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.