When I was growing up we regularly visited our local Christian bookstore, “Scriptural Supplies” (could you get a less commercially savvy name than that?!). I have a lot of good memories visiting the store and purchasing modest toys and “Christian candy” when I was young and books and music when I grew older. (While I preferred Van Halen and Journey, my mom would never pay for that music, but she would buy Stryper and Petra.)
As I entered university, my book selection shifted to titles that I purchased in the university bookstore. And without my mom’s subsidies, my music selection shifted firmly into the secular market. By the mid-nineties I had left the Christian bookstore behind.
Even worse, I began to look at the Christian bookstore with a growing sense of cynicism as I came to see the wide range of “Christian” products (“Would anybody like a ‘Testamint’ for fresh and holy breath?”; “Check out my new WWJD? bracelet!”) as a cynical attempt to exploit a gullible market segment with kitsch and bric-a-brac (and kitschy bric-a-brac).
I was appalled when I walked into one Christian bookstore and saw that their discount shelf was marked with a gaudy buzzing neon sign that declared “Publishers Wailing Wall”. But my cynicism hit a new depth when the “Blessings” chain of Christian bookstores in Canada announced that they would now be open on Sundays so that they could better serve the ministry needs of their Christian patrons. So now Blessings could wait on standby in case any churches ran out of communion cups mid-service. How selfless!
This cynicism didn’t stop me from doing a book launch at the Edmonton Blessings for my book Finding God in the Shack. While the experience of sitting like a moron in a chair beside a stack of books even as customers avoided eye-contact was deeply traumatizing (you can read my full account here), I was nonetheless thankful to Blessings for the opportunity.
Interestingly, the day I did my launch was the manager’s last day at the store: after many years working in a Christian bookstore he was now entering retirement. Throughout that long day we had some good chats (yes, I’m so old that I describe short conversations with people as “chats”) and he recalled that the one thing he would miss most was the people. He recalled occasions when, for example, a grieving widow would come into the store looking for something for her husband’s wake. And in the process, the manager would be able to share with her and pray for her. He clearly viewed the store as a ministry to the community as much as a commercial space to sell praise CDs and Precious Moments knick knacks.
But the writing was on the wall. While a few Christians stopped going to Christian bookstores for the same cynical reasons that motivated me, others were drawn by better deals at Walmart, Costco (both of whom wisely began targeting this demographic) and of course, Amazon.com. Eventually the counsel of a pastoral manager could no longer justify a 30% markup.
The other day when I drove by Blessings I observed that it had gone out of business. When I went online to find out when it had closed, I discovered that it had shuttered its doors back in January, almost six months ago.
No surprise, I won’t miss Blessings. And fortunately the Kingdom of God will advance whether the Christian bookstore survives or not. But there is a tinge of nostalgia for the familiar space of Scriptural Supplies with the parental subsidies for Christian music. And there is more than a tinge of respect and admiration for folks like that manager at Blessings who used a commercial space as a place of personal ministry and community outreach.