Celebrating the Weird and Wonderful

It was nearly twenty years ago when I first met Rick and Susan.  Our little bookstore in Philadelphia had begun to grow and I went on a reconnaissance trip to Dallas.  I figured that if I wanted to learn about how to run a great Christian bookstore, why not visit the buckle of the Bible belt where there were more Christian stores at that time than in any other part of the country.  For a new Christian retailer like myself, it was like visiting the Mecca of our industry or more like seeing Disneyland for the first time.  I saw stores that were so big that four of our little store would have fit neatly inside the front half of the bookstore.  I saw stores that had gift departments bigger than my store and I saw stores that had Christian education sections selling as much paper goods as Staples.  Most of these larger stores had adopted the “runway” model with a different color carpet or tile for the walking area and another color under the fixtures themselves.  This created a clear path for the customer to find their way around the store.  In some of the stores, this was helpful, but I still felt like I needed a map to effectively navigate my way around.

At the end of my trip in Dallas, I decided to stop by a smaller store that I had been hearing about and that was when I met Rick and Susan.  Their store was not much bigger than mine in Philadelphia and had a totally different approach to Christian retailing.  Instead of trying to be all things to all people, they had chosen to be really important to a particular group of people.  As you walked into the store, you could tell right away that something was different.  Instead of “cookie cutter” fixtures from the latest store design catalog, they had a custom-built checkout counter that was as interesting as anything else in the store.  Their book selection was highly curated for the thoughtful Christian reader and I noticed the largest selection of C.S. Lewis titles I had ever seen in a Christian bookstore.  So much of what they were doing seemed counter intuitive to what I was being told about how to run a great Christian bookstore and yet it seemed to be working.

Recently, I saw Rick and Susan again.  They were attending the annual meeting of the Association of Logos Stores to which their store belonged and I had been asked to speak to the group.  So much has happened over these twenty years in the Dallas market that I could not help but think back to that trip I took years ago.  Today, many of those mega-Christian stores are closed and the largest chain of Christian stores in the country which had several stores in Dallas was liquidated this year.  Trying to be all things to all people even in the “buckle of the Bible belt” was apparently not working anymore.  Despite this, Rick and Susan’s store was still open and their strategy was still working.  They meant something special to the community they served and the community continued to support them.  Ironically, this was true for most of the Logos stores I met that day.

The Logos store owners are a group of weird and wonderful people.  Founded in the late 1960s during the birth of the Jesus people movement, this fiercely independent group of stores made it their business not to be like every other Christian bookstore.  Sometimes located in college towns, they sought to meet the needs of thinking Christians, doubters and seekers of truth.  This meant that their stores often carried a more eclectic selection of books from smaller publishing houses and even books from some secular publishers as well.  Most importantly, these stores were owned and operated by “book people” who read what they sold and were able to make recommendations that mattered to their local community.  While not all of these stores has survived the economic tsunami that our industry has faced in recent years, a strong core group is still serving their communities in places as far flung as Hawaii and Manhattan.

In speaking to the group, I affectionately referred to them as weird because they had not bought into all the latest and greatest training techniques and ideas that everyone else in the industry had.  Instead, they kept plugging away at being great Christian booksellers.  They spent time researching books, meeting with reps, reading the actual books themselves and continuing to daily curate a selection of books that mattered to their community.  Now they are poised for something new.  Instead of discussing consolidation, which is the trendy word these days for downsizing, they are planning for growth.  Some are considering how they could open a kiosk or mobile book stand.  Others are thinking about partnerships with local churches that might function as mini extensions of their bookstore on the weekends.  Still others are praying about whether or not this is the time to open a second location in their town.  Becky Gorczyca, the head of the Logos Association, is now actively courting new stores to join the group and looking forward to seeing how God can use the weird and wonderful to bless the world one local community at a time.

 

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