A church can’t signal that its bookstore is an integral part of its life and mission much more than by holding services there. Such is the case at Christ Church in Greenwich, Connecticut, where Evensong is regularly held upstairs in Christ Church Bookstore.
The evening service, which draws just a handful of people, switched there from the sanctuary during renovations, but the clergy liked it so much they decided to keep it there when the work was completed. Shoppers “have to deal with it,” but “everyone seems happy,” says bookstore manager Becky Ford. “It’s a part of our culture and rhythm now.”
The unusual setting for part of the church’s ministry is an example of how the bookstore has stepped into a new, more central role after 30 years’ adjunct service in the parish. Begun in a storage area and later moved to its own space adjacent to the sanctuary, the bookstore expanded a couple of years ago when a parishioner offered to underwrite a second-level extension that doubled its size to around 2,000 square feet.
The new space needed “a new vision” to match, says Ford, a member of the Christ Church vestry who first became part of the volunteer team leading the bookstore transformation and was later asked to take on the day-to-day running and oversight. Now the bookstore serves as the welcome center for Christ Church, one of the oldest Episcopalian parishes in the country. With several hundred worshipers each weekend, the church presents itself to the community as the place to go for “Nourishment for the Journey.” The church is a popular wedding venue, and its 10-acre campus also hosts events that draw outside members of the community.
“People see us as part of the mission of the church, to be a really welcoming place,” says Ford, whose childhood memories that include visiting bookstores with her theologian father and past experience running an art gallery in New York City have helped her shape an appealing store. “Anyone who wants to come and buy a cup of coffee or a birthday card or a confirmation gift, or just meet somebody and have a conversation is welcome,” she says. “We’re not just selling Bibles; it’s a really nice book and gift store that has a religious dimension to it. If you just need a place to be quiet to meet a friend or to buy a Bible or to get a special gift, that’s what we’re here for.”
The Evensong schedule is just one way in which events help promote the store. It also sells books by speakers visiting the church’s “Courage & Faith” series, which draws leading names across the church spectrum. “It’s been a really important part of growing the business in the store,” says Ford.
Special guests have included The Shack author William P. Young, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, memoirist Mary Karr, and Rob Bell. “We do try to go from conservative to liberal and all in between.” Because attendance is so large, these evenings are usually hosted in another part of the church, though up to 30 people can be squeezed into the upstairs meeting space in the store.
Other in-store events include signings by local authors. A recent launch spotlighted a new book by Mary Cattan, a marriage and family therapist and spiritual director who serves as a pastoral psychotherapist at the church. Then, every month, members of the First Friday Book Club meet on the store’s mezzanine level. Selections for discussion have included Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore, and Eager to Love by Richard Rohr. “It’s open to anyone who wants to come,” says Ford. “They just have to have read the book.” It’s for serious readers, though: “We brought food one time, but we don’t even do that any more because we just want to talk about the book.”
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Having products in the store that relate to church events is important. “It’s one of the ways in which the store becomes viable and vital in the church, by being a retail arm of our programming,” says Ford. “We have a lot happening on campus, and people come for something else and then stumble on the bookstore, and it becomes part of where they shop.”
Despite this, and even though the bookstore and its events are featured at the church website, and it’s advertised in the local newspaper, marketing can still be a challenge. “We had to get a little creative about signage,” says Ford, who realized that existing campus signs weren’t enough. So she went out and had some lawn signs made, posting them around the entrance to the parking lot. “It made a visual crumb trail,” she says, noting that the first newcomer to the store arrived just a few minutes after the signs were placed.
There are seating areas on both levels, with coffee and cookies also available for purchase. Chairs and sofas are near shelves and displays: “You’re always interacting with gifts and books, and being encouraged to hang out.”
With her artist’s eye, she looks out for unique pieces at Etsy.com—“some of them are faith-based, some of them are not”—and then buys frames for them and puts them up for sale. “People love that; we’re constantly selling these little prints.”
Though spiritual books are one of the store’s cornerstones, she knows that gifts help with revenues and also bring shoppers back to see what’s new. Among the different gift offerings have been $6 “word stones” such as Hope and Calm, $18 journals, $50 framed prints, $80 hostess sets, and $300 nativities. “We try to focus on what’s new and having things turn over as quickly as possible,” she says of the gift lines. “Even if you’re just putting some things face-out and others back on the shelves, switching things around and refocusing them is important. There’s always a buyer for everything; you just have to be patient.”
The store has experimented with coupons, putting them in bags and handing them out at events, but found that very few were ever redeemed. “It’s just not that kind of a store,” says Ford. “It’s not a deal kind of place,” though shoppers buying the latest title for the book club can get a discount if they mention it. Some parishioners are simply happy to shop at the store because they know that they’re helping support the church’s wider ministry. “They see it as a way of giving back; it means a lot to them.”
And while she aims to keep current with offerings of new titles, Ford doesn’t see Amazon as big competition: “I don’t think people have the same kind of urgency for religious books as they do for the latest ‘Harry Potter.’”
Overseeing the bookstore in a part-time role, with two part-time staff, helps make things viable. “From a business point of view the store cannot afford a full-time manager with benefits, so this has really worked out well.”
For the employees, “it’s important they understand that there’s a level of their job that’s ministry,” she observes. “People are coming to a religious bookstore; oftentimes there might be an event that drives them there and it can be a happy event or a sad event. We need to be very sensitive, and aware that people might need to talk about what they are going through when they buy something.”
Having said that, it’s important to recognize when a situation requires more than they’re able to offer. “We’re all very aware of needing to be sensitive when people come in, if they are grieving a loss or have a pastoral need,” says Ford; someone dealing with a big issue will be led down to the church office to meet with one of the ministry staff.