Last week I attended the International Christian Retail Show in Atlanta, Georgia. This was my 18th such event, put on by the Christian Booksellers Association. This is an annual gathering of the creators, publishers, suppliers, and retailers of almost all the product you could find in your Christian bookstore, as well as several products that don’t make their way onto the shelves of your local stores.
Over the years, my involvement in the show has changed, moving from a retailer to my current role as a marketing specialist for The Parable Group. The show itself, has changed, with the decline in sales being felt by all involved in the industry. (Or any industry with annual trade shows, for that matter). But as my role has changed, and with nearly two decades of experience in this industry, I am more and more impressed with what hasn’t changed.
- What speaks/ministers to one person will not speak/minister to another. It never fails, year after year… Let me get this one out of the way first. The cynical observation. There are products at the show, and in your local Christian store that are cheezy. They take Scripture out of context. They reduce theology to a bumper-sticker. They are trite and they are inferior duplications of what is offered by mainstream counterparts. You have seen these, and you have likely been to the websites and blogs that find their purpose in collecting such items for public ridicule and judgment. But with each one of these products that I find ridiculous (and no, I will not name them), I know there are people who will find them to be just the thing they need to be given hope. Why we think every Christian product has to be about us individually is a mystery to me. You see, we are all at different stages of our walk with God, every single step important. What used to speak to me no longer gets my attention; and what I find to be profound others may see as arcane or boorish. Different strokes for different folks. Which means there is validity for much of the products you see, even if you’d never ever partake in them yourself.
- There are real people behind these products. These things didn’t just mutate onto the shelves we peruse, they were created. By creative people, too. They invested a lot of time and effort and money to get their idea to market. When I read a life-changing book, there is a person on the other side whose ideas met my heart. That painting or photograph took real live work. That song or movie took an investment. The more I am involved in the Christian bookstore industry, the more opportunity I have had to meet and know the people behind these products. They get hurt when criticized, they are elated when their work connects with someone, and very few of them are getting rich in the process. They do it because they have something to tell the world, and they use the medium that they are best versed in.
- Overall, the heart passion behind the product is commendable. A comedian I like once made fun of Testamints, those little breath-candies with a cross on them. He said they didn’t work, because he still swore. I kinda thought they were silly, too. Until I met the people who make them. To hear this man talk about Scripture Candy was inspiring. He wasn’t trying to make a mint off of his mints, he was just trying to get people to think about Jesus more. And he’s not a rich man. The folks at the publishing companies are likely not making as money as you are. And the guy who owns the Christian store in your town isn’t making a fortune, barely scraping by on a second mortgage on his home so the store stays open. I look at these guys as missionaries more than anything.
- This truly is a business world. Just because someone is doing something for a good reason doesn’t mean they don’t have bills, though. They still pay rent and have electric and water bills and all the overhead any business does. So they have to build a margin into what they sell. Unfortunately, that margin has only gotten smaller as online businesses have become the go-to. Businesses who can survive with lower margins because of lower overhead and no passion other than the almighty dollar. Regardless of what the growing public may thing, music and movies are not made for free, and writers and artists still need to be paid for their words and pictures. What they do is a ministry of sorts, with the sale of books and Bibles and music and films and framed art similar to a missionary raising meager support. The marriage of ministry and business is a delicate thing. I think it was Eddie DeGarmo who I heard tell a fitting story. A fan at a DeGarmo and Key concert was enraged that they were charging money for a gospel CD, because, the fan asserted, “The Gospel is free. Eddie answered perfectly, saying, “The Gospel is free, but the CD is gonna cost you fifteen bucks.”
- Not every product idea needs to be available at a Christian bookstore. With all the passion and business savvy, all the reality behind different products having their place, not everything needs to be at Christian retail stores. I have seen items the last few years that would surely get attention in playful ways, allowing people to talk seriously about Jesus. But the products would offend more than they would attract. And keeping a business mind, you gotta dance with your date. Taking care of the people who are responding to your efforts is a whole lot better investment than hoping the bolder products would bring in someone new. That coupled with the expanding product offering in a shrinking retail environment simply means that not all products need to be readily available.
- We need Christian retail. With all the available product to a Christian consumer, it’s important that we have gatekeepers who can find what is likely going to be the most appealing. Sure, my taste in music may not always be reflected in the CDs they stock, and I still can’t find a Christian version of my favorite authors, but I can usually trust what they have on their shelves. As more and more clamoring takes place for shelf space, there will likely be mistakes made in the product selection. But the Christian bookstore is still the best place to find the right Bible for your thirty-something cousin, or the appropriate novel for your teen niece. It’s the only place you can find a sales associate who not only helps you find the right book addressing your struggles, but also prays with you about that issue, too. Amazon will never do that, and I’ll choose a prayer over a price any day.
- The message will long outlive the industry. The way I make my living is going through a lot of changes, as evidenced by the stores I serve and by the industry that serves us all. Times are tough for everyone involved, and as in other industries we are expected to do more with less. But I still believe that the quickest route from the heart of God to the heart of any of us is with a good song or a good story. And at the end of the day, I work not to keep my business of my industry alive, but to deliver products that are created to tell the age old story of a God who is madly in love with people like you and me. People like the homeless guy a few feet from my office door and the lady at the grocery store.