Monday, August 11, 2008

As If It Was Bach or Something

Guest Post by Frank Turk

Oy. Christian retail. I have a lot to say on this subject, but at JT's blog that's somewhat bad form. If I link to a longer post of my own, Adrian Warnock is going to call me a "link troll", but I am that, so here's a link to everything I consider essential about what I have said about Christian retail.

But here's what JT's e-mail to me about this subject and guest-blog attempt said:
I was thinking of doing a short post today on the death of Christian bookstores and my ambivalence.

On Monday we are [on a business trip], so I’ll be out of communication all day.

Any interest in writing up a guest post for me this week, to post on Monday, on how we should think about Christian bookstores? I think your perspective would be very helpful.
"Helpful" in these circles being the short-hand for "we won't disavow you on 'Ask Pastor John'", which I appreciate.

Let's face it: the Christian bookstore is dying. Christian retail is, frankly, a sort of quaint and old-fashioned idea. I didn't grow up Christian, but the CBA indie store in my hometown looked like a flea market and nobody could answer questions for me; I have visited worse -- stores in locations arsonists wouldn't bother to burn down. And at one time, it was at least a novelty to have someplace that would put your name on your Bible and had exotic items like "anointing oil" and those plastic fish the really-devout put on their cars.

And that strategy, such as it was, built a $4+ billion dollar industry. But here's the thing: where does this industry come from? Can we tell? Listen: the fact that a CBA store cannot be seen as credible to the average customer unless it has one of those execrable plastic junk spinners -- home of the plastic fish -- should tell us something about why people shop there.

Let's make a quick comparison: think about Barnes & Noble for a second. When you walk into B&N, what's the first thing you see? You see books. Books are everywhere. I grant you that the first pile of books is usually closeouts, and the next pile of books is usually NYT best sellers at 30% off, but when you walk in, you see books. B&N is about books.

Now, why are they about books? Think about their annoying but usually-helpful staff for a second: you hate to ask any of them for help in spite of their usual helpfulness because they think they are very smart. B&N is all about books because books are for smart people. They employ people who think they are smart, and part of the thing going on there is that you could be more like them. So pay $5 for a coffee, full retail for all our books except the 25 titles on sale until they fall off the NYT best seller list, or maybe buy some of our phony "bargain" books which we publish ourselves in Asia to cut out the publisher and pretend we're doing you a favor, and buy a discount card which you have to really, really use to get back, and voilĂ : you can be smart like us.

And apparently, they are very smart because unlike CBA, B&N sells tons of stuff at full retail, causes people to buy club cards that only barely enhance consumer value but puts cash in the coffer early with no overhead, and people think highly of B&N because B&N sells something of immense value: books which make you smart.

If B&N went out of business tomorrow, the US would go into a state of shock because, in a sense, it would prove to us that we are really very stupid people because our smart bookstores have somehow failed.

When the local CBA store goes out of business, does anyone besides the owner feel stupid? Or guilty? Or somehow as if something bad has happened? The answer, as JT implies in his previous post on this topic, is "no": nobody feels like something bad happened.

This entry is already about twice as long as the average post on this blog, so let me make two observations about why nobody feels bad about a CBA store closing -- except the owner.

[1] Because it was only the place where we used to go to buy plastic fish -- stuff like that. Think about this for a second, because this is a critical issue: a plastic fish is a commodity -- some would say a piece of junk (Jesus junk, to be sure), but says, "a mass-produced unspecialized product"; a disposable, consumable item for which you want to pay the least amount of money possible and still get something at all.

What the CBA store has, in the consumer's eyes, is inexpensive, consumable novelties -- and sadly, that image transfers over to the other things that may be more worth-while, like the 10,000 binding options available for your Bible, or 6-week bible studies.

CBA stores are not missed because they are merely novelty stores, and you can buy other novelties at WAL*MART (or for the upscale, at Tar-ghey).

[2] Because there's no association with the equivalent force of "you're not very smart" which we will abide from the CBA store. Look: if you walk into B&N and ask for a book (the Shack, for instance), and the clerk rolls his eyes at you and says, "what a horrible little book -- have you read any Rilke? It's much more spiritually challenging," you'd feel like that hipster with the pierced lip had just done you a favor. Ah. Rilke. As if it was Bach or something, or either of you were going to read it in German.

But if you walk into a CBA store and ask for a book (the Shack, for instance), and the staffer there who is wearing a "Third Day" shirt and has a pierced lip tells you, "dude, that book's no good for you -- you should try Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers instead," it's an insult -- because you know what? That kid works at a trinket shop, a novelty store, and for him to tell me that my reading choices need some work is an insult.

I'm a Christian bookstore owner, and let me tell you something: the only bookstore I would miss if it closed would be mine -- warts and all. We are hardly perfect, but we have striven over 5 years in business to show people that their faith can be more than a scripture on a mint. God forbid that our faith, and our choices to shore up our faith, are ever linked to the frivolous and the consumable. Our faith is not in something that moth and rust will devour, and if we have made it such a thing, may God have mercy on us.

I wonder if CBA will ever see it that way.