Personal ministry, positive attitude, and peer support sustain Las Vegas Christian store.
When Wayne Whiteman talks about Heavensent being a gift store, he doesn’t mean what most people might think. Yes, he carries decor, jewelry, and apparel, but that’s not what he has in mind.
“We truly believe that everybody who walks through our doors has been heaven-sent,” he says, noting that the bottom of the store’s receipts reference James 1:17, that “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.”
Whiteman and his wife, Cindee, tell visitors to their Las Vegas store that the Bible verse “isn’t about the gifts you see on the wall. It’s you, the perfect gift God has sent to us.”
That attitude of gratitude and service has undergirded the Whitemans’ retail ministry over the last 12 years and continues to be the cornerstone of what they do as they find a new lease on life in the wake of the city losing two Family Christian Store locations as part of the chain’s demise.
After a few lean years, the couple had been evaluating how much longer they might keep going but now have a heightened sense of responsibility as the only independent Christian store left serving Nevada’s largest urban center.
“We are starting to see firsttimers come in and tell us that the folks at Family Christian had spoken highly of us,” says Whiteman, who maintained a good relationship with the local Family stores. “We always looked on them as partners in the kingdom.”
In return, staff there have taken Heavensent Christian Books and Gifts business cards to pass on to Family customers—some even telling customers as things wound down “if you don’t want them to be like us, support them.”
A brick-and-mortar Christian retail presence remains essential, Whiteman believes. “Even when you get prescriptions at the drug counter, you still like to ask the druggist, ‘Is this medicine going to make me feel better? Or is going to make me sleepy?’ They could buy that medicine online, but people still like to have that personal contact, where they know that when all the chips are down they can go to the Christian bookstore and the guy there will pray for me,” he says. “You can’t get that on a computer.”
That hands-on approach is literally part of the Heavensent style. A few years ago, Whiteman felt prompted to start offering hugs to customers—something he reminds shoppers of in the store’s regular emails.
Soon after instituting the practice, an older lady was moved to tears by the gesture. “Tears started coming down her face,” he recalls. “She just clung on to Cindee. She said that her husband had died six months earlier, and this was the first hug she had gotten since. People will come in the store and not even buy anything, but stay here for our hug.”
Prayer is always available, “even if we have a store full of people,” says Whiteman, “because their salvation or their well-being is ultimately more important than selling a book. There’s that saying that people don’t care what you know until they know how much you care; we try to make this the atmosphere in our store.”
The Whitemans’ emphasis on their 1,400-square-foot store as a ministry center first and foremost is part of their DNA. They moved from Oregon to Hawaii back in the 1980s to be part of a vibrant church, she teaching and he doing different jobs.
They later moved to Las Vegas to be closer to family, taking the opportunity to fulfill a long-held dream of owning a Christian bookstore. Cindee mostly runs the store, now in its second location, about 20 minutes from the famous Las Vegas Strip, with Wayne helping as his school bus driving job allows. He shrugs off their make-it-happen determination.
“It’s a passion for us,” he explains. “You can’t put a price tag on being able to help somebody. We were thinking of closing a few years ago and word got out very quickly, people saying they needed the store. We have testimony after testimony of people who have come into the store hurting and we have been able to speak life through the materials we have, the Bibles and the movies we sell.”
How do they keep encouraged in the face of the ongoing challenges faced by a small business? “Being in church every Sunday and being with other believers, knowing that our God is going to give us complete victory,” says Whiteman. “When you have praise on your lips, it comes out through your heart. If it comes out through your heart, it will come out in your smile. If it comes out in your smile, it will come out in your conversation,” he adds. “It’s how you look at things. Is the cup half full or half empty? I think customers sense that optimism in our voice, in our conversation; I believe that is what brings them back.”
For all of their emphasis on the local church, the Whitemans have found it hard to develop accounts with more than a few in the area. Getting past the gatekeepers to the pastors is the big challenge. Most church connections have come from individual shoppers who have visited the store, then recommended it to their pastor. Churches that promote the store in their bulletin are credited 10 percent of every purchase made by someone bringing a copy of the relevant leaflet.
They try to reward customer loyalty whenever possible. There’s a frequent shopper program that offers a discount after purchases totaling $150, and they’ll go the second mile for regular customers who need something at short notice.
“When a person is loyal to you, they become family, and you take care of them,” Whiteman says. “You do what you can to make them happy. If someone orders 20 books for an event and then at the last minute they need more, I’ll ask for them to be airmailed overnight so they arrive in time,” with the store swallowing the cost.
He sees this as just a different way of spending his marketing dollars. Rather than invest them in the hope of maybe attracting new customers, he prefers to “spend it on rewarding those who have supported us.” Another way they say thank-you to regulars is by hosting in-store signings for self-published authors.
Events were a bigger focus before money got tighter. They would hire a stage and sound system for outside the store and invite bands and worship teams from local churches to play. “If you have eight people on a worship team, they all have family members that will come to hear them,” says Whiteman. “Then you get people coming into the store and buying things.”
If attitude has been an important part of Heavensent’s survival, so has the help and encouragement of other members of the Association of Logos Bookstores, to which they belong: The Whitemans had no real prior retail experience apart from a period selling gifts to tourists at a farmers market in Hawaii.
Other Logos stores have offered interest-free loans so that Heavensent can beef up its inventory to cater to former Family Christian shoppers that might come their way, while one volunteered to pay for the Whitemans to attend the annual Logos conference this summer.
“We wouldn’t have stayed in business this long without the wisdom and knowledge and support of Logos stores,” he acknowledges. “It’s a family that has sustained us over the years.”