Well good luck to ya…


Today we learned that Cokesbury (I guess in their desire to meet the adaptive challenge that Neal Alexander talks about on a regular basis) will be closing down all their brick and mortar stores choosing instead to place their future in on-line sales.  I confess that I received the news with a bit of a heavy heart, for this decision (right or wrong) will affect people that I know and love, people who have given their lives to make the stores responsive to the needs of their customers, and who will soon find themselves unemployed. The decision has human consequences that we can’t forget in our analysis.

While I understand completely the need to cast off the overhead of “real” stores (building costs, staffing, etc.) and can imagine the factors that went into making the decision, there WILL be a loss for many of us in the decision. This has little to do with book sales, and I think Cokesbury may find themselves completely unable to compete with the behemoth that is Amazon.com. It’s been a long time since I’ve purchased books from Cokesbury, even when they publish the book, because so many of my reading purchases are connected to the Kindle ecosystem, and in those rare cases where I purchase a “real” book I choose Amazon because of the free 2 day shipping I receive with my Prime membership. Frankly, Cokesbury has not been especially good in developing a usable web store that can be as quick and responsive as Amazon, and their product search has been ineffective. Certainly Cokesbury COULD create a series of sites which highlight, compare, and contrast certain categories of products (which might then lead to sales) but I haven’t found many of their category oriented sites to be compelling and particularly able to offer a deep enough experience by which to evaluate the products. They are choosing to focus on a tough market with killer competition, and all I can say is “good luck to you with that!”

No, the loss isn’t about losing a bookstore. It’s about losing a store focused on outfitting the needs of churches and pastors. I didn’t visit Cokesbury to buy books, but rather to pick up products, often at the last minute, that I needed in worship. I would look up the week before Advent and realized that I had forgotten to order the Advent wreath candles and so I would run to Cokesbury to get a set. Cokesbury was the place where new clergy went to be fitted for robes and albs, and the staff there could offer their insight on the best practices and fit. I would visit Cokesbury to scan the available curricula, to search for church supplies, and to check out the latest clergy stole. And yes, sometimes I would even buy books – usually by looking in a particular category and guided by the curation of the staff in what was available on the shelf. Cokesbury was and is a supplier, but it’s also been a destination when I’ve needed to find resources to help the ministry of my church.

I suppose that I, like others of us in the fold, should have been more loyal to our denominational stores, choosing them over Amazon, but in a Wal-Mart wage world, very few of us have the resources in which brand loyalty wins out over price and convenience. Amazon simply works most of the time, and it’s hard not to look there first.

What worries me the most in this decision is that I no longer have a place to send my church members for their spiritual resources that isn’t rooted in evangelicalism and especially the Southern Baptist tradition. I already struggle with folks doing all their religious shopping at Lifeway Stores, and this decision leaves Lifeway as the only player in our market. There is nothing wrong with Lifeway – except that they will not be carrying resources written by United Methodists or other mainline authors. Their curriculum will have a particular theological slant (most often these days a neo-Calvinist one) and there won’t be any place to browse the latest in theological scholarship and see titles that reflect a more mainstream perspective. Lifeway is fine for music or Jesus junk, but it’s not a place where you are likely to find works by Richard Rohr, Walter Brueggemann, or even folks like Adam Hamilton. Our loss is not simply Lifeway’s gain, but our loss of a distinctive theological heritage which offers a different vision of God’s Kingdom than available in the Lifeway aisles.

So I’m sad at the news. I understand the decision, and if I were on the other side of the headlines I may have very well made the same choice. But we shouldn’t fail to recognize that we lose an important asset along the way, and that loss will affect how we carry out our practice of ministry in the days and weeks to come.

For my friends whose jobs are on the chopping block, please know that you are in my prayers, and that I appreciate your service to God’s kingdom. Very few folks understand that for most of you this was as much a ministry as it was a job, and I hope that as you are transitioned to a new status that our church will take the time and energy to thank you for your service to our church and the work of God’s kingdom.

14 thoughts on “Well good luck to ya…

  1. Good analysis, Jay. I spent 11 years as a member of the Publishing House Board of Directors, and even then (nearly a decade ago) the struggle was very clear and vexing to the board and senior management. I will miss the ability to browse the Cokesbury store. It’s where I have been able to expand my understanding of Christ, The United Methodist Church, and to challenge my understanding of what being a Christian really means. Prayers for all those whose jobs will be disappearing in a few months, and prayers for those who will be part of a radically different world.

  2. Long after I stopped serving a church, Cokesbury was a place of refuge for me, a little stop where I could connect to my other life, if only for a few minutes. It was a reminder that there is such a thing as church life and that it can be full of joys and fond memories. I too think of Cokebury as a place to get candles and stoles and communion supplies, those items necessary for the rituals that made us aware of God’s extravagant grace and I will miss those little moments that reminded me of my other life.

  3. Jay,
    Like you, I will miss the interaction with the employees in the Knoxville store. Cokesbury was not the “go to” store in a pinch simply because the nearest one to me is 90 miles away. But I will miss the personal touch AND the ability to browse Wesleyan and other mainline authors. I refuse to go to Lifeway, so I guess it will be Barnes and Noble for me. They have had the best prices on the books that I’ve been needing and, as a member, I get free shipping anyway. The online shopping experience at cokesbury.com is abysmal.

  4. Thanks for posting this, Jay. You captured my feelings exactly. As a former employee who consistently challenged decisions made by the United Methodist Publishing House and offered alternatives that were sometimes listened to, sometimes acted upon, and sometimes ignored, I’ve struggled to understand decisions made by the higher-ups for years.

    I was excited about the possibilities for the Nashville store now that its location has suddenly become prime due to the new convention center. We will sadly never know what could have happened with that store if they had simply given the outside the beautiful facelift the inside received.

    The UMPH needs more dreamers, visionaries, and, sadly, more smarts.

    Wayne is right. The online store experience IS abysmal. They are simply not going to be able to compete in that market without an enormous overhaul. If anything comes out of this we can at least hope that the money they were paying employees goes to new employees who can create a better website.

  5. Also Jay, you can at least send members of your congregation to Family Christian Stores in Rivergate. It’s not as good as Cokesbury, but it’s better than Lifeway and it’s a closer drive from Old Hickory.

  6. Well said Jay. I can’t begin to count the times you walk in and out of the blue you run into pastors in other districts which you haven’t seen since conference or some other event. Although they are a business, the folks are more like family, I know each person by name as well as whats taking place in their lives and they know whats taking place in mine. Cokesbury for me has been way more than a place to pick up church supplies for i can’t count the number of times, I’ve stood in the store and interceeded for someone in the store. Again thanks for the reflection.

  7. Thank you Jay for your response. I too am saddened and disappointed. I think this is another episode of “rearranging the deck chairs”. Are the stores loosing money? Without the seminary and store pipeline who is going to get a Cokesbury account. Without the Charlotte, Greensboro, Lake J, Raleigh, Duke and Hood stores where do we go to explore resources for our church. I wonder what our Episcopal friends and other denoms that have gone in with cokesbury think about this.

  8. Great analysis Jay…

    A lot of the same comments I would make.

    I would also add that in a lot of places of Methodism this wont matter because cokesbury stores were nowhere close. I can come closer to a family Christian store or a catholic supply store than a cokesbury.

    So the majority of our churches end up ordering online, now if their website could just take a cue from amazon.

  9. Thanks Jay. I am deeply saddened at another indicator that our Methodist identity and witness is fading. I valued the opportunity to actually look into studies and commentaries before buying them, to touch robes and stoles and to have relationships with the staff for at least 20+ years. Unfortunately The Publishing House has never done technology well. I gave up on the online store long ago. I am not hopeful. My prayers go out to all nationwide who will soon be unemployed.

  10. Excellent analysis, Jay.

    My heart breaks at the loss of our Cokesbury store and for the employees there. I am also shocked that Cokesbury is essentially turning its back on the 40% of us who use the brick-and-mortar stores.

    I’m also concerned that seminary students won’t be taught the real value of purchasing United Methodist materials. It’s one thing to purchase required books but another thing to walk into Cokesbury and see everything else that’s offered. If our students lose the edge, what then can they offer their future congregations?

    A Change.org petition was started. Signing it may not save the stores but at least gives a chance to voice our opinion. This is the url for the petition http://chn.ge/YOrC9L

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.