This appeared in the December edition of Calgary Christian, a regional Christian newspaper. Click this link to read at source and browse the .pdf edition of the paper.
The Lighthouse on the Trans-Canada
by Peter McManus
Tucked away in a small storefront along the TransCanada Highway (16 Avenue) in NW Calgary, is the little bookstore that could. Better Books & Bibles, a bookstore for new and used Christian books has evolved since the owner, Dan Levson, bought it five years ago from the former Pilgrim Books store owner, Ruth Maconochie.
Better Books and Bibles are now much more than just a book store. Store personnel regularly host regularly host Bible Studies and have authors come in for meet and greet sessions. Authors can chat about the content of their books, have opportunities to sign their books and answer any questions people may have. The staff meet with street people who come in every day and have their needs met, both physically with food and coffee and spiritually, where they are given material that will help them in their journey. Time is also taken to talk and pray with them.
“We’ve become known as ‘the Lighthouse on the Trans-Canada’ because of the ministry that the staff provides to everyone who comes through the door,” said Dawn Stinson, manager of the store. “We’re here to help. We love to encourage people at any station in their Christian walk.”
Right from the start, when Levson purchased the store, his vision has been: “To shine a light in the dark places.” That vision has helped carry them and they witness success stories every day. “There’s not a day goes by where we don’t hear, ‘Thank you for being here,’” said Stinson.
“Every day we have new people walking through our doors as well as lots of regulars,” she continued. “It’s a great meeting place where people have great cross-cultural, cross denominational discussions.”
When asked what her biggest take-away about the store is, Stinson responded by saying that she comes to work with the question, “Who can we help today?” The biggest success they witness is when people return to the store and say, “Thank you for praying.”
The people who work there would concur that ‘ministry comes first and foremost, before the sales of books.’ The bookstore, once thought of as selling only used books, has become more and more a regular place where you can buy new books, place orders for specialty items or books they don’t have, and now they also carry many seasonal items. For the upcoming Christmas season, there are lots of different items that you would expect at a much larger retail store. Christmas cards, nativity scenes, ornaments, church supplies, bulletin stock and much more.
For more information about Better Books & Bibles, pay them a visit at 636 – 16 Avenue NW or call 403-233-2409. You may email or visit betterbooksandbibles.com
This article concerns Word Alive Distribution, the company formerly based in Winnipeg which was recently acquired by Anchor Distributing. If you’re looking for information about Word Alive Press, that is outside the scope of this article; please stop reading.
Because this blog has been going for many years now, I am frequently contacted by publishers, authors and agents looking for an up-to-date assessment of the Christian book distribution scene in Canada. When it comes to HarperCollins, Parasource and Foundation, I think my opinions are relatively accurate; and any product placed with those three has the potential to perform well in this country.
However, when it comes to Word Alive, my experience is far too subjective to form an accurate description. When I contacted some of you individually, I found a variety of topics came up related to marketing, logistics, product availability, accounting practices, etc. With the takeover, some of these may no longer apply.
I guess I really want to focus on product availability, fill-rates, speed of special-order fulfillment etc. for an upcoming article here that I’ve already spent some time working on. I’d also like to know the answer to this question: In your mind, did Word Alive fill the gap created by the closure of Send the Light (STL) or did you not see the two events as related? If you were a regular Word Alive customer, you might have simply continued buying from them as you did before; if not you might have been looking for Word Alive to provide you with some of the products (and information services) that you got from STL.
Much depends on your perspective on this.
There’s two ways I’d like to hear from you: (a) by email to firstname.lastname@example.org being very careful to specify if your comments are anonymous or if you are willing to be quoted to directly; or (b) with a comment here which may or may not be anonymous depending on what you say and how you identify.
Why does this matter? With only the three primary distributors (listed in the first paragraph) many Christian retailers in Canada have an all-their-eggs-in-one-basket type of situation. There are still dozens of domestic Christian product sources in Canada, but for essentials our situation is quite limited. My personal thesis that Anchor Distributing is a great company in a large market (the U.S.) that serves retailers and consumers well; but that when you try to layer that model on the map of Canada, it is only fulfilling about 50% of its potential in terms of what is needed here. Again, the subjectivity of that situation north of the border can (and does) look like mismanagement. This may not matter to you today, but it might tomorrow when you find store inventory gaps for things you once obtained through STL.
I’ve touched on the various factors contributing to that opinion, but I’ll flesh them out more fully soon, along with a few examples. And yes, in the spirit of Matthew 5 and Matthew 18, I have brought some of these concerns to various people there, but sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.
So again, I earnestly solicit your evaluation of how this particular supplier helps you in your mission and/or causes you some frustrations. And again, confidentiality is assured if noted.
Whether it’s a specialty market bookstore like yours or a general market bookstore, you may not realize that you are defined as being part of the trade bookstore market. If you’ve ever tried to get your son or daughter a science textbook for college, you may have realized that the trade market is only part of a wider arena of what goes on in book publishing
- Trade books market – that’s us
- Textbook market – elementary and high school boards, homeschoolers, colleges and universities
- Gift market books – similar to trade books but offered only at gift shows or to stores like Hallmark
- Premium market – books offered as a gift with donations
- Remainder market – the book equivalent of CD deletes, authors do not receive royalties
- Overstock market – books released into the market at lower prices with reduced author royalties; or liquidating due to superseded cover information
- Magazine paradigm market – things like Harlequin books are sold this way; timed display period, strip cover returns
- Antiquarian market – older highly collectable books, usually used but sometimes never-sold first editions
- Used book market – this bypasses any supplier network and includes thrift shops but also some trade retailers who keep a used selection in the back or in the basement
That list is missing a few things but it will suffice. As I mentioned, most of us don’t get access to textbooks in a way that would help our children at university, and when we buy things like Steeple Hill (the Christian division of Harlequin) we usually buy them for keeps and don’t play the 90-day sales window game. Some of us still sell Christian magazines — Relevant alone has kept that department energized — and others of us will dabble in the Harvest House gift market titles which can be ordered through FDI.
But the area most common to Christian bookstores — besides trade titles — is remainders and overstock titles. The advantages are many
- higher margin
- popularity of low-priced items with frugal customers
- opportunity to create your own in-house sales
- store looks full with a lower inventory investment
A few years ago we counted and we had twelve different sources for remainder books that we had used in the previous 24 months including suppliers in the U.S. and Canada. Some involved buying skids of 25 cartons, two others allowed us to pick and choose titles in a retail-type environment with no minimums.
However, the downside of remainder books is that some customers think you’re selling used books. As someone who advertises his store proudly as an outlet store, trust me, this happens all the time. In the customers’ minds there are four qualities of merchandise in this category:
- Publisher overstock – we tell our customers these are often books that have been replaced by one with a new cover, or a study guide that’s now included, or there are price/barcode issues
- Remainders – the book is now out of catalogue
- Hurt books – what our customers understand better when marked AS IS – though we explain that we don’t seek these out, but that (until recently) about 10% of our remainders fall into this category
- Used books – we explain that we don’t sell used books at all; if it was previously owned and we can see that, we don’t carry it. (This also makes it easier for us to be a collection point for Christian Salvage Mission.)
The problem we’re currently facing is this: An increasing number of books from Book Depot are falling into the hurt category and we are now encountering strong evidence of books that belong in a used category. As you can see in the Bible below, verses on both sides of the page have been underlined:
In the picture below, you see how a page is torn — something we easily spotted looking at the side of the Bible when removing black marks from about a dozen products on the same order — which we highlighted with a sheet underneath. It’s also lying on top of the Bible in the picture above so they would be clear these were two different copies of the same title that were damaged.
In the same shipment we also had a NKJV Adventure Bible in which all four cover corners (top right, bottom right on both front and back covers) were worn out. The damage you see in the picture doesn’t happen if the Bible is simply dropped. That would leave a dent. No, that type of separation from in the paper-over-board cover happens through a lot of wear and tear (or water damage).
Those were the three items I chose to focus on in my last (truly last, I believe) ticket I created with Book Depot. I did not mention the various hardcover children’s Bibles that were so badly scratched it looked like a dog or cat had done a number on them. I did not mention my fear that other books may turn up with underlining or highlighting. I did not mention the various things we’ve had to endure in previous orders which only get discovered many months later.
The point is, any dealer reading this can switch their HarperCollins account over to non-returnable and get these same Bibles for a net price that’s only slightly higher than the discount being offered. Plus you can buy one-at-a-time and not two-at-a-time.
We felt as a store that this hurt merchandise was forming an increasingly higher percentage of our shipments and that not only were the books damaged, but they were doing damage to our reputation as a seller of quality goods.
As someone who would always try to be near a computer at 8:45 PM — mostly to beat the larger stores who tended to take everything when a good title rolled around — I’m learning to change my routine. We tried to make this work; even recently trying the newly promoted consolidated shipping, only to find that two shipments which might have been one full box and one small box ended up shipping as two full boxes and two small boxes. Relative to other orders, we saved nothing. (We’re also requesting, in addition to credit for these three items, a proportional shipping credit. I told them, “We’re not paying freight costs to be shipped garbage.”
Bargain books, from that supplier anyway, have ceased to be a bargain.
Over the past few weeks I have found myself telling so many people on many different platforms about this audio clip on YouTube. I realized today it’s an excellent fit here as well for those who wish they could see more fruit from their bookstore, or even wonder if the shop is making a difference at all. This should both encourage you and challenge you.
This runs 9 minutes. It’s worth your time. It may seem to get repetitive about two-thirds of the way in, but hang in there until the end.
Distributed by HarperCollins Christian Publishing; visit the website at BlinkYABooks.
Looking over recent installments of the Spring Arbor overnight rankings, there simply isn’t the breakout title information that has formerly been so useful. Here’s the first 25 by ranking; remember that Spring Arbor includes some family-friendly and home-school-friendly kids titles which I’ve designated here as ‘secular.’ *
- St. Joseph Missal and Hymnal for 2017 (#12 on Ingram overall)
- Laugh Out Loud Jokes for Kids (#16 on Ingram main list)
- Goodnight Moon (secular)
- Hendrickson KJV Large Print Thinline SuperSaver (#26)
- War Room Study Guide (usually bought in quantity for groups)
- Gospel of John (35-cent ABS title; usually bought in bulk) (#30)
- Pat the Bunny (secular)
- a Jewish-interest title
- Eat Right for Your Type (secular diet book)
- a Catholic Book Publishing prayer guide for 2017 ($2.50) (#53)
- Richard Scarry Word Book (secular)
- Snowy Day (secular)
- All By Myself (secular) (Mercer Meyer)
- My Book About Me (secular) (Dr. Suess)
- Legend of the Pointsettia
- another Catholic Book Publishing prayer guide for 2017 ($2.50)
- He Touched Me (non-book item; CD by Elvis Presley) (#95)
- 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace (the first real Christian book in the list)
- Corduroy’s Christmas Surprise (secular)
- Mitten Story (secular)
- The Magnolia Story (published by Nelson as a crossover title; not a future core title)
- One Big Turkey (Nelson kids Thanksgiving title)
- Shaken (Tim Tebow) (Waterbrook crossover title; not core Christian living, etc.)
- The Gift of Years (John Chittister; Catholic interest)
- an economy NIV Bible at $2.99
There’s very little here that is helpful to the Christian bookstore owner. Jesus Calling is #31, Karen Kingsbury’s new Christmas hardcover is #33, the new Richard Rohr is #75.
Having monitored this list for years and years (decades, actually) I can tell you it was not always this way. There are simply not enough Christian products shipping from Ingram to register on the list anymore.
In fairness, this was a one day sampling (from sales on Monday, November 7th; these are not the more volatile weekend numbers) but it shows that Christian bookstores are now a fringe element for the world’s largest wholesale book distributor.
*some items shown are more descriptive of the books on the chart, not actual titles
This article first appeared today at Thinking Out Loud.
Anyone who has worked retail knows that closing time can be a challenge. Staff are tired and want to go home, but store policies do try to put customers and their needs first.
In the bulk food environment my wife worked in, staff were not allowed at all to do anything to communicate the store was closed. Not a word. Not a hint. The door would be locked quietly, but customers in before that closing — by which I mean the exact posted closing time — could continue to complete their purchases.
In the Christian bookstore environment I’ve worked in our commitment to our customers has always been superlative. I found it took me at least 15 minutes to balance the cash anyway, and I often kept the sign on “OPEN” until I was actually leaving. Then, when I see the end in sight, I might cut the sound system, and if it doesn’t impede the part of the store they’re shopping in, I might cut one of the light circuits. I’ve also been known to say, “You can stay as long as you wish, but just let me know if you’ll be paying by cash or plastic.” I’ve also kept open for a few minutes only to have another person walk in who turns out to be the biggest sale of the day.
So I’m a little surprised at the approach taken by a chain of Christian thrift shops in Canada that is clearly identifiable as a Christian organization. (No, not St. Vincent de Paul and not Salvation Army.)
We entered at 3:43 for a 4:00 closing. We were told, “We’re closing now, but you look like you can power-shop.” I checked the sign on the door. I pulled out my phone. “It’s only 3:43;” I grumbled to myself and a guy looking at CDs overheard and said, “She’s always mean.”
Mean? That’s her reputation?
At 3:48 a guy came and was told the store was closed. He walked out. Another incident at 3:54 with the same result.
“Actually, you’re still open;” I said to another staff member, pulling out my phone.
“We don’t go by your phone;” she said, “We go by the clock on the wall.”
I looked at the clock on the wall. “They’re the same;” I told her.
What matters here is that this is a mentality that exists in some thrift shop environments that has no place at all in a Christian institution.
In the Christian bookstore I mentioned, our abiding principle is that we want to be “a place of grace.”
I asked the woman if she felt that this closing policy reflected well on the organization whose name appears in the store’s name. So (sorry) I played the WWJD card. Would Jesus turn people away at 3:48?
“Everyone is free to set their own policies.”
I asked her — very pleasantly — if she was a Christian.
“That’s irrelevant;” she said. I was not expecting that answer, served up in the way she delivered it; but I was done pressing her buttons.
I called the staff associate that was working for us that day. “Don’t ever pressure anyone to leave, unless you’re facing a personal emergency;” I told her; “I will pay you for however long it takes to meet their needs.”
“I don’t move in Charismatic circles.”
“I can get you in contact with people who run in Presbyterian circles.”
“You’d need to ask him, he knows people in Baptist circles.”
Every denomination has its own culture. There are things you just won’t get until you’ve spent some time among that church crowd, or made a strong friendship with someone who has and can explain the finer nuances of it to you. This is a microcosm of what happens when the secular press tries to cover religious news. We end up saying that they truly don’t get Evangelicalism, or that a specific reporter obviously didn’t grow up Roman Catholic. But those two distinctions also break down into finer subgroups.
Last week someone asked me to recommend a book, but implicit in the request was that he was looking for a book which would appeal to him, even though he’s giving it away. I am blessed with both a vocation, and a personal church resumé which allows me to speak many denominational dialects, but that’s no guarantee I’m going to get it right each and every time. But without my recommendation, I know this person would have been searching in a relative vacuum. Online vendors are programmed to recommend either the latest hot thing, or the thing they’re overstocked on and need to get rid of.
So my recommendation might mean something except for the fact that each time I thought about this, I kept coming back to one particular author who it has become very fashionable to bash right now (for reasons that totally escape me.) To complicate matters, the person making the request identifies as one denomination, but has strong allegiances to another very different set of authors, musicians and conferences. He’s really moving in two very different circles which, trust me, do not overlap except for maybe him and six other people in the entire world.
Today I was looking at a six-week curriculum. I loved the topics. I trust the publisher. The price was reasonable… And then I noticed the author’s name. Hmmm. I’ve just never been comfortable with that person, but then again, I don’t move in those circles. He’s probably someone else’s favourite. Such is the segmented nature of the Christian marketplace.
Frankly, I wish the person looking for the book would just give me their full-out trust. I’d probably pick a newer author. Someone nobody has ever heard of. That way there would be less bias on both our parts.
Sorry, we didn’t take pictures. Here’s how we spent Tuesday afternoon.
Our first stop was Chef’s Depot. We discovered that this cash-and-carry restaurant supply warehouse satisfies our needs for four types of supplies that we would formerly buy at four different companies: Plastic bags, point-of-sale printer rolls, cases of toilet paper and receipt books. (We’re an outlet store, and one bar-code scan can refer to an item that’s in the store at as many as four different prices; so we write our bills manually.) There are probably places like this close to where your store is located as well.
Our second stop, just around the corner was Joseph’s Inspirational. This was more of a social call, but it had been nearly a year since our last visit to this Roman Catholic-focused retail store. Some of the product lines once carried for wholesale distribution are now being serviced by Novalis. It’s always interesting to hear other dealers describe their interactions with the same sources that we use. (I’ll leave that one there, for now!) Because Toronto is just an hour’s drive, we often refer to the three dominant Catholic stores there and it’s good to visit occasionally to get a handle on what each carries. Joseph is also a regular reader here at Christian Book Shop Talk.
Our third stop was Bellefair/Carriage House Printers. (No website; that tells you a lot.) Because we weren’t sure last Christmas if we would renew our lease in April, we didn’t order much in the way of boxed cards, and now we’re a Johnny-come-lately to the party. At our previous stop, we were told they were sold out, but we got 64 out of the 100 boxes we’d ordered the week before, though two of the “value boxes” were shipped in plastic bags. Not very classy, Bellefair.
The fourth and final stop before meeting our son for dinner was definitely the most interesting, Innovative Home. Even though we were picking up a very small order — we were needing to top up our stock of men’s rosaries — we were invited in for coffee and biscuits by owner Farman Khan and his wife. Conversation topics included importing giftware from China, the fact we both have kids who went to UOIT, recommended Indian restaurants in Scarborough, and faith. I also learned I may be missing a potential market by not stocking favours to be given to guests at First Communion or Confirmation parties. [Do you get asked for these? If you know more, leave a comment.] For stores that service the wedding market, Innovative Home is a great source for cake-toppers and bridal accessories, as well as angel figurines which sell well, and has great prices.
For years I’ve enjoyed reading Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed blog online, but only recently did I consider the possibility that I’ve been depriving myself by not reading more of his works in print, at least the less academic ones. The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited is a book that recently underwent what the industry terms a “trade paper conversion” as did another title we’ll consider later in the season, A Fellowship of Differents. (Both titles Zondervan.)
McKnight begins with the thesis that when ask, “Have you heard the gospel?” we could be basically referencing up to four things:
- The Method of Persuasion
- The Plan of Salvation
- The Story of Jesus
- The Story of Israel / Story Arc of the Bible
He would say that the first two tend to overshadow the second two. He then launches into an extended consideration of the gospel
- as preached by Paul (there are reasons he begins there)
- as recorded or emphasized by the gospel writers (the synoptics plus John)
- as taught by Jesus
- as preached by Peter (representing the book of Acts, overlapping with Paul)
Throughout the book, McKnight uses the verb gospeling to describe the process of proclamation as well as the idea of gospeling the gospel. You also encounter the word soterians, people who equate the gospel to a means of salvation. (Not the aliens in a Star Trek episode, as some of you were thinking.)
With so many different emphases reflecting so many different doctrinal patterns, the book leaves some unanswered questions — this is, after all, a condensation of much longer scholarly writing — but Chapter 9 – Gospeling Today, is particularly helpful in our present context and builds toward the conclusion in Chapter 10 – Creating a Gospel Culture, where in five pages, McKnight presents his own summary statement of the gospel. The whole book is really a stacking of premise upon premise leading to this encapsulation.
For him, the gospel as the account of Israel’s redemption is paramount to any other consideration. Several appendices record the Bible’s summary statements of its gospel and analysis of the sermons in the Book of Acts.
I am richer for having read this book as it helps me to clarify what it is I need to be saying — and not saying — when opportunity arises to share the good news.
Thanks to Mark at HarperCollins Christian Publishing in Canada for an opportunity to read this title, now in paperback from Zondervan.
Related: 2009 review of The Blue Parakeet by the same author.