This past week I came across a very insightful article by James Stewart in the Wall Street Journal about the current situation at Barnes and Noble. After describing why he felt that B&N was not a good current investment, he went on to share his thoughts about independent book retailers. This is what he said:
“I do miss the bookstore I grew up with in the Midwest and the small stores that once dotted my neighborhood. Could B&N’s decline pave the way for the return of the independent bookseller? Despite the array of suggestions tailored to my interests (or at least to my recent purchases) that appear when I open the Amazon site, I still yearn for someone intelligent who can recommend a good book. I enjoy the community of other people who love books. I like talking to someone both before buying a book and after reading it. I think independent bookstores may be able to provide these services even while selling over the Internet. Their overhead should be lower, since they don’t need to carry huge inventories of physical books and don’t need huge retail spaces. Maybe I’m naive, but I’d like to think there are new opportunities for booksellers.”
After reading these highly encouraging words, a terrible thought struck me. Are we independent Christian book retailers really going to be able to provide the experience that he remembers and still longs for? With all the stores that have closed and with so many great long term retailers having gotten out of the business, are we who are left really able to take up this mantel effectively? After about two minutes of wallowing in the possibility that we might be doomed after all, the optomist in me returned and I began to get excited again.
I think that the key to what James Stewart was saying resides in the words intelligent, community and people who love books. Over the years it has been my observation that the Christian retailers who loved what they did and were successful were book people and hired book people. To my dismay, however, on all too many occasions, I ran into colleagues who confessed that they did not read much. The two reasons that I was given for this surprising reality was either they were too busy running their stores or they actually did not enjoy reading. In our current economic environment I have come to the conclusion that we must all become avid readers or we will die and maybe faster than Barnes and Noble.
For those who say that they are too busy to read, I refer you to the excellent Bill Hybel’s book entitled, Too Busy Not to Pray and I would contend that we are too busy not to read. No Christian retailer worth their salt can afford to ignore this aspect of their business. We all need to commit to put down our IPODs and cell phones, turn off our televisions, and take a Facebook fast. Making time every day and certainly every week to immerse ourselves in books and authors that God has given us the privilege to represent has to be one of our biggest business priorities.
This may be a little harsh, but for those that say that they really do not enjoy reading, I would suggest that maybe they are in the wrong business or they need to reconsider their priorities. For most of us who do enjoy reading, it is one of the greatest joys in our lives. If a person is running a Christian retail store and really does not enjoy reading and still wants to stay in the business, they must at least have someone on their team who loves to read and can help instill this passion in the rest of the team.
So why am I optimistic after all? This past summer, I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of young college students who were interns with our ministry and discovered that they really enjoyed reading, were intelligent and longed to build the types of community settings that James Stewart talked about in his article. We had lots of conversations about authors, ideas and books that were shaping their lives. These folks are the next generation of Christian retailers, writers, editors and Christian book consumers. I firmly believe that they will work for current Christian retailers if we give them opportunities to take on significant responsibilities within our operations and even for the modest wages that we can afford. Their enthusiasm will infect our customers and may even re-energize those of us who have been around for a while wondering if we can still keep going.
Reading is not optional for us as Christians and retailers, it is essential. Praise God that he has gifted so many people to put words together in such a way that they can actually change lives. I am eternally in debt to the writers that have affected my life and I am committed to sharing this passion for reading with all those that I come in contact with. The next time that I am tempted to simply “vegetate” in front of the TV, I am going make sure that I have a book nearby that can help me to overcome that momentary and passing temptation.