The flailing Christian bookstore industry reached code red status earlier this year when Family Christian Stores, touted as “the world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise,” declared it would shutter all of its 240 stores across America and lay off 3,000 employees.
Back in the 1990s, it often seemed that every city and town in America had a strip mall with a Christian bookstore where you could purchase WWJD bracelets and enough devotional books to fill up the Ark of the Covenant. But today, these Christian bookstores are a dying breed. Indeed, it seems we are fast approaching an America where this particular brand of religious retailer will be no more than a memory.
Over the last decade, Christian bookstores across the nation have been shuttering. In some cases, consumers are just less interested in the stores’ God-blessed inventory. But plenty of others are just opting to purchase religious items from online retailers, with Christian bookstores humbled before the same digital market forces that felled secular mom-and-pop bookstores.
The flailing Christian bookstore industry reached code red status earlier this year when Family Christian Stores, touted as “the world’s largest retailer of Christian-themed merchandise,” declared it would shutter all of its 240 stores across America and lay off 3,000 employees. The 85-year-old chain said that “changing consumer behavior and declining sales” left it no choice.
Given the state of the industry and larger retailing trends, Family Christian Stores’ closure is seen by many as a harbinger of things to come. If trends persist, Christian bookstores may well be destined for the history books.
But Christian consumers should not let their hearts go troubled. This trend may turn out to be good news for the faithful.
Christian publishing has long been a presence in American life. But it was a renewed desire to evangelize the world following World War II that fueled the modern rise of Christian publishing, which focused mostly on Bibles and gospel tracts at the time. In 1950, the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) formed in response to the growing need to connect and equip Christian product providers in the marketplace.
As time passed, religious retailers slowly spread across America and expanded their offerings. Then the industry truly exploded during the 1970s, and the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) was formed in 1974 to help give these new religious storeowners a chance to network and strategize.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly which cultural trend triggered the renewed interest in Christian content, but the American cultural revolution in the ’60s and ’70s seems like a plausible candidate. A perfect storm of progressive social change movements — from civil rights to feminism, anti-war protesting to environmentalism — swept across America. Many traditionalist Christians felt as if their religious values were under siege. In response, these believers mobilized and became more visible and vocal. The cultural unrest created an opportunity for printed content that spoke to these Christians’ concerns and anxieties.
In 1970, Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth rocked the marketplace with claims that the biblical end of the world was fast approaching. Bantam picked up the title in 1973, making it the first Christian prophecy book released by a secular publisher, and it went on to sell more than 30 million copies. The Living Bible was the bestselling non-fiction title of 1972 and 1973, and Billy Graham’s Angels was the bestselling non-fiction title of 1975. The mainstream success of books like these proved that a hungry market of religious readers existed in America.
The trend continued to build. In December 1983, an Associated Press article titled “Christian book sales are booming” relayed that Christian booksellers had grown by 20 to 25 percent over the past decade.
As Sue Smith, president of CBA notes, industry growth continued into the ’90s thanks to several breakout bestsellers. “People who would never walk into a Christian store suddenly would come in for The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life, and the Left Behind series,” she says. Each of these titles became #1 New York Times bestsellers.
In the late ’90s, however, the advent of the digital age began to transform the way Americans shopped and consumed media. The rise of online retailers created stiff competition for brick-and-mortar stores. The absence of rent, real estate, and large staffs allowed these emerging distributors to offer deep discounts that traditional booksellers simply could not match. The internet also created options for authors to affordably self-publish their work and distribute it straight to consumers. This, combined with a sharp decline in book sales generally and the rise of reduced price e-books, ate into publishers’ profits.