Good Bookstores: If We Ignore Them, They'll Go Away

I remember in 1980 the thrill of opening my first newsprint catalogue of a new company called “Christian Book Distributors.” I was a theological graduate student and “CBD,” as it came to be known, offered remarkable savings particularly on Big Books and even more on Big Sets. I bought a lot from CBD and asked my family and friends for Christmas presents from CBD as I built my library. What a wonderful find for a financially struggling young scholar!

CBD is now, and newsprint catalogues have been replaced by websites. It’s still exciting to come across a great deal on something expensive. But something else has been happening for a decade or more that I never thought I would see.

Bookstores are disappearing. Not all stores, of course. But specialist bookstores, academic bookstores, and particularly theological bookstores are disappearing. Many colleges and seminaries now have no bookstore at all, just a place to buy T-shirts and mugs emblazoned (profitably) with the school logo. When Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in suburban Boston, a major American theological graduate school, radically downsizes its bookstore, we’re no longer talking about the canary in the coalmine. Miners are dropping all around us.

I teach at a place with the finest theological bookstore in Canada, and probably one of the best in the world. But bookstores like Regent’s can’t survive if we readers don’t do the one thing we need to do: buy books there.

“But prices are so much higher!”

I have thought of that. But let’s give this reflexive response a bit of a look.

Yes, some prices are higher for some books, even taking into account postage, handling, and duty you might be paying an online store. But some aren’t, or aren’t by much, once you do take those into account.

And some are awfully close in price, particularly on the short-discount texts that students and professors use and that thoughtful Christians of all stripes want to buy. Regent has a standard 20% discount now that means that the price difference on most books I buy is negligible. So I buy them there on cost alone.

Buying books at a bookstore, however, means getting something for your money. It isn’t just a form of donation to the college or seminary.

We pay to have books right there on the shelves to buy now, not in a few days or weeks.

We pay to have books available to pick up, inspect, and decide about purchasing in a way websites can never emulate, no matter what cool features they add.

We pay for the wisdom and taste of professional theological booksellers who pick out the good books from the many, many bad ones. (Anyone up for some serious religious book buying at Barnes & Noble or Borders? At Wal-Mart?)

We pay for staff to advise us on what else might interest us on a topic, and also what might interest Uncle Fred or Cousin Wilma or Nephew Barney or Reverend Betty for a birthday or graduation or study leave or retirement.

We pay for information on why a book is not currently available, and perhaps on other ways of getting it (e.g., from the U.K. when it’s not available over here, particularly if it’s been published under a different title elsewhere).

We pay to be able to return things easily and confidently.

And we pay for the serendipity—not a trivial thing—of coming across books we never knew existed and for which we would never have thought to search on a website.

What I realize today is that, back in the early 1980s, I could buy happily from CBD precisely because at the same time I frequently visited theological bookstores in Wheaton and Chicago that, in effect, helped me know what to buy—from CBD! Their staff were a lot more knowledgeable than the people who today post the pathetic booklists offered on (“Top Ten Books in Apologetics by an Overcompensating Undergraduate at Holy Moses Bible College”).

The general reading public (that is, “somebody else”) will not keep our bookstores financially afloat. Textbook sales alone will not keep them afloat, either—especially when so many now buy their textbooks on-line, too. We must keep them afloat by seeing clearly what we lose when and are all that’s left. Let’s see that truth before it’s too late.

We will get what we pay for.

0 Responses to “Good Bookstores: If We Ignore Them, They'll Go Away”

  1. Jake Belder

    Thanks for this post, Prof. Stackhouse. I work at the bookstore at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, and it’s been a struggle there for years. Another thing that really hurts us is when some of the bigger churches in the area decide to open their own little bookshops, instead of partnering with us to help build a bigger and better Christian bookstore for the community. It really is about something much more than cost.

  2. Preston

    This is a good reminder, I tend to snap on over to Amazon and forget about the many ways that Regent Bookstore has served me so well in the past. I’ll think twice next time…

  3. Stephen Dawe

    I’ve now actually started working at this in reverse. Since I live in Asia, finding English theological books isn’t easy, and the local English Christian bookstore is a little small. So I use amazon, Christianbook, and other sites to decide what kind of stuff I want, then order through the bookstore…. and often buy a few things off the shelf.

  4. Louis

    Thank you so much for this post. As a worker in a Christian bookstore I find your comments refreshing and encouraging. You don’t how often we have people come in and after taking a half hour, or more, of our time with questions tell us, “Thank you. I’ll get this from Amazon.” When we’re gone where will they go with their questions? I understand a tight budget (I work in retail!) but you would be surprised how competitive we have become. I think I can safely speak on behalf of my entire store when I say “Thank you!”

  5. Joy

    Amen! There are hidden costs in everything–“cheap” books and “cheap” food.

  6. Paul

    In the long run though, the only way for Christian bookstores to survive is to sell online as well (as well as sell used books — most theology students are poor).

    On a different note, there is a bookstore called Crux at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto that has a signpost outside that reads “Discount Theological Books”. It’s a wonderful place with lots of serious books on Christian topics (It’s quite unlike your usual fluffy evangelical bookstore that sells trinkets and lots of self-help type books).

    The amazing thing is their prices are usually equivalent to or lower than what you can find online (after you factor in shipping to Canada etc.). I imagine one of the reasons they’ve been able to do this and survive is because their selection is very focused — they have most books that students of Christianity will want, and very few that they don’t. You certainly won’t find the Left Behind series at Crux. And with a city the size of Toronto with several theological colleges and seminaries, they probably have critical
    mass (but maybe only barely).

  7. fierceblackhat

    On the subject of great bookstores, check out eighth day books based in wichita, kansas. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the books they sell. For bookstores, this is pretty close to heaven on earth!

  8. Brad Penner

    I agree that Regent’s bookstore is par excellence compared to even a certain christian university’s bookstore just down the highway from Regent, which shall remain nameless.

    I will also confess, that as somewhat of a perfectionist, I like to buy books (obviously new ones) that are in pristine condition. Almost every book I buy from or arrives to me with some damage.

    It is usually minor and not enough to aggrevate me to send it back and get a another one hoping the next one isn’t damaged as well in the shipping process. But, Prof. John is right (again), we get what we pay for. If we want huge discounts then there will probably be some corners cut (or bent) in the process.

    I lived in Three Hills, AB when Prairie Bible Institute closed its bookstore and I used to frequent Christian Publications in Calgary (both stores), Edmonton and Kelowna when visitng friends and family. The only thing that may (I stress may) keep me away from Regent’s bookstore is the new HST. Maybe Regent’s standard discount should rise from 20% to 32% to compensate?

    Just a thought.

    • Dan

      Just for clarification, there is only GST on books, they are exempt from HST. So you can happily buy from Regent!

  9. Link Land « Thinking Out Loud

    […] Regent College professor John Stackhouse suggests that it might be to our advantage to stop the drive towards extinction of that endangered species known as the Christian bookstore.   The piece  is titled, Good Bookstores: If We Ignore Them, They’ll Go Away. […]

  10. Kevin J. Navarro

    What a profound article. What you described at GCTS, I’ve seen at our own seminary bookstore over the last couple of years. Once a good theological bookstore; now like a college bookstore with mugs, sweatshirts, etc. I hope it embraces a different direction in the near future. I’ve always looked forward to going to Fuller’s bookstore or Archives in Pasadena. They have stayed the course over the years. We need to support our local bookstores. Thank you for reminding us.

  11. Kevin from CBD

    Prof. Stackhouse,

    I have just read your post and as an employee of Christian Book Distributors, I would like to thank you for being a CBD customer for so many years. The company was started in Ray’s parent’s garage in 1978, so you are one of the company’s original customers. We have found that our customer loyalty is unparalleled and allows us to serve the Christian community in great ways that smaller Christian bookstores are often unable to.

    Although we are now also, CBD still sends out millions of catalogs every year. In fact, we have done many surveys that show customers receiving our catalogs in the mail, become more aware of products available in the Christian industry, and then choose to purchase them at CBD or their local bookstore. While, as a business, we would obviously prefer for everyone to order from CBD, we also believe that there is a ministry side to what we do. Thus we are more than happy when customers become aware of new products through us and purchase from their local bookstore. If that is what it takes to spread God’s Word, than we are more than happy to provide this service.

    I also found it very interesting that you referenced Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary as it is an institution that we have, and continue to work with very closely due to the relative proximity of our locations. In fact, we have many GCTS graduates who work throughout our company. However, the reason that I found this the most interesting is that GCTS has recently partnered with our Christian Book Group to create a co-branded bookstore for their students to buy their books:

    We believe that this will be an excellent fit for both parties as we were able to take something that we do very well – selling books – and help a great institution concentrate on what they do very well – providing their students with the tools and knowledge they need to spread the Word of God to the rest of the World. In addition, when students purchase their books through the co-branded website, a significant portion of each sale goes to support GCTS, providing income for the institution without having to run a bookstore.

    While this does not provide students the hands on experience of an on campus bookstore, it does provide a simple way for students, who generally do not have extra money to spend, to buy the books that they need at great prices. When arriving at GCTS/ site, students are able to browse by their department, class, and section and easily choose to buy some or all of the required and recommended books for each class they are taking in a given semester.

    It is true that we have grown significantly since 1980 in ways that we never could have imagined, including partnerships like the one with GCTS described above. We try everyday to provide people with tools they need to further their own faith as well as take the Word of God to places it has never been before.

    Thank you again Prof. Stackhouse for your time and your post.


    Kevin from CBD

  12. John Stackhouse

    Dear Brother Kevin,

    Thanks for the greetings. Again, I’m glad for CBD past and present.

    Your last several paragraphs about your website with Gordon-Conwell, however, strike me as at almost complete variance with the point I’m making in my post about the importance of bookstores. In fact, one might find take it to be a sort of “infomercial as rejoinder,” an odd genre of comment indeed.

    As financially profitable as this new venture might be for CBD, Gordon-Conwell, and students who want to buy only textbooks during their seminary years, my post is trying to suggest that there is more at stake than financial advantage in book shopping.

    You do allow earlier in your comment that CBD’s catalogues prompt people to buy books at Christian bookstores. That’s good news, and maybe they do, although I’d be interested to know what data you have to support that assertion. Otherwise, I’m afraid your post nicely confirms, paradoxically enough, the points I’m trying to make.

  13. tim e

    funny you should have the mention of regents book store in your blog. yesterday my wife and i went to ubc to the museum of anthropology. we then were going to go to the regent bookstore in the same vicinity…supposedly. no signs anywhere of how to find regent college or the bookstore so we just gave up. i would gladly have spent money at the store, but was frustrated by lack of signage.

  14. John Stackhouse

    Well, it’s really not in the same vicinity. In fact, it’s all the way across UBC’s campus, one of the largest in Canada.

    Regent is pretty prominently located at Gate 1 of UBC, at the intersection of two of its major roads. And we’re hard to miss, with a large public park and windtower marking our spot, as well as our signs.

    So I’m sorry you missed us. Come back, now, y’hear?

  15. David Wood

    Dear John,
    As a former employee of Regent Bookstore and now a frequent pilgrim to the bookstore, I couldn’t agree more with your post. I’ve noticed that many comments posted have discussed the cost of books at theological bookstores compared to Amazon. I am reminded of Bruce Waltke’s teaching about the ethics of paying a fair price for an item. The reality of the market is such that books may always be cheaper at Amazon, CBD, etc. However, if the prices listed at places like Regent Bookstore are fair prices, then pay a fair price- regardless of whether Costco has it cheaper.

  16. Patrick Friesen

    The economics of the publishing business cannot sustain the long-term survival of a theological bookstore. There is too much competition – with online stores like amazon and chapters offering free shipping with orders over $40 the savings is realized immediately by shopping online.

    If theological bookstores want to remain at least somewhat competitive they are forced to employ sales staff who know more about the latest chick-lit then they know about the latest apologetic title. My experience has been that the staff are knowledgeable about where in the store the item may be located, but wouldn’t have much of a clue about comparative selections on a given topic.

    There are other ways to stay on top of the latest offerings on given subject matter. One is to read journals; the other is to bookmark the catalogs of theological publishers. A final way is to consult with colleagues and listen to what books they are reading.

    There is a nostalgic sentiment that I have toward a good bookstore. The arguments for a bookstore are valid, yet impractical in our current economic climate.

    One sarcastic suggestion would be that perhaps some of the stimulus money that has been wasted on unprofitable car companies should be shared propping up the theological bookstore business.

  17. Clay Knick

    The best bookstore I’ve ever visited is Hearts & Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, PA near York. It is a fantastic place to buy and browse books about theology, biblical studies, ministry, history, & a host of other related subjects. Byron Borger’s knowledge of books old and new is incredible (he & his wife Beth own and operate the bookstore.) If you are ever in the area check it out and giver yourself plenty of time to browse!

  18. Robert Angison

    When faced with saving money or spending it most seminary students choose to save the money.

    One point that has been mentioned slightly is the changing nature of book publishing. Within the next 5 years we are going to see a massive shift thanks in large part to the Kindle and eBook Reader wars. The whole face of publishing has to change. There is really no reason I should be forced to pay nearly full price for the CD-ROM version of (for instance) the Word Biblical Commentary when it is just a digital copy. But I digress…

    One thing that many theological bookstores do have over the online resources is knowledge and an environment. If they were to become more diversified and offer a welcoming place to read, discuss, and engage over important topics of theology and life while still offering their wares they could see things become better. Yet the reality is that this whole business will change within 10 years.

    Right now I buy books for a large variety of sources (mostly online.) It is more a situation for economic saving than anything…these research doctorates are expensive enough as it is…

    You are the Church!
    Robert Angison

  19. landoklassen

    Thank you, Thank you Professor Stackhouse for your compelling thoughts. I have been selling Christian books at House of James, in Abbotsford for the last 36 years.( Have seen many changes over the decades, have seen many stores come and go.

    I think there is still a place in our communities for our kind of bookstore- the ones that seem to be thriving are having to adapt and change to meet the changing marketplace. Some are adding coffeehouses, live music, and broadening the book categories. Bookstore employees have to become more knowledgeable with the books and have to build relationships with the customers. Booksellers need to understand the needs and desires of the clients. In many cases we have lost business to the internet because we were no longer engaging and relevant.

    I want to thank everyone who still shops in a physical bookstore, we need you and we appreciate your business and comments- And again, a huge thank you to John Stackhouse for raising these important concerns.
    We carry on– if any of you are near Abbotsford come and see us.

  20. Ben Wright

    The other thing you can’t do through Amazon or CBD is SMELL the books…any other book smellers out there? I always smell a book before I buy it – just throwing that out there.

    I was at Regent’s bookstore just three weeks ago. Picked up a zipper closure pocket-sized ESV and was pleasantly surprised to receive 20% off.

    I’ve forwarded a link to this post to the manager of the bookstore at Tyndale Seminary – the school that I attend.

  21. Kevin from CBD

    Dear Professor Stackhouse,

    Thank you for your response. There certainly are advantages to holding the book in your hand, or even smelling it as Ben Wright has suggested. We are unable to provide that hands-on experience, but we do have product experts, including some GCTS students and grads, and they love to talk to people about theological books – much like a knowledgeable bookstore person would. And our surveys indicate that many customers receiving our catalogs use them simply as a resource for Christian product awareness.

    In regards to GCTS, the seminary had already “down-sized” the bookstore before we ever spoke to the seminary about an on-line store. During our discussions, we encouraged the seminary to keep the bookstore open – with books, not just sweatshirts and mugs. Our encouragement was precisely for many of the reasons you articulated in your blog. By partnering with us, students who choose to make on-line purchases can financially benefit the seminary – instead of giving all the financial benefit to an unconcerned on-line retailer. But more importantly, we are delighted that our partnership enables a small version of the GCTS bookstore to remain open…for the sale, handling, and even smelling of theological books.


    Kevin from CBD

  22. Alison

    I respectfully disagree; I distinctly prefer the pros/cons to online shopping than real life shopping. I do support my local Christian bookstores, but I feel I receive far more relevant information from online browsing than in real life. 19 times out of 20, the book that I stumbled upon, and now cherish, was found by online recommendations from my purchase history or through browsing readers with similar interests’ book lists. It has happened in the local bookstores, certainly, but I feel like the multitude of reviews from online are far more informative than a single bookstore employee, and due to the digital environment rather than concrete environment, there’s more ways to cross-reference and stumble upon books.

  23. Henry Cullihall

    If by Christian you mean fundamentalist/Evangelical stores yes they are in decline because large bookstores like McNally Robinson and Chapters carry their material;at least the stars (like Dobson and Swindoll) at a cheaper price. Those stores do a pretty good bussiness.

    Next to the F/E at an expanding Religious section I bought, “The Nag Hammaddi Text in English.” works by Elaine Pagels, Harold Bloom and
    Timothy Freake.
    I would gladly buy them at Hull’s the largest Christian(OMG) book store in Winnipeg but they don’t carry texts of this nature.

    The Advanced book exchange, (ABE’s Books)a second hand venue carry every concievable title;books in good shape and cheaper. Money’s tight everywhere now as you know.

    Henry Cullihall

  24. John Stackhouse

    Please note, Brother Henry, that I’m not defending just any Christian bookstore. Heavens, no! I’ve been frustrated by most Christian bookstores I have visited, in fact, for the reasons that have been noted widely elsewhere.

    I’m talking about good stores, the ones that offer the benefits I list. If a store doesn’t give you value for money, of course you should take your custom elsewhere.


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