Bookstores have fallen on hard times. Christian bookstores have fallen on especially hard times. Of all the industries utterly savaged by the rise of the Internet, e-commerce and digital distribution, books and music, the mainstays of Christian bookstores, are right near the top of that list. The consumer’s win has been the bookstore’s loss.
Christian bookstores played an important part in my life and in my spiritual development. When I was in my early teens I suddenly developed a great passion for Christian music. It seems silly now, but that music filled a great need in my life. I had always loved music, and when I became a believer, one of the great spiritual markers was the day I got rid of my “secular” music. It’s not that all of that music was so bad, but that it represented a past I was eager to move beyond. For many years I would listen exclusively to Christian music.
In that day Christian music was available from only one source–the local Christian bookstore. I became a regular at a couple of those stores. In my high school days I would often run off at lunch to see what was new. I still remember being there and waiting on release day for Petra’s Wake-Up Call. They had to crack open some boxes of newly-delivered music until they found it for me. Once it was in my hands I listened to it the rest of the afternoon and all evening long. On Saturdays I would sometimes jump on my bike, or when a little older, I would get into my truck, and ride clear across town to get to the bookstore, to spend time listening to the new and exciting albums, and to rifle through the bargain section. At one point in my life I had hundreds of albums lining my walls.
I developed relationships at these stores; we looked out for one another. I bought their music, and they helped me find what I was after. I was such a consistent customer at one bookstore that they began to loan me pre-release editions of albums that would not be out for another few months. Even today if I play PFR’s album Them, I am instantly transported to my little Chevy S10 pickup truck as I drove all around Southern Ontario from work site to work site. On release day I would return their pre-release album as I bought my own copy of the final product.
For many years Christian bookstores were really music stores to me. But then, as I grew to an adult and began to develop deeper spiritual interests, bookstores began to serve another purpose. Shortly after I got married I was working a job I hated and would often escape at lunch to wander the town. One day I meandered into a Christian bookstore and, instead of looking at the music, looked at the books. I walked away that day with two of them: Ashamed of the Gospel by John MacArthur and Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace? by James Boice. I knew nothing of either author, and cannot recall why I purchased those books out of the thousands in the store. But today I can see God’s hand in it, as those books utterly transformed me. Two serendipitous purchases at the local Christian bookstore forever changed my life. They put me on the path out of an unhealthy church and into a healthy one, and out of unhealthy doctrine and toward sound doctrine.
Of course bookstores had their frustrations as well. So many stores could only survive to sell good material by selling near-endless amounts of junk. John MacArthur and James Boice would be side-by-side with the very people their books rebuked. I once saw Benny Hinn right beside Charles Spurgeon, and I’m quite sure it was done without humor and without irony. Nevertheless, these stores played a crucial role in my life and I will always regard them with fondness.
Most of those bookstores have long since closed down. Like so many people, I tend to do the bulk of my shopping online; I buy more books than ever before, but buy most of them online where prices are lower, convenience is higher, and selection is superior. I have no use for CDs, so buy music digitally and transfer it straight to my devices. I miss the interaction. I miss talking to the experts about books and music and having them help me. Purchasing books and music is now so impersonal. It is missing something I loved.
Recently I discovered a new Christian bookstore, a good Christian bookstore, in a town not too far from here. It reminded me of what I loved about these stores and showed me what we stand to lose. There are few experiences I enjoy more than wandering through the aisles, browsing the shelves, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, looking for the surprises, looking for the perfect book, talking to the owner and asking for recommendations. It transports me to days gone by. I believe, I hope, there will always be a place for such stores. I hope they will find a way to adapt, survive and to thrive, even while selling good material. Their disappearance will be our loss.
And how about you? Do you still visit a Christian bookstore? If not, what would convince you to go back?
(Please note: This article represents my views alone, and not those of Zondervan, Crossway, or Cruciform Press, the companies that have published my books.)