Ministry Today magazine cover

How to Start a Church Bookstore





Whether your church is large or small, these creative ideas can help you launch a bookstore successfully.


It's been said that books can go where preachers may never go, and to that end many churches are realizing that one of the most effective means of expanding the ministry of the local church can be the church bookstore.

From small operations with a book table or spinner rack to full-fledged retail outlets with cappuccino machines and computer stations, church bookstores can span the spectrum in size and sophistication. But the common mission of them all is to provide resources that are helpful to people's walks with God and to further the ministry of the church through the sale of Christian products, including Bibles, books, music and gift items.

Whether you are a senior pastor, a church administrator or simply a volunteer, the following guidelines will give you a working knowledge of how to establish and operate a successful church bookstore. Additionally, an extensive list of helpful resources for starting a bookstore--including contact information for major distributors and suppliers, publications, professional services and useful Web sites--is posted on the Ministries Today Web site, www.ministriestoday.com. Simply click on the "Web Exclusives" link to access this information.

PLANNING AHEAD

Your first consideration in thinking about starting a bookstore is to identify your purpose for starting one. If the reason is simply to launch a new church venture, then perhaps you should rethink your strategy.

In most communities, especially metropolitan areas, there is typically a Christian retail presence, whether it's an independent Christian outlet, a Christian chain store or a general market bookstore where Christian products are sold.

What you need to ascertain is whether or not the existing store(s) can effectively meet the needs of the church's patrons. If so, then there is no compelling need for the church to start one in competition with it.

However, if the local bookstore declines to stock the types of product that people in your congregation are seeking, or if there is no Christian retail presence in your area, then starting a church bookstore could be a wise move.

When the purpose has been determined, it is important to remember that the vision for the church bookstore should emanate from the pastor, or at least be in agreement with the pastor's overall vision for the church, if the pastor has delegated that responsibility.

According to church bookstore expert David Gonzales of Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Eagle Communications, two of the most important aspects of starting a church bookstore are identifying the foundational beliefs of the church and the type of ministry the church provides.

For example, if the church is strong in the area of teaching and hosts several conferences each year, then the church bookstore will want to reflect that emphasis in its product selection by stocking the books and tapes of those who minister to, and through, that church.

Gonzales suggests that by keeping these points in mind while designing the church bookstore, you will avoid overstocking and purchasing product that is not in tune with the church's larger mission.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

To get started, you must next deal with some of the more practical matters involved with opening shop, such as location, staffing, hours of operation, ordering and stocking considerations.

As for location, the best place for the church bookstore is adjacent to the auditorium and in the traffic pattern of people, so they have direct visual contact with it as they leave the auditorium. And if space allows, it is good to locate the bookstore entrance close to the main parking lot for enhanced accessibility.

Of course, the size of the bookstore will be determined by the available space and the overall needs of the congregation. Wherever it is located, the bookstore needs to be able to accommodate the number of people projected to shop there.

Based on your site selection, you can then choose what type of fixtures would work well within that space. Fixtures, including bookshelves, book tables, spinner racks, display cases, music organizers and other such equipment are useful for the attractive display of merchandise available for sale.

To staff your store, you may need to start with volunteers. If so, it is best to only recruit and train people with a passion for the bookstore ministry; otherwise, placing unqualified personnel in such a public role could be detrimental to the church at large.

Whether or not you are able to pay someone to "tend the store" immediately, it is important to establish sufficient training procedures and standards of excellence from the beginning.

Sandra Kelly has managed the Minneapolis-based Living Word Christian Center's church bookstore, called Living Words, for more than 20 years. She started with $100, a table and a box of books and has grown the church bookstore to 3,000 square feet of space, with three full-time and six part-time employees and 50 volunteers.

Kelly mandates that her volunteers work a minimum of three services per month and commit to work in the church bookstore for at least one year. She credits intensive training, continuing education and dedicated workers for the bookstore's success.

Included in Kelly's training are 10 techniques that she recommends to "customer-sensitize" your bookstore for a ministry of excellence:

* Don't let the phone ring more than two times before a worker answers it.

* Never cut a customer short on the telephone.

* Speak distinctly and always use the customer's name.

* Make immediate eye contact and greet everyone who walks through the front door with a smile.

* Ensure that workers interact among themselves in a pleasant manner.

* Always apologize to the customer for any mistakes.

* Check up on customer satisfaction.

* Keep a sharp eye on the grooming of your workers.

* Make sure the way your workers dress is consistent with the style you want to project.

* Make a customer-oriented image an important priority to all new workers.

OPENING FOR BUSINESS

As you prepare to officially open the church bookstore for business, it is important to realize the necessity of meeting certain criteria for ordering products from most publishers and distributors.

The qualifications, which may vary from supplier to supplier, can include a minimum number of square feet in the bookstore; at least one paid, full-time employee; an outside entrance; availability to the general public; and a minimum of 30 hours the bookstore is open during the week.

Publishing companies tend to be somewhat less restrictive than distributors when dealing with smaller accounts and typically can offer a better discount. In selecting a supplier, check to ensure that your bookstore is receiving the same discounts and terms as other bookstore accounts.

Gonzales suggests thinking through several points when considering what products to select for your store, including item profitability, product shelf life, material content and doctrinal consistency.

It is important to not overspend in any one area, especially on more expensive products such as music, as it monopolizes funds that could be used elsewhere in the ministry of the bookstore.

One way to prevent that is to provide special ordering through your bookstore. If you offer this service, you may want to require customers to prepay for special orders so you don't get stuck with them if they don't pick them up.

Janice Speegle, wife of pastor Allen Speegle, manages the church bookstore for the 500-plus-member Family Bible Church of Eustis, Florida. Speegle says she depends on special ordering to keep inventory costs down and thus lower the store's overhead.

"I can order it on Monday and usually get it by Wednesday," she says. "Also, listening to customer suggestions when ordering helps to ensure a good mixture of product."

Overstocking and overspending are two of the biggest mistakes bookstores make. Good inventory management is vital to the success of the business. Gonzales reminds managers to maintain a wide but shallow inventory by selecting products that will draw people into the bookstore. For example, don't keep more than a three-month inventory in stock at any given time.

Speegle agrees. "I try to never order a lot at one time. And I use monthly specials to help move stagnant product." Speegle adds that she discounts everything 10 percent to keep sales brisk and the stock fresh. Kelly stresses that product turnover has been the single biggest key to turning a profit for her store.

Managers also need to remember that it is necessary for church bookstores to collect and pay sales tax on the income from all sales, despite the church's tax exemption as a nonprofit corporation. To be able to comply with the tax laws, it is imperative to know the city, county and state tax codes pertaining to your church.

THE POWER OF SUGGESTION

Research indicates that when a book is purchased, it is shared with an average of four others, and nowhere is the power of word of mouth more effective than with a gathering of like-minded people, such as church.

Moreover, perhaps no one exercises more influence in the lives of church members than the pastor, especially when it comes to the recommendation of Christian products such as books and music.

All a pastor may need to do is simply mention from the pulpit a book he has been reading lately, and there's likely to be a throng of people waiting in line at the church bookstore to get a copy.

Of course, to maximize the bookstore's ministry, it is helpful if the pastor is able to coordinate with the bookstore manager what product he plans to feature so that people will not be disappointed when they try to purchase it.

Speegle creates buzz by announcing bookstore specials from the pulpit, often selling out of the special item within minutes of the store's opening after services. One Sunday morning, she announced that there were 25 discounted copies of The Message available, and within five minutes there were only two left.

THE FUTURE OF RETAILING

While there has been some resistance to church bookstores in the past, growing consumer demand has made the church market very attractive to vendors. As a result, the board of the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) has recently approved affiliate memberships for church bookstores.

"I was a voice crying in the wilderness for years, and it's only been lately that church bookstores are getting the respect they deserve," Gonzales says. "Personally, I believe that church bookstores are the future of the Christian book-selling industry."

Geni Hulsey, bookstore director for the Garden Café and Bookstore of Houston First Baptist Church, has been another pioneer in the church bookstore movement. She started as a volunteer about 10 years ago with 250 square feet of space and has grown the bookstore to more than 1,800 square feet with three full-time and five part-time employees.

Hulsey twice has been selected to present a workshop for church bookstores at CBA conventions, and she consults about 10 hours per week with other church bookstores needing assistance.

She not only echoes Gonzales' sentiments about the industry's changing attitude toward church bookstores, but also is willing to admit that not all of the criticism was unfounded. "A lack of integrity on the part of some and the presence of more independent stores then caused the industry to frown upon church bookstores, but the situation is improving," she reports. Hulsey suggests that church bookstores apply for membership with CBA and contact CBA about attending one of their Prospective Booksellers Schools, which precede each of the annual CBA conventions.

Regardless of whether or not your church bookstore joins CBA, you are eligible to attend the semiannual CBA-sponsored conventions. Each convention, which draws together most of the major book and music publishers, gift manufacturers and distribution companies, is an excellent place to learn the latest trends and to purchase inventory each January and July.

That, coupled with the guidelines and information covered above, should move you and your church bookstore well on the way to expanding the ministry of your local church and blessing your community with quality Christian products. *


G. Sean Fowlds is a professional writer, editor and speaker. He lives in Mount Dora, Florida.

Partnering for Kingdom Business

One congregation found that the best way for them to operate a successful bookstore was to partner with an established independent retailer in their hometown.

Melody Christian Center and New Life Bible Book Store, both located in Live Oak, Florida, entered into a mutually beneficial business arrangement several years ago. Their joint venture serves as a model of one creative way in which churches can partner with other business entities for the advance of the kingdom.

After managing Melody Christian Center's bookstore in-house, pastor Frank Davis turned to Jimmy Knight, owner of New Life Bible Book Store, to purchase Davis' bookstore and operate it as a separate entity from Knight's New Life location.

The church bookstore is managed by Susan Farabee, who serves as a volunteer there and considers it her ministry. Farabee, a full-time bookkeeper at the local John Deere dealership, was the critical factor in closing the deal for both parties, as Knight and Davis each credit her managerial capabilities and personal integrity for enabling them to partner together.

Another helpful factor in consummating the deal was the fact that Davis is a former practicing attorney, and thus was able to draft a "gentlemanly agreement" without involving the "lawyerese" of a third-party attorney.

As part of that agreement, Knight committed to purchasing Melody Bookstore's inventory and to stocking the store, while the church gets 20 percent of overall sales from the Melody Bookstore business. Also, Melody Bookstore agrees to stock titles written by Davis and agrees not to stock consignment product or guest speakers' materials.

"It's been an all-around profitable arrangement for everyone involved, as the church loses the headache of running a growing bookstore, and we gain an additional location without all the extra overhead," Knight told Ministries Today.

The Melody Bookstore is open one hour before and after each service for a total of about eight hours per week, while the New Life Bible Book Store is open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, for a total of about 50 hours per week.

While acknowledging that many independent retailers are opposed to local churches operating bookstores, Knight maintains that arrangements such as his should be viewed as complementary, not competitive.

"I admit that not everyone could, or should, enter into an arrangement like ours, but for those who are willing to seek out new opportunities and use discernment in forming partnerships, it can be advantageous," Knight adds.

While their joint venture may not be for everyone, it does represent a viable alternative for those willing and able to negotiate such an agreement to the mutual satisfaction of all parties involved.

As both Knight and Davis agree, the ultimate goal of both a church and bookstore is to minister to the needs of hurting people with the resources available to each. And sometimes that may mean the best method of ministry is to partner together for kingdom business.

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