Nearly nine months after Family Christian Stores (FCS)—the largest Christian retail chain in the U.S.—started closing its 240 outlets in 36 states as part of its bankruptcy proceedings, other booksellers have begun to fill in the gaps left by the retailer’s absence.

Kari Kryder, formerly an assistant manager at the FCS in Flint, Mich., opened an independent CBA (Association for Christian Retail) bookstore in the same location on August 5. The new Faith Christian Store employs several former FCS 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,” Kryder said. “I observed first-hand the areas in which Family Christian was missing the mark for this community—what we were asked for, but never had.”

Kirk Ford, who is also a former store manager for FCS in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, opened the Christian Store on August 2 to replace an FCS storefront, offering Christian books as well as used books, CDs, and DVDs, according to its website.

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 in Lynden, Wash., on August 10. The store is located in the same shopping center where an FCS store recently stood, but, he said, its inventory focuses more on new releases and bestsellers than on backlist books.

“Sales have exceeded expectations,” Harman said, noting that FCS’s closure is an advantage to independent stores. However, “it’s imperative to know your market, and to manage expenses,” Harman said. “Property and lease expenses coupled with payroll expenses cannot exceed 25% of gross sales, or you’ll never make it.”

In Mason, Ohio, which had an FCS, 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 grassroots movement to get the word out and get support behind me—on social media and at Bible studies, churches, and schools.”

FCS has also given rise to a new, smaller chain of stores. Troy Wormell, president of Harrison House Publishers, acquired 15 FCS locations, with plans to reopen them as Empowered Life stores that offer bibles, books, and gifts. To date, 12 Empowered Life stores have opened, while two more will open on November 11.

In addition to making room for entrepreneurs to open new stores, FCS’s closure has affected existing bookstores. Lifeway Christian Stores expanded into four locations that were previously occupied by FCS. The chain, which has more than 170 locations, already overlapped with over 140 former FCS outlets in towns such as Fort Wayne, Ind., and it has no plans for expansion in other locations, a Lifeway spokesperson said.

Sue Smith, manager of Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Mich., and chairman of the board at the CBA, said Baker’s sales after FCS’s closing were 20% higher than during the same period 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 materials.

“We have found that most churches want to shop local, keeping their money local and community thriving,” Smith said. “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 FCS’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 it to sell our industry titles at crazy low prices—much lower than normal,” Smith said. “Having to compete with these prices has been really tough, leaving either very low margin or none at all.”

Smith believes the market is ripe for CBA retailers today, but challenges loom. “Creating new lifelong champions for our stores 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: “The customers have been so excited and thankful that we opened, because the options in Flint are almost nonexistent. We are growing rapidly and hope to have a fantastic Christmas season.”

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