Nearly eight months after Family Christian Stores—the largest Christian retail chain in the U.S.—began closing the first of its 240 outlets and going bankrupt, other booksellers have begun to fill in the gaps left by the retailer’s absence. With stores in 36 states across the U.S., Family Christian initiated its closures in February, and the last store closed in May.
Kari Kryder, formerly an assistant manager at the Family Christian Store in Flint, Mich., opened an independent CBA bookstore in the same location on Aug. 5. The new Faith Christian Store employs several former Family Christian staffers, and it is able to attract the chain’s former customers with a similar but expanded inventory that includes seasonal home décor, toys, apparel, and more.
“Family Christian’s closure created the opportunity for us to go ahead and take the step of business ownership,” said Kryder. “I observed first-hand the areas Family Christian was missing the mark for this community—what we were asked for, but never had.”
Replacing a Family Christian storefront in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Kirk Ford opened The Christian Store on Aug. 2, offering Christian books as well as used books, CD’s, and DVD’s, according to its website. Also a former store manager for Family Christian, Ford told a local paper that the chain’s financial struggles and eventual demise had nothing to do with a lack of demand for its products. He remains optimistic about the future for Christian retail, telling the Gazette, “A huge percentage of the population likes to get out and go to a store to shop and to hold a Bible in their hands.”
A third former FCS manager, Bill Harman, received donations from FCS customers as well as support from investors in order to establish the ConnecTions Christian Store—a privately owned gift and bookstore which opened in Lynden, Wash., on Aug. 10. The store is located in the same shopping center where a Family store recently stood, but its inventory focuses more on new releases and bestsellers, as opposed to backlist books, according to Harman.
“Sales have exceeded expectations,” he told PW, noting that Family’s closure is an advantage to independent stores. However, “it’s imperative to know your market, and to manage expenses—property/lease expenses coupled with payroll expenses cannot exceed 25% of gross sales, or you’ll never make it,” said Harman.
Just seven miles from a former Family Christian Store in Mason, Ohio, the Belong Christian Bookstore opened its doors in September. Owner Cindy Bell sells used books, Bibles, and Christian gifts, and she often hosts events with local artists and authors. “Everyone is very sad for the loss of Christian bookstores,” she said. “Customers are showing me a grass roots movement to get the word out and get support behind me—on social media, at Bible studies, churches, and schools.”
Family Christian has also given way to a new chain of stores. Troy Wormell, president of Harrison House Publishers, acquired 15 FCS locations, with plans to reopen them as Empowered Life Christian Books Gifts. To date, nine Empowered Life stores have opened in the chain, while four will have grand openings on Oct. 14.
In addition to making room for entrepreneurs to open new stores, FCS’s closure has affected existing bookstores as well. Lifeway Christian Stores expanded into four new locations that were previously occupied by Family Christian. The chain, which has over 170 locations, already overlapped with over 140 former FCS outlets, and it has no plans for expansion in other locations, a Lifeway spokesperson told PW.
Sue Smith, manager of Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich. and president of the CBA (the Association for Christian Retail), said Baker’s sales increased 20% following the chain’s closing compared to the same time in 2016. Three FCS locations shuttered in Grand Rapids in April, followed by several more along the West Michigan Lakeshore. Baker, which is independently owned, was able to tap into FCS’s church customer base, and it now stocks products such as communion ware and curriculum.
“We have found that most churches want to shop local, keeping their money local and community thriving,” said Smith. “Targeting our church visits to those communities where the closure left absolutely no CBA stores, [and] introducing them to our Baker First church program was essential.”
One aspect of Family’s closure that has caused a problem for retailers is a move made by Amazon. “Amazon purchased the remaining FCS inventory at pennies on the dollar, allowing them to sell our industry titles at crazy low prices, much lower than normal,” said Smith. “Having to compete with these prices has been really tough, leaving either very low margin or none at all.”
Still, Smith believes the market is ripe for CBA retailers today, but challenges loom. “Creating new lifelong champions for our stores once they visit us is the difficult feat,” she said. “Our stores have to [have] the convenience of Family, and a customer experience that makes it worth coming in time and time again.”
Faith Christian store owner Kryder remains optimistic, telling PW. “The customers have been so excited and thankful that we opened because the options in Flint are almost non-existent. We are growing rapidly and hope to have a fantastic Christmas season.”