Making a Difference – CRT 2017

With Jim Williamson and Geoff Bearham at CRT 2017

Something special is going on in the UK these days and I don’t mean Brexit.  After years of decline and contraction, Christian bookselling and publishing is beginning to look up again.  This was clearly evident at the Christian Resources Together Conference that just finished.  The energy, excitement and vibrancy of the attendees was palpable and the event has grown significantly.  After the demise of the Christian Booksellers Conference (CBC), Steve and Mandy Briars decided to try something entirely fresh and new when they founded CRT just a few short years ago.  Initially it was a modest gathering of likeminded Christian resource providers – both bookstores and publishers in a retreat like setting.  Speaker, Nick Page, joked that the first year was so small they had to huddle together just to keep warm.  This year, several hundred people came together to celebrate what God is doing and to learn from each other.  So many people signed up that the spacious Hayes Conference Center was not big enough and some had to get hotel accommodations off site.

I had been asked to come and share some insights from my book, The Bookstore that Matters, and hoped to be an encouragement and inspiration.  To my great surprise and joy, the time spent with folks who attended CRT was probably more of an encouragement to me than I was to them.  The format of the conference was very conducive to small group interactions and one on one conversations.  People were excited to see each other, to share their stories and to get ideas from fellow book lovers.  As an outsider, I received a warm welcome despite the frequent comments about “challenges” on the other side of the pond.

One of the most invigorating aspects of the conference was meeting new and younger people that are now getting involved.  Many come from secular companies and bring fresh insights and ideas and also a sense of passion and calling to this new type of work.   It was so refreshing to see how people are genuinely working together to overcome obstacles that we all face.  Some time ago, a private Facebook group was set up for the Christian retailers and publishers in the UK.  I am privileged to be a member of the group and have been amazed at how helpful people are to one another.  As soon as someone poses a question, another person is likely to respond in a matter of minutes.  This ongoing collaboration is making a real difference and people from all over the UK are actually “bearing one another’s burdens”.

Interestingly, innovation is taking place in the publishing world as well.  I met several people who have started publishing companies in recent years.  They are using print-on-demand technology to keep inventory costs to a minimum while allowing them to take risks on new books that might not have been published in the past.  Many of these books are of high quality and are being produced with proper editing and good cover design as well.  The CRT event welcomed authors to attend and they seem encouraged about the recent developments in the marketplace and the ability to get books produced with a variety of potential publishing partners.

The format of the conference is clearly one of the keys to its success. Emphasis is given to training, worship, learning, speakers, author presentation, etc.  The trade show aspect is actually not the highest priority.  While there were many vendors present and attendees did visit these booths and appreciated what was being presented, this was done in a very low key and collaborative way.  No high pressure sales tactics or coercive marketing techniques were being deployed.  Working together was the key ingredient and people genuinely seemed to love being together.  Well done Steve and Mandy. I hope to come again some future year.

With Jim and Elizabeth George at CRT 2017



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Resistance Will Adjust

I was just getting started on the elliptical machine at the gym (OK, yes this is a real story and not just my optimistic imagination gone wild) when I noticed the words on the machine – Resistance will Adjust.  I had noticed that the harder I worked out, the machine kept making changes and now I knew why – it was simply adjusting to my pace.  The more effort I exerted, the more it seemed to make the work out that much more strenuous.  The simple response would be to slow down my pace, but the longer I worked out the more I stopped noticing the machines adjustments and simply paid attention to my heart rate.  That was the point – paying attention to my heart rate and keeping it at the right level.  The machine was not my enemy, but simply a facilitator of my goal – no matter how hard it seemed at first.

This past week, I got one of those texts that leaders never like to get.  One of our colleagues in Central Asia had just suffered a tragedy when one of their children had fallen out of second story window and they were on the way to the hospital.  This would have been difficult enough in any circumstance, but this family had already been having a pretty tough year.  Our spiritual enemy was clearly not happy about their work and resistance was adjusting.  Right before that news, I had been praying for two CLC authors who were pastors in Houston Texas and were dealing with the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey on their community.  They had taken a huge risk in leaving a large well-known church and had planted a church together that was now growing and the gospel was flourishing – and then the storm hit. Resistance was adjusting.

Far too often I think that we in the west are like the frog in the kettle.  Our enemy is at work all around us and we seem oblivious.  The spiritual temperature is rising and we are none the wiser.  We may notice the big things like the evidence of moral decay all around us, but we seem unable to notice the increasing hostility between fellow believers.  Somehow the pot is beginning to boil and we don’t even realize we are in the water.  C.S. Lewis spoke to this issue in his book The Screwtape Letters when he said, “Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”  So, what is one to do?  How do we keep a clear focus on reality in a culture of distortion and subterfuge?

I think the answer lies in paying attention to our hearts.  What are we enamored by?  What captures our passions, our time and our energy?  The irony of the maturing Christian life is that learning to resist the enemy is not the real answer to growing as a Christian.  In fact, self-motivated resistance is actually exactly what our enemy wants.  Instead, we are called to a life of surrender, patience, listening and obedience.  When we are weak, He is strong.  I used to think that building my “faith muscles” was exactly what God wanted, but now it seems like not seeing my muscles at all is His actual goal for my life.   When I experience victory in my life over sin, it is because He has grown more powerful and I am have embraced His will despite how painful that might be.  There is nothing that bothers our enemy more than seeing a Christian recognize their own weakness and begin submitting every thought and action to the will of their heavenly father.

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An Enriched Life

It had been an impactful week already when I first saw the picture.  I was co-hosting a gathering of our team leaders from all over the Americas and we were sharing our stories.  Our Uruguay team leader Humberto was telling us about their mobile ministry where they use a van to take books and Bibles to remote villages and towns.  In the picture, an old man sat at a wooden table in a very simple home.  He did not seem to have much of worldly value and I wondered if he could even read.  Humberto smiled as he showed us the picture and then proceeded to the next image that showed several bookshelves of books and  chairs.

As it turned out, this man -Alberto – could not only read, but he was one of their best customers.  He had been buying and reading books for a long time and they were his treasure.  He took the time to number every one of the books and was even in the habit of lending them to other people in his church.  His collection was so large that it was really a small library.  Books had changed his life and he wanted to share that experience with others no matter what economic conditions they lived in.  He had invested his own limited resources in things that would matter for eternity.

This story from Uruguay had powerful resonance as we listened to the plight of our team in Venezuela.  The last few years have been a time of struggle and suffering as the economy of the country has collapsed and people cannot even find basic food and medicine.  Over the years, our local team had grown to eleven stores and a warehouse and had been a catalyst in the significant growth of the evangelical church in this part of the world.  They had also used vans and other vehicles as a part of a mobile ministry to take books to remote areas.  Now they have almost no books in the warehouse and very few books on the store shelves.  It is truly a season of mourning and lament in this once prosperous nation.

In a time when almost no one has money for new books in Venezuela, I couldn’t help but wonder how many old men had stockpiled their treasured books for just such a time as this.  Now that electricity is intermittent and it is often dangerous to leave the house because of protests and violence in the streets, it may time for people to take some of the books off the shelves and read them once again.  I can imagine that many people are reading and sharing books all over the country as they remind one another that God has a plan for them – a plan to prosper them and not harm them, plans to give them a hope and a future.  This may even be the beginning of a spiritual revival as God grips the hearts of his hurting people and reminds them of His love through the pages of His word that was purchased many years ago.

Getting books to “the least of these” in remote places all over Latin America is a hallmark and legacy of our global ministry.  In Ecuador, the local team even makes periodic trips up the rivers and into the jungles to visit the indigenous tribes with books ad Bibles.  Carlos, our team leader, remarked that it was amazing how hungry they are for new resources and that they often saved up their money to be able to purchase whatever was available.  He said that many of the tribespeople were Christians and the fruit of missionary work that had taken place over one hundred years ago.  They not only purchased and read the books we provided, but they are growing in their faith and some even had deep theological questions for our team.

Spending the week with my CLC family members who are diligently exploring new ways to make evangelical Christian literature available to all nations renewed my vision and passion for our work.  As I head back into the hustle and bustle of everyday work life this week, I know that I will be dealing with the reality that many of us face.  There will be the typical barrage of e-mails, meetings and projects vying for my attention and social media posts trying to fill every spare moment.  How I respond to this will be deeply impacted by that old man at the table with no computer, no phone and no internet.  He has challenges of his own, be he has chosen to live an enriched life by investing his money and time in things that will last and will change lives forever.

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Willing to Stay

This week I met a saint and he was dead.  No, I didn’t meet a ghost, I simply attended his memorial service and learned what true faithfulness really looks like.  Elwin Palmer was ninety-three when he went home to be with the Lord and had lived a full and impactful life, but not one that he had anticipated.  After serving in World War II, including participation in the Battle of the Bulge, he came back to the USA prepared to study Agricultural Engineering and to return to the poverty-stricken area of Mississippi where he grew up.  He hoped to make a real difference in the lives of the next generation of farmers and their families and he was on track to make that dream a reality when he met his wife.  Her commitment to world missions and his willingness to listen to the still small voice of the Lord led them to Colombia Bible College and then they joined WEC International.

WEC was founded by C.T. Studd and has always been a pioneering ministry.  Some people that knew Elwin felt that he too wanted to follow in CT’s footsteps and to be a pioneering missionary himself on the foreign field.  In the early days, Elwin helped the small WEC USA team get the campus in Fort Washington, PA ready for occupancy and spent many days and probably a lot of nights fixing windows and many other problems in the huge building that we call “the castle” today.  The large property in suburban Philadelphia had fallen into a major state of disrepair as it had been abandoned and then looted for several years.  My mother grew up in that building and often commented that the most important abilities of a missionary were flexibility and availability and Elwin exhibited those qualities every day.  After serving for a few years on the home staff of WEC USA and having gone through their candidate training program, Elwin was ready to leave for a foreign land to begin his “real” missionary career.

This never happened and it devastated him.  The leadership of WEC USA at that time did not feel that God was giving them a peace to release Elwin and his family to serve overseas and probably had good reasons for saying so.  Whatever those reasons were, it did not sit well with Elwin and he certainly experienced his dark night of the soul wrestling with God over that decision.  Despite this, Elwin submitted to God’s will and to the leadership decision and stayed on the team.  He didn’t quit, despite being recruited at one point by a college that wanted him to serve on their staff.  Over the years he served in a variety of positions and was known for his wisdom, humility and faithfulness.  In 1968, to his great surprise he was nominated and elected to serve as the WEC USA director and he did this for the next fifteen years.  Countless missionary families received training and preparation for service under his watchful care and went to the field to serve God in very difficult circumstances.

Elwin’s later years were not easy as he was faithful to his wife who suffered from illness for many years and he was her constant companion and prayer warrior.  I only knew Elwin from afar through the eyes of his daughter Grace who worked in our ministry.  Her quiet commitment to excellence as she proofread manuscripts was a testimony to her father and his training and example of living the deeper Christian life.  Saying yes to Jesus was the hallmark of Elwin’s life even though it meant hardship and disappointment at key moments along the way.  His willingness to lay down his own ambitions for a greater calling is an example that will live on as one of his greatest legacies.  Many leaders, including myself, would do well to follow in his humble footsteps and to learn to love Jesus the way he did.  Sometimes, God’s will is for us to stay in the place he has planted us even when it is really hard.


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What Are You Bringing?

So, I have a confession to make.  I am a huge fan of potluck picnics.  For those not familiar with this particular tradition, this is a combination of a typical outdoor barbecue with the twist that the guests are invited to bring a dish along to share with others.  Given that I like to grill and eat just about any type of meat that exists and am an extrovert, these events are often the highlight of my summer.  With one small exception.  Occasionally and I mean occasionally, these events can get partially derailed by that guest who brings something “special” that only they appreciate.  If you are a fan of potluck picnics, you know what I am talking about.  Somehow, they show up with a wilted salad, a left over vegetable medley or my least favorite – anything (with the exception of coleslaw) that includes cabbage.  If you are like me, you hold your nose and walk right by that stinky cabbage and look for the fresh corn on the cob or the just baked rolls to compliment your pork barbecue or burger.

This got me thinking.  How does this happen anyway and why would anyone want to ruin a wonderful picnic with side dishes like this?  And then it hit me.  A lot of life is like a potluck picnic.  Every day that we wake up, we have a choice to make.  What are we going to bring?  How are we going to choose to interact with others?  Are we going to bring our best or just the leftovers?  Being involved in a ministry that deals with the public on a daily basis, I have been faced with this question a lot and am I not sure that I have always been the one bringing the corn on the cob or the rolls.  So why is that?

The truth is that I and many others tend to bring what we have into any interaction in which we are involved.  If we have a fridge full of fresh corn and oven full of hot rolls, we will bring that.  Unfortunately, more often that I would like to admit, my personal fridge is full of leftovers including the wilting salad and the day-old veggies.  Sometimes, if I am really honest, I even cook up a mess of stinky cabbage with my words and actions and then bring that to the party too.  Worst of all, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that if I just make cupcakes too, it will make everything better.  As an eternal optimist, I am way too confident that simply “turning that frown upside down” will fix whatever needs fixing.

Recently, I have been convicted that to truly bring my best to the party, I need to take it to the recycling plant first.  OK, I know that sounds weird and may not even make sense, but hear me out.  As much as I would like to have fresh strawberries and scones in my fridge every time I open it, that just isn’t going to happen.  I will wake up without enough sleep, some difficult circumstance will produce anxiety and I am not always going to be my cheerful self.  So what can I do?  I have to take my stuff to the only place that can make any real and lasting transformation – the foot of the cross.  Only my savior, who died in my place and says “come as you are” will really be able to do something lasting and permanent about my stinky cabbage.  Sadly (for me), this is no magic formula and my left overs are not automatically transformed into prize winning potato salad.  Instead, my savior requires repentance and daily surrender to His plans for my life.  This process is painful and time consuming, but is the only way that I will ever bring anything worthwhile to party next time I am invited.


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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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