Magazine article Newsweek

The Almighty Dollar; Christian Bookstores Go Bust after Chains Find Religion

Magazine article Newsweek

The Almighty Dollar; Christian Bookstores Go Bust after Chains Find Religion

Article excerpt

Byline: Peg Tyre

After nearly a decade of steady sales, Richard Ellingsworth, co-owner of GreenLeaf, a Christian bookstore in Towson, Md., started feeling the squeeze. In 2000, Barnes & Noble moved nearby and began selling Christian books for less. Ellingsworth started discounting, but a short time later, Wal-Mart and Best Buy moved into the affluent Baltimore suburb, too. After three years of dismal sales, Ellingsworth is closing his store in March. He's trying not to be bitter. "The good news is that more people are being exposed to Christian ideas," he says. While it's bad news for him personally, "I'm not in this just for me."

That kind of selfless attitude seems almost quaint in what is rapidly becoming the dog-eat-dog world of Christian bookselling. The titles have never been hotter: "The Prayer of Jabez," "The Purpose-Driven Life" and the "Left Behind" series have carved out a permanent berth on best-seller lists from coast to coast. But that success has attracted big book chains and discount retailers that are aggressively taking over the market, selling Christian books often at a steep discount. In 2003, 271 of the 2,700 or so Christian retailers closed their doors. Bill Anderson, president of the CBA, the Christian booksellers trade association, estimates that 200 more are sputtering. The independents, says Anderson, "have been thrust from a protected specialty niche into an open field with a price-driven market." The retail climate, says Anderson, is "the worst it's been in 30 years."

Christian booksellers say that Christian publishers are partly to blame. Enticed by the prospect of turning Christian-community favorites into household names, Christian publishers are undercutting the independents in favor of the chains. Jo Panter, co-owner of the Rainbow Bookstore in Traverse City, Mich., says she's found top Christian titles retailing at her local Sam's Club for just a dollar more than she can buy them wholesale. …

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