What do you do when your favorite Christian bookstore closes its doors? That’s a question many people are pondering all over the country.
There’s simply no way to sugar-coat it. The first quarter of 2019 has been devastating for the retail industry. Among the chains announcing major closings are Payless Shoesource, Gymboree, Charlotte Russe, Family Dollar, Fred’s Discount Stores, and Pier 1 Imports — just to name a few. Even larger stores like Lowe’s, Target, JCPenney, and Kohls are shuttering under-performing stores.
The losses add up to 5,399 stores in just the first 12 weeks of the year. Compare that to the closure of 5,726 stores in ALL of 2018, and it’s easy to see why economists are referring to this as the ‘retail apocalypse.’ Most experts see this as only the beginning of a trend driven by changing consumer habits, which continue to annihilate shopping malls throughout the country.
The number of jobs affected is mind-boggling, already numbering in the tens of thousands, and by some projections on track to eclipse 160,000 by year’s end.
Nearly every genre and niche of retail is being impacted, from soft-line clothing to five-and-dime to hardware. As Doug Whiteman of Moneywise so cleverly put it, “Even a chain of religious stores doesn’t have a prayer in the current retail environment.”
It has been one month since Nashville-based LifeWay Christian Resources announced its decision to close all 170 brick-and-mortar retail stores in an effort to focus on its digital and online platforms. LifeWay, formerly Baptist Bookstores, is the publishing arm of the largest Protestant denomination in the world, the Southern Baptist Convention.
When I was just a kid, I remember riding in the car with my parents to Jackson, Mississippi, to do some serious shopping — almost always taking time to stop in at the Baptist Bookstore. Even as a youngster, I was fascinated with the vast number of books, Bibles, and gift items available there. And there was always familiar Christian music playing.
Upon entering that bookstore, I sensed a certain peace and calm that was distinct from other shopping venues. The employees were always friendly and helpful, never pressuring anyone to buy anything. Instead they just made every effort to help their customers the best way they knew how.
My love for LifeWay stores continued when I moved to college at Ole Miss. There was something special about these stores. Whether it was the one in Tupelo or the one in Memphis, strangely enough, I just felt at home.
When I moved to Fort Worth for seminary, the LifeWay brand was always right in front of me. LifeWay ran the stores on all the Baptist seminary campuses. Those stores, of course, carried a little different selection at the time — including lots of scholarly textbooks for graduate students like me.
Throughout my ministry career, LifeWay has been right there with me — San Antonio, Fort Worth, Longview, Dallas, and Little Rock. Each store had its own staff, but they all provided resources that were essential for me and the churches I served.
In recent years I knew that LifeWay’s stores were struggling. They managed to outlast Joshua’s Christian Stores and Family Christian Stores. But I wasn’t surprised to learn in January that the company would be closing some of its stores. As I spoke with friends and colleagues at LifeWay, I got a sneaking suspicion that this was going to be a much bigger deal than just closing a few stores.
The announcement on March 20 first showed up for me as a Facebook post by the Arkansas Baptist News. It was official: all 170 stores would be closing. I quickly took a screenshot and sent it to my mother, to whom I’d previously expressed my doubts about any of the stores staying open.
I was at the mall in Germantown, Tennessee, when the news came across. I felt sad — sad that the retail landscape has shifted so much so quickly, sad for the many employees who were going to be out of work, and sad for the longtime customers — many of them senior adults — who still aren’t interested in or able to shop online.
Selfishly, as a pastor I’m going to miss being able to peruse the store in between hospital visits. I’m going to miss the convenience of being able to pick up a few more study guides for a class that starts that evening. And I’m going to miss the conversations with the LifeWay staff members, some of whom I consider friends.
But if you’ve never shopped at LifeWay, you probably don’t realize that to those employees, it was never all about selling books and stuff. You see, they minister to people — all kinds of people — all day, every day.
I’ve seen employees pray with customers who were having a hard day — or a hard life. I’ve watched them listen intently to customers who were looking for a resource about a particular life struggle — a book about overcoming pornography or battling cancer or facing life after a significant loss. I’ve witnessed them give hugs on more occasions than I can count.
And the employees themselves became like family to each other.
Most of the stores are still open for the time being. And their employees are still doing what they do best — ministering to people who don’t know where else to turn, caring for people who feel all alone, and showing in a million little ways that God loves them.
Sure, maybe I’m just a sappy pastor who misses the way things used to be. I’m sure there’s some of that. I just know that there are some things a person wants to hold in their hands before shelling out $50-100 for it. And a new Bible is right at the top of my list. You can’t sense the weight of the pages, feel the grain of the leather, or judge the size of the print when shopping on a website. It’s just not possible.
So yes, I feel especially sad for those older customers, for whom the closing of their trusted bookstore is yet another loss that reminds them that time marches on, whether they’re ready or not.
If you live near a LifeWay store, let me encourage you to stop in and personally thank the staff for the ministry they’ve done through many years. It will mean more to them than you’ll ever know.
And please pray that those who desperately need a good job will be able to find one.