From their 3,000-square-foot bookstore tucked away in a residential part of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, Dennis and Naomi Gundersen of Grace & Truth Books have built something of a model for how to thrive in a niche market.
For the Gundersons, that’s mostly the Reformed and homeschool communities largely looking for classic titles rather than the latest best-seller. Over the past 20-plus years, they’ve established a reputation as a go-to source by really knowing their constituency and products, then offering great customer service.
Around 60 percent of sales are online, with most of the rest split between conventions and conferences, and other Christian stores around the country. Grace & Truth has more than 200 Christian accounts, including Christian Book Distributors and Mardel Christian and Education, as well as independents.
The Gundersens publish more than 100 books under their own G&T banner and distribute for more than 30 other small publishers. Many parents appreciate the old titles for their plain speaking and broad vocabulary that encourage literacy and comprehension. There’s an emphasis on books for children and parents, plus theology and church history—and not all titles are specifically Christian.
Named from the John 1:17 reference to Jesus, Grace & Truth began as a sideline. Pastoring a church and active in the homeschool community, Dennis started a book table for his congregation and then began to provide resources for other homeschool families. In time demand grew to the point where after 26 years he decided to swap preaching for publishing and distributing full-time.
The homeschooling community across the country continues to grow as families become increasingly disappointed with public education, Dennis observes. Retail curriculum sales in the category may have dipped in recent years in favor of digital, but the market for print ancillary materials remains strong.
A regular speaker at homeschool conventions and church conferences, where he also runs book tables, he’s learned how to do those kind of events effectively. “You can’t just show up with a broad selection of Christian books and expect to do well,” he notes. “You have to have something that is pertinent to the event.”
It’s also essential to know your inventory well. Though conference attendees are maybe primed for buying resources related to the subject they’ve come to learn more about, “you still have to interact a lot with them,” says Dennis. “Find out what they’re looking for.”
That means a high level of engagement throughout the event, so he advises arriving rested and with plenty of time to set up (it takes him around four hours). He makes a point of requesting a corner booth if possible, “so you get two fronts. That gives you some prominence.”
Family-run for many years—with their four sons all involved in different aspects at one time—Grace & Truth is now staffed by the Gundersens and two other employees. Between them they handle the 20-plus orders that come in each day through the store’s online store. Most are processed the same day.
If a title isn’t readily available for some reason, one of the team will contact the customer right away by phone or email and explain. “We’ll tell them there’s going to be a slight delay and ask if they’d like us to ship the other five titles we do have right away, or ship them all together when the other one arrives,” he says.
That kind of service has earned a string of five-star reviews at the store’s Facebook page. “It’s very common for people to order some books from a Christian bookstore and they get a slip of paper in the mail saying this one or that one is backordered,” Dennis notes. “We like to handle that [situation] in a personal way.”
The store offers free shipping on orders over $49—they’ve found that oftentimes people who planned to buy maybe only one or two titles boost their total purchase to take advantage of the offer. “If they ordered three books and we made a profit on all of them, the fourth book gets them free shipping and so we break even on that one.”
When orders are shipped out, someone will usually tuck in a leaflet about a conference or event that might be of interest, or a printed card promoting another title similar to the one ordered—their hard-copy version of Amazon’s “you may also like” feature. While most customers prefer print editions, Grace & Truth does offer around 40 of its titles as e-books, which bring in “a few hundred dollars a month.”
With so much business coming online, the Gundersens pay close attention to their store’s presence there. The website is clear and functional, if not flashy, and includes a “related resources” link from each book to other materials. On Facebook, the store belongs to groups related to homeschool and Reformed topics and the Gundersens ask permission to post about relevant books, from time to time.
The store’s Facebook page is more than just posts of latest releases. “You have to work it,” Dennis says. “You have to post regularly and give it some content if you want people to pay attention to your page and follow it. It can’t just be ‘buy this book’ all the time.”
That means giving visitors something rather than just trying to sell them something—perhaps a link to a free download somewhere, or a video clip about something of interest. “We get a lot of subscribers that way, and it makes it worthwhile for them to return.”
Three stabs at trying Facebook ads didn’t really yield any worthwhile results, but “someone told me that if you’re really working your Facebook page, you don’t even need to use the push ads,” and he tends to agree.
In-store business may not be brisk, but “of the people who come in, I would say that better than half will spend between $100 and $300,” Dennis notes.
Though the emphasis of the inventory is on classics, Grace & Truth does publish some contemporary books, including four by Dennis. The selection criteria? A subject that hasn’t been addressed recently or often enough and content that goes beyond what they see as the more lightweight offering of much current Christian publishing.
The Gundersens define their niche as “helping a family build a strong, quality library with exceptional reading for their children.” Knowing your focus like this means refusing some things. Despite its emphasis on homeschooling, Grace & Truth doesn’t carry curriculum because it’s a more labor-intensive inventory and they don’t want to compete with friends in the homeschool community who do sell it.
Then there’s Bibles. Perhaps surprisingly, the Gundersens don’t carry many and are even planning to faze those out. Trying to keep on top of so many different versions is “the biggest headache,” says Dennis. “Just locating the right Bible to fulfill an order can be an ordeal … increasingly we are recommending people go elsewhere.”
Read more: Grace & Truth Meets Niche Needs – Part 1