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CBD is now christianbook.com, and newsprint catalogues have been replaced by websites.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 Amazon.com (“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 Amazon.com and christianbook.com are all that’s left. Let’s see that truth before it’s too late.

We will get what we pay for.

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