does Regent actually pay its full-time professors?

      • poserorprophet

        Okay, I was totally joking, but I actually do think it is revealing about our culture that sharing how much money we earn is one of the most forbidden topics of conversation. I sometimes wonder if the secrets we keep are connected to the idols we chase after. We keep our addictions a secret, we keep affairs secret, and these are actually the secret things that we end up placing before God and others. Similarly, I wonder if our secrecy about our money is actually a sign that we are worshiping our money and placing it before God and others. Not sure…

        Anyway, I once gave a talk at a conference on wealth, poverty and justice (all that fun stuff) and, because I was told that I needed to encourage audience participation, I invited people to share their annual household income and then, later on, I invited people to share how much debt they have and how long they think it will take them to be debt free. It was a very interesting experiment and I hope to repeat it again one day (for the record, I gross just over $44,000 and this is the sole source of income in my family, apart from the child tax money my wife gets from the government).

    • Ryan

      Their full-time professors or their endowed chair professors? Say for example, the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture?

      More than most Regent College professors, I’m guessing. Of course, I’m only guessing. I’m just a poor uninformed student who pays 425 per credit hour (plus a bunch of other fees).

      Ryan

      • poserorprophet

        Ryan,

        I’m willing to bet that nobody put a gun to your head and forced you to enroll at Regent. You could always transfer to another school, drop-out, do what I did (work your way through school and don’t take a full course load each term) or whatever. Going after a prof and his salary because you’re grumpy about how much you choose to pay for courses makes little sense to me.

  7. Bill Reimer

    In response to Blake, I am confused by what you mean when you refer to “bookstores [that]are using old capitalist methods.” Assume that your co-op bookstore is selling $300,000 retail worth of books and giving students a 30% discount (you state that it often gives 20-30% above amazon!)
    Your basic income statement would look something like this:
    Retail $300,000
    discounts – 90,000
    gross profit 210,000

    cost of sales 180,000
    freight in 12,000
    electricity,etc 15,000
    wages 3,000
    Now this is a best case scenario and assumes every book gets sold. The “co-op” bookstore has room to pay, say, 2 full-time employees a whopping $1500 each. This strikes me as feudal rather than “co-op”. In Vancouver a spartan one-bedroom apartment will run you $800 per month. I would bet my bottom dollar that this “co-op” has a sugar daddy lurking somewhere and that he or she has a few capital interests.
    Cheers,
    Bill

  8. blake

    Bill, we get what averages out to a ten or fifteen percent discount. We don’t do nearly $300,000 in book sales. Our wages are a lot higher because we’ve got several workers. Strangely, you seemed to have missed the expense that most makes it a co-op: membership dues. The dues themselves nearly pay for the wages. The thing about the co-op is that it doesn’t need to be very profitable, it just needs to provide a good competitive service so if it breaks even then that’s good enough. That’s how it manages to compete with even Amazon.

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