Calling, passion, and creativity form store foundation.
Sharing space with a hair salon, It’s God’s Choice Christian Bookstore breaks the typical independent Christian retail mold. But the differences don’t end with its location; co-owner Thelma Lee views the business more like a pharmacy than a bookstore, and in some ways she doesn’t sell products so much as dispense prescriptions.
“I love what I do, and I’m serious about what I do,” she says. “If we don’t affect somebody in ways that change them, then what are we doing?”
That missional intent further sharpens the sense of focus she has about what she carries in the 600 or so square feet of space she occupies at D’s Hairstylists in Hyattsville, Maryland.
“I read what I carry because I minister with books,” she says. “Sometimes people will talk about what’s happening in their life, and I can recommend a book I’ve read that I know is sound.”
This cautious approach comes out of the seriousness with which Lee takes the call she says led to It’s God’s Choice opening in 2002. She had been working in another Christian bookstore for several years when God told her to be a distributor after that business closed. “I had always had a passion to help people,” Lee recalls, “but never for a bookstore. That came from God. He even gave me the name. He said, ‘It’s not your store, it’s My store.”
Though she had no business background or the funding to open her own store, Lee pressed ahead. She agreed to share space with an insurance company, but when her co-tenant’s plans fell through, It’s God’s Choice was forced into an online only operation for a year or so.
But when she went to have her hair styled at D’s, she felt prompted to ask about space sharing. “I have a call to do this,” she says emphatically of the revived store, “so I have to do it until God says He doesn’t want me to do it any more.”
When it comes to Bibles, Thelma recommends the King James Version, though she carries other translations. But shoppers are likely to get a loving lecture from the woman many called Mother. “I always advise them that there is no easier version of the Bible,” she says with a chuckle. “You can’t read the Bible like you do a book and say you’ve got it; you’ve to meditate on the Word of God to get a good understanding of what God is saying to you.”
Though moving into D’s has meant narrowing inventory, it has broadened Lee’s customer base a little. Hair clients will wander over to see what’s on display, including hats, scarves, and pocketbooks. Lee has trimmed back to small displays of gifts and church supplies. She carries one or two samples to give shoppers an idea of quality and style, with catalogs available to special order a particular item if she doesn’t have it in-store.
Church supplies do well. It’s God’s Choice services between 50 to100 local churches with communion supplies, Sunday school materials, and books for study groups.
Gospel music sheet music sales have also become an important part of the business, with customers in Australia, Africa, and Europe.
As income allows, the store supports New Broken Vessels, a nonprofit Lee founded to help moms and kids get away from difficult home situations and start over. One day she hopes to be able to open some kind of transitional accommodation.
The space-sharing arrangement at D’s illustrates the tenacity and flexibility with which Lee follows her calling. “Things have changed in the industry and we have to change, too, or we’re going to go out of business,” she says. “[But] you have to stick to your heart,” she adds, noting how she turned down an offer to sell lottery tickets and tobacco.“I can’t do that,” she says. “That’s totally against what I believe in. Money isn’t going to save me. I may never be rich in this life, but at least I know where my soul will rest in eternity.”