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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A Mad Dash Down the Aisle

I was trying to keep up, but it was not easy.  My mentor and boss, Clara, was showing me the ropes of my first Christian Booksellers Trade Show (nearly twenty years ago now) and I was exhausted.  We had been going from publisher to publisher placing orders, looking at new books and quickly moving on to our next appointment.  Somehow, we visited and placed orders with eighty different vendors that week.  In preparation for this trade show, Clara had spent considerable time reviewing catalogs, checking in-store inventory and preparing orders.  It all seemed so time consuming and overwhelming.  The trade show itself extended over an area larger than several football fields put together and just getting from one appointment to the next could give you a good work out.  Was all of this really necessary?

As the years flew by, I became the manager of the bookstore, installed new technology, read extensively about best practices and attending training seminars and workshops.  We began using the internet to look up product information and place orders and learned about the benefits of just-in-time inventory.  One of our distribution partners was located in the same state and we had the great fortune of being able to place orders by 4PM and got next day delivery and free freight.  If our primary book distributor did not have something in stock, we simply cascaded the order to another distributor and never had to deal with the book publisher at all.  Who needed product catalogs and long meetings with reps if you could look everything up on a website?  Efficiency was king.  We were dashing into the future.

Over time, we got really good at using our technology.  The young people we hired learned our systems quickly and even taught us “older folks” a thing or two.  Then it happened.  So much change had happened in such a reasonably quick period of time from when I had first started that I didn’t notice it at first.  One day I was listening to one of our team members helping a customer and it became clear there was a disconnect.  The customer has asked for a particular book by a well-known author of the past and this team member had never heard of it.  She offered to do a quick product search on the computer and nothing came up right away.  Without blinking an eye, my colleague turned to the customer and said, “I’m sorry, it doesn’t look like we can get that book for you.”  Since I had been trained by Clara many years before never to give up that quickly when helping a customer, I offered to do some research and get back to her.  We called the publisher of the book and learned that the book was still in print, but had a slightly different title and a new ISBN number.   At that moment, it struck me that maybe this was not our first customer that had been disappointed by our technology.

When that light-bulb went on, I began to listen and observe our customer interactions more and more and realized that we were frequently defaulting to what was available in the system.  This was also true for the way that we ordered.  We simply allowed this wonderful technology to tell us what had sold well in the past, what we were currently out of stock of and what was a suggested order.  While this does work pretty well, it does not account for new items that we had never had in stock before or unique items our customers wanted that were not in the system at all.  Something had to change.  We had to become curators again and not simply good technologists.  In fact, it was time to embrace the lessons of the past.

Abandoning the technology was not the solution, but using it differently was.  We needed to take time to meet with vendors again, learn from their vast product knowledge and then apply our store metrics and systems to their suggestions.  More importantly, we had to find way to become great booksellers again.  This would involve actually reading new books that were being suggested to us, listening to customer recommendations, becoming detectives to discover “the next big thing” and reading blogs and on-line book reviews on a regular basis.  Then we had to share our stories again.  I remembered how Clara used to rave about particular books and authors she loved and how those moments impacted our customers.  That needed to become our reality as well.  A simple question like, “What are you reading right now?” became a great conversation starter with our teammates and customers.

As I head to the International Christian Retail Show in Cincinnati in a week, I am looking forward to interacting with the next generation of bookstore owners and managers and encouraging them to follow this path.  While most will not be placing eighty orders and the trade show floor is considerably smaller these day, the lessons of the past still hold.  We need strong partnerships with our publishers if we are going to run successful Christian bookstores.  We need to be more committed than ever to be subject matter experts that are “ready in season and out” to help make life changing recommendations to our customers and to love what we are doing as we open the doors every day.

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Peace at Last

We watched in silence as the man and woman in white Naval uniforms folded the flag.  I had never seen anything like this and had never been to a military funeral before.  Bob Hornish, who had served his country faithfully in the 1940s, was being laid to rest and being given full military honors.  They folded the flag with such precision it was as if their life depended on it and they gave it to Bob’s oldest child and his only son.  This was a moment of honor and recognition that I will not soon forget.

Bob is my brother’s father-in-law and a very generous person.  He was a man who led by example and would not want people to know all the kind things he had done.  After leaving the military, he became a school teacher for his entire professional career.  As a committed believer, he made his local church, New Hyde Park Baptist in New York the nexus of his life.  It seems like there were very few tasks that he did not perform as a volunteer over the years.  Whether it was on the mission’s committee, serving as a deacon or working with the curriculum for Sunday school, he was always doing something to support the church and its growth.

I had the privilege of attending Bob’s memorial service the night before the burial and was deeply impacted by the people that shared about his impact on their lives.  Everyone from the janitor to a young man who grew up on the same street where Bob lived told of his love of life, love of his family and love for God and his church.  Over the years since my brother married his daughter, I had met Bob several times.  I cannot say that I knew him well, but what I did know, I liked.  He doted on his grandkids as if they were his own and took a genuine interest in others.  He wanted to get to know my family and even sent us gifts on occasion to support us in our missionary endeavors.

As the preacher spoke about Bob at the memorial service, my mind was drawn to a particular verse in 1 Thessalonians about how we are instructed to live our lives,

and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, 12 so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody

Bob did work with his hands a lot as model trains were both a hobby and passion for him.  You could not know Bob and not know about his love of trains.  His life was not always easy, but he faced his trials with a quiet confidence and faith that was an example to others.  At the memorial service, it was clear that a few “outsiders” were in attendance and it struck me that Bob’s life was not lived in vain.  Every day he lived, he did so as an example of leading a quiet Godly life and in death he left a legacy of faithfulness that will live on long after he is gone.

In an age when it seems that everyone is trying build a bigger and bigger social media platform (myself included), Bob chose a different path.  He didn’t care about a public persona and actually shunned the limelight.  Instead, he plugged away at the tasks that God had given him – loving others well.  The outpouring of love at his memorial service demonstrated that he had done his job well and could finally find his “peace at last”.

 

 

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Impossible – Difficult – Done

I was making travel arrangements when it hit me.  My two boys were going to be in a wedding and not as ring bearers.  They were old enough to be groomsmen for one of their best friends.  How did we get here so fast?  What happened to endless soccer practices and reminders about homework?  Then I read my last blog post and realized that I just wrote an entire post about pulling a muscle in my back.  What happened to that young guy who could play soccer all afternoon and help a friend move his apartment in the evening without even noticing a twinge?  OK – I admit it, I am a “man of a certain age” and definitely hitting that midlife hard.  In my case, it’s just with a little less concern about what crazy car I might purchase and more thought about how I might effectively use all this time.  Who knew that midlife came with extra time in the package and so many great choices about how to spend it.

This week, I met someone who is on the other side of midlife and still going strong.  Ed seems to have just begun to hit his stride after a life of accomplishment.  Not satisfied to work at a significant company in an important role, he stepped out and started his own when he was fairly young.  His ambition, however, was not to line his own pockets, but to see God’s kingdom expand and that the least of these have real opportunity.  Answering the call of a friend, he accepted the responsibility to help turn around a group of bookstores in Nigeria and led that effort for over a decade while still running his own company.  As those stores began to thrive again, he founded a not-for-profit with his son to make great Christian books available all over Africa at affordable prices.  In recent years, he has cheered and steered the efforts to help the Africa Study Bible become a reality all while serving on the board of strategically placed foundation.

When we met, Ed was excited, not to talk about the past, but to dream about the future.  He is convinced that something unique is going on in Africa with the proliferation of cell phone technology, the growth of print-on-demand equipment and the rising of African authors.  In his work with the African Study Bible, he had rubbed shoulders with numerous African theologians and authors, but was well aware of the lack of indigenous African publishing.   Is now the time for that to change?  Could a truly African publishing industry be developed and nourished so that in the years to come, it could flourish?  A younger man like me could see all the obstacles, but Ed seemed to simply see possibility and I began to catch his enthusiasm.  It was contagious.  Most really big visions are like this and Ed has really big vision.

As we were talking, he reminded me of a quote from the famous pioneering missionary, J. Hudson Taylor that had been a real motivator for him,

“I have found there are three stages to every great work of God: first it is impossible, then it is difficult, then it is done.”

Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish theologian and pastor once said, “Regardless of how large, your vision is too small.”  That thought seems to haunt Ed as he looks at the future.  In talking about his vision for indigenous publishing for Africa he admitted that we were in the dreaming stage when things seem impossible and he couldn’t wait to get to the difficult part.  With a wry smile on his face he looked at me and said the Africa Study Bible was once impossible, then difficult and now it’s done.

Thinking about the years ahead, I realize that I have not been promised even one more day, but I have been promised that God will be faithful.  Why not dream a little?  Can I believe that simply providing Christian books and Bibles to the world is not enough?  Will I settle for the conventional wisdom that says that Amazon, Google and Apple will provide all Christian books at some point in the not distant future?  No way – I choose to envision a different future where a band of bold believers remembers how books change lives and dedicates their lives to being a part of that change.  A world where new Christian authors emerge, new publishing methods are embraced and many more people find Jesus in the pages of a book. A world where the local Christian bookstore is once again an oasis in a cultural desert and a source of life in world gone mad.  I choose to be a person of peace and to push back the darkness right where God has placed me.  What adventure is right around the corner?  If Ed’s life is any indicator, it is something pretty big.

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Oh No I Didn’t

It happened and I didn’t even know it, at least not right away.  We had just finished an event this week and I was helping to clean up.  Everything had to be taken out of room and to our van and our portable sound system was next.  Without even thinking, I grabbed it with one hand and started walking.  I knew it was heavy, I knew I shouldn’t be carrying it by myself and yet there I was.  Later the same day, I unpacked our van and unloaded a heavy box of Bibles.  That box had to be moved to where it belonged and once again, I ignored my best instincts and hefted the box onto my shoulders and started walking.  Slowly, but surely, my body began to fight back.  By midafternoon, I was feeling a strange tingling in my leg and a growing ache in my back.  Sitting down didn’t feel so good.  I had made a big mistake.  In my haste to be helpful, I ignored good lifting techniques and now I was going to pay for it.  By that night I was in severe pain and knew that sleeping was going to be a challenge.

The next day, I was supposed to help our team clean out the basement of one of our stores and I was pretty useless.  I could barely get in and out of the van.  While I knew what needed to be done, I was not much help.  For all practical purposes, I was sidelined and I hated it.  How had this happened?  Simple.  I made some bad choices.  This time those choices had painful consequences.  Recovery would not be quick and I was going to have to make some different decisions in the weeks to come.  No more heavy lifting for a while and much more thought about how I lift heavy objects in the future.

As all this was happening and I was struggling to find a comfortable position for sleeping, I began to wonder how many other choices we face in life that are just like this.  How many times do we know what we are supposed to do and then do the opposite anyway?  In one of the most authentic and vulnerable verses in the Bible the Apostle Paul admits, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  How often do we take people for granted, refuse to pick up a phone and call someone or simply ignore a problem and hope that it will go away? Knowing what to do is one thing, actually doing it is another thing entirely – that takes courage.  Andy Crouch talks about this in his latest book, The Tech Wise Family.  He says, “…even though it’s incredibly hard to simply know what we should do, it’s even harder to act on what we know we should do.  Because almost all the time, the most faithful, the most loving, and the wisest thing to do is scary, hard and painful”

At the end of the week, I got to attend one of the most extraordinary events I have ever been to.  Our local church was celebrating the life of our Pastor, Ron Lutz, who is stepping down from his role as lead pastor after thirty years.  It was a wonderful night and an incredible celebration of one of the humblest men I have known.  As person after person spoke, a pattern began to emerge.  Without even realizing it, Ron had had an outsized influence far beyond the church he helped to plant.  Many young pastors that he had mentored have gone on to serve in key ministry positions at other churches.  His support of one of those men led to a church planting network of over eight daughter churches in the Philadelphia area.  One of the people who thanked Ron for his years of service that night was the renowned church planter and author, Tim Keller, who counts Ron as a friend.  Serving alongside Ron as one of the elders in our church, I know something about his leadership style.  He cares about the little things.  He made the tough choices to get involved in the mess of other people’s lives when it would have been easier to avoid it.  He pursued reconciliation and forgiveness and publicly admitted his mistakes.  He led by example and I am profoundly grateful for his influence in my life.  As I face tough choices ahead whether it be lifting properly or being willing to forgive someone who has hurt me, I have a Godly example in my pastor who was willing to do the scary, hard and painful things.  Now it’s my turn to make better choices.

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May 20, 2017 · 10:23 pm

The Power of Recommendation

Someone shared the story with me again this week.  I had nearly forgotten.  Several years ago, a distraught mother and her daughter came into our bookstore.  The mother was at her wits end and came right up to the counter to ask a question.  She was so desperate that she just blurted it out, “My daughter is suicidal and I don’t know what to do. Do you have anything that might help?”.  After thinking for a moment (and I am sure praying too), my colleague did what came natural, she recommended a book.  Instead of going to the self-help section or the counseling section, she went to the classics section, found a book by C.H. Spurgeon and handed it to this mother.  The book was called “Satan, A Defeated Foe” and dealt with the heart of the problem – our sufficiency in Christ and His power to conquer every problem, even suicidal tendencies.  To God’s glory, her daughter read the book and began the process of “taking every thought captive”.  Today, she is alive and her mother shares that story with anyone who asks.  While no one book is guaranteed to fix a person’s life, it is remarkable how the right one recommended at the right time can begin the process of life change that often seems so elusive.

At a time when our culture seems to get coarser by the day, getting a good book in someone’s hands can be remarkable act of kindness and community building.  Recently, I have been more and more curious about Russia and its relationship to the rest of the world.  Several weeks ago, I arrived at our Bible study group and discovered a bunch of books in the entrance way to our host’s home.  As I stepped through the door, Kevin (our host) told me he was getting rid of these and I was free to take one.  After looking through what was available, my eyes stopped on a biography of Peter the Great that had been a best seller at one time.  I picked it up and have not been able to put it down since.  Chapter after chapter have opened my eyes to a culture very different than my own and helped to explain a history that I had never heard before.  As I listen to the news about Russia these days, I see things through a different lens and can readily make connections from the past to the present.  I am no Russia expert now, but I have become much more sympathetic to a people have struggled greatly for their survival over many centuries.

Finding books to recommend has been one of the great joys of my life.  This typically starts by committing to reading widely, but also includes a lot of research.  At our annual conference this past month, we had a panel discussion on books that had impacted the lives of our team members.  It was remarkable to hear the diversity of perspectives and the different types of books that had been read.  Ironically the first panelist started with a book by C.S. Lewis and the last one finished with a book by Tolkien.  I love hearing how books have shaped a person’s thinking and perspective.  One of my favorite ways to discover great new books is to ask another trusted friend what they are reading and what they would recommend.  It is a wonderful conversation starter and can lead to all kinds of unique books and authors that I would never have considered.

Last weekend I attended a cookout with our Bible study group and the conversation turned to children’s books.  We were reminiscing about reading books like The Little House on the Prairie series and Pippi Longstocking.  It was remarkable to learn that many of us had read the same books and were impacted in similar ways by the authors and their stories.  I was so glad that my parents had introduced me to the Sugar Creek Gang right along with the Hardy Boys as those adventures captured my heart.  It is never too early to start reading and recommending great books.  You never know who might benefit from a book that has changed your life.

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Walking the Dog

I heard the sound and instantly knew what it was.  A little dog had awoken in my house and needed to go for a walk before we had another “accident” in the hallway.  This little animal had my attention and it was very clear that I was not going to be able to sleep any longer.  Like clockwork, nature was calling and she would not be denied.  Each morning for the last week, this same routine has played out and either my wife or I respond begrudgingly since this is not our dog and this is not our normal routine.  Our day had begun and the dog is charge whether we like it or not.

This little dog named Cheyenne belongs to my parents and most years they leave her with us while they go on vacation.  She is pretty well trained, but is now showing her age (thirteen dog years) and the requisite lack of bladder control.  So now our days are regulated by the number of hours between dog walks.  With the light lasting longer, Deb and I typically find ourselves taking a long walk with her in the evenings and shorter walks throughout the day.  Not surprisingly, these times with Cheyenne have provided us with a unique opportunity – a chance to change our routine and begin new habits. While walking the dog may be tedious, spending more quality time with Deb is not and truth be told, I look forward to these daily walks now.

Habits and their formation are a key part of the Christian life, both for good and for evil.  In an often-overlooked verse in the Bible, it says that “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.”  This decision to break with routine, to stay home from war opened an opportunity for temptation as David walked on the roof of his palace and saw Bathsheba bathing.  Not content to avert his eyes, he gave in to the temptation and had her husband killed in the process.  He would never be the same again.

This month, Christianity Today Magazine has a compelling feature article about self-control.  I loved the cover photo of a donut with a chunk bitten out of it.  Given that I love to eat, this caught my attention.  Self-control is one of those biblical virtues like goodness that we know is on the list but seems so impossible that we often ignore it.  In an attempt to justify this behavior, we talk about it in the same sentence as “works righteousness” and remind ourselves that we are saved by grace anyway.  At least that what I normally do when I see a plate of cookies or potato chips that I know I don’t need, but I really want.

Bradley Wright, the author of this insightful article talks about our automated behaviors as an elephant and our controlled behavior as the rider on the back of the elephant who can train the elephant to do what it wants.  Spiritually speaking, this elephant is our natural desires that we revert to without even thinking but must be controlled by a rider and in this case, Wright makes a strong case that our Holy Spirit enabled willpower is that rider.  At first, I thought this sounded pretty simplistic and almost stopped reading as I considered how ineffective willpower has been in my own life.  But I continued reading and loved his wisdom in pointing out the principle that willpower is like a muscle and that it gets stronger as it is exercised more and more.  He also pointed out that we are often weakest right after exercising some restraint and achieving victory in some small area of our lives.  How grateful I am that in every one of these moments, I am not alone and that I have a counselor, the Holy Spirit, who gives me the power to resist in the first place.

As we have been walking the dog this week, I noticed something.  The more we did it, the more it became a part of our routine and no longer such a burden.  In fact, looking for the dog leash as soon as we walk into the house has become second nature.  I guess this is how good habits begin, one dog walk at a time.  What am I going to do when my parents get back?  I guess I’ll just have to grab Deb by the hand and go for a walk anyway, but maybe not so early each morning.

 

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