Looking back on four decades of ministry at Crossroads of Life Christian Bookstore, Patricia Williams observes with quiet understatement, “It’s been a challenge.”
In addition to the difficulties confronting all independent Christian retailers, she’s faced situations that would have driven many others to the wall, including two incidents of property damage that left the Hillside, NJ, store unusable for some time. But despite losing her minister-husband and partner in the business five years ago, Patricia remains as committed as ever. “This isn’t just something I’m doing for a job,” she says. “I feel like I’m a missionary here.”
Things got so tight last year after a burst pipe forced her to close the doors for months—with a sign in the front window telling regular customers to come round the back for their orders—that the end of the line seemed unavoidable. But she took the fact that not a single Bible was damaged by all the water as a sign that God still wanted Crossroads of Life to continue, and then drew encouragement when regulars rallied round to ask what they could do to help. A Go Fund Me campaign brought in some money to keep things going, but even more important was the outpouring of support. “It was so encouraging to see how many people cared,” Patricia says. “Even if people only sent $20 or $50, it was the thought they had that mattered.”
So Crossroads of Life continues to serve its community, with an ongoing emphasis on reaching young people. The store hosts regular Kids Days, with visiting authors’ story-times, crafts, games, and prizes. There’s also a Summer Reading Program and a recently launched young writers’ group.
Williams accepts that digital is here to stay, but she’s concerned about aspects of the trend. Kids “have tablets and all those things, but people are finding they aren’t really reading like we think they are,” she observes. “They’re playing games and doing all that social media stuff.” Additionally, she doesn’t want youngsters to give up entirely on physical books, because of what they’ll miss out on as a result.
“Digital doesn’t stay with you in the same way,” she says. Children “don’t seem to read books over and over like they used to” when they use e-books, she believes, and they also forfeit the shared aspect of sitting and reading a book together with parents or grandparents. Through the store’s various children’s programs, “we feel that if we can get reading into their heads early, we can begin to affect some change.”
The youth focus dates back to the store’s beginnings. As Sunday school teachers, Patricia and her husband, Lucius, ran workshops to help churches provide age-appropriate ministry for kids. But the materials they recommended weren’t readily available in the area—so they set out to change that.
Lucius left his job as an assistant tax assessor to open the store, later combining those responsibilities with other businesses that helped support Crossroads and a long-term pastorate at a local church. Patricia quit work as a college counselor and teacher, in due course, to join him. They started in a 500-square-foot floor space, later moving to their own, 1,750-square-foot property. The Williams soon discovered that simply providing the resources was not enough. “People needed to know how to use them properly,” Patricia recalls. “We needed to teach the teachers.” That led to their founding the Christian Urban Education Association, which hosted regular Vacation Bible School and Sunday school workshops. At their height, the VBS presentations held in local churches would draw up to 200 people. Attendance at the last one, earlier this year, was only a tenth that number, but Patricia still believes it’s a valuable service.
With their particular concern for the urban community, the couple was also involved in the founding of CAABA, the Christian African American Booksellers Association. He was a regional board member, while she served as secretary.
Church supplies have been an important element of Crossroads’s business through the years, supplying local congregations with everything from bulletins and communion supplies to robes. The store has around 100 active church accounts.
Author visits and other events continue to make Crossroads as much a place where people connect as a business. “We want people to know we aren’t just in it for finances, but we want to reach others,” Patricia says. “We want them to know that we’re not just a bookstore, but that this is a ministry.”
There is at least one kind of happening every month. “What makes them work is that we try to have an event, not just a book signing,” says Patricia. “Unless they have a bit of an audience, it isn’t going to work.”
On a recent Saturday, as part of a “God’s Makeover Series,” the store hosted Undena Leake Jackson, who spoke about her autobiographical book, Can You Dance Before the King Naked?, and Kandy S. Cook, whose From Fragments to Faith tells her life story. The two authors were joined by members of the cast of the urban church stage play While U Were Preaching, debuting soon after in nearby Newark, with tickets as door prizes.
These events “generate interest and enthusiasm,” Patricia says. “They get people in the store who haven’t been before, and they help generate interest in other books in the store as well. They take a bit of time to organize, but it’s worth it.”
Crossroads sets up some chairs in a corner and gives writers and musicians an opportunity to talk about their book or sing a song or two, then mingle with visitors. Sometimes there’ll be two sessions, to give more customers a chance to participate.
The store makes a special feature of local authors, with a section devoted to their titles, and a prime spot on its website for those who are part of its local authors network. Membership of the group earns online promotion, a featured in-store event, and the opportunity to come along to new signings to connect with visitors.
Promoting the network to authors, she tells them “your book may be on Amazon, but they aren’t going to give you a book signing where you can talk about your book. We’re the place that does that.”
With reduced staffing, Crossroads sometimes needs volunteers to help man events. Some used to work at the store part-time when they were young; one couple even met and married through working there. Patricia has an arrangement with a local business school whereby students can intern at Crossroads.
Bibles remain an important category, behind Sunday school materials. Patricia welcomes the greater range of Bibles as an opportunity for sales, because many people are overwhelmed by the choice and need help in making an informed purchase.
Giftware inventory has been increased—mugs, scarves, totes—while movie sales, and prior to that, video rentals, have dipped. “More people seem to be streaming movies and not owning them, these days.”
As inventory changes, one practice remains: staff pause to stop and pray with or for the first customer of each day, as a symbolic dedicating of the store to God. As she looks back, Patricia acknowledges that running the bookstore “has been more challenging than we thought. You don’t really know what you’re getting into until you’re deep in it.” But she isn’t discouraged.
Indeed with many CAABA stores among the Christian retail casualties of the past few years, she believes that Crossroads is needed as much as ever, if not more.
“We still have a vision for reaching our community with Christian materials and training,” she says. “This is important work: the Lord is coming, and I want to be caught doing something for Him.
“He didn’t just call my husband to do this, but he called me, too, and I told Him that if He would give me the strength then I would try to continue it as part of the mission that He gave us.”