If he’d had a buck for every time someone told him how wonderful it must be to run a Christian bookstore in Hawaii, Carl Ashizawa may not have had to launch a fundraising campaign to help keep the doors open. But there’s fantasy, and then there’s reality.
As it is, what many people think of as a paradise vacation destination offers particular challenges for Christian retail ministry when you’re serving the people who live there. But some have recognized its value—to the tune of $100,000.
That’s how much Logos Bookstore of Hawaii brought in through its “Renovate or Move” campaign earlier this year, securing the funds needed to enable the store to move to a new location when its current lease ends with the year.
“Growing in Christ and nurturing grace and wisdom has no shortcuts,” Ashizawa told customers in his appeal letter. “It takes a church, a small group, a family, and a brick-and-mortar Christian bookstore to do that. Shopping online offers convenience and price discounts, but it can’t replace relationships.”
The message resonated, ensuring the store continues its 33-year ministry—which was recognized at CBA’S UNITE 2016 with the presentation of the Jim Carlson Spirit of Excellence Award to Carl and his wife, Becky.
With reserves depleted since the recession, the store wouldn’t have been able to find a new home had it not been for supporters rallying round. This latest crossroads—the goal being achieved on the second-toast day of the four-month drive—was the fifth time through the years that a reluctant closure was looking likely.
“We were overjoyed,” says Ashizawa of the eleventh-hour reprieve, grateful not just for the practical help but the affirmation. “People came in and expressed their gratitude for us being open. We got letters [from people] saying they had become Christians through buying a Bible in our store. We received so many words of encouragement, it was wonderful.”
The tough business environment for Logos since 2008 is one shared by all stores, but it faced unique challenges long before, even during the Christian retail boon years. First there was the freight problem: the cost of shipping inventory from the mainland 2,500 miles away. Then, islanders soon became used to shopping online.
Keeping a tight eye on things helped Logos survive, but the recession hit and the biggest single hit to the store: Amazon Prime. Sales plummeted big after the online retail giant introduced its bargain shipping program in 2014.
The considerable drop in income has forced Ashizawa to be even more careful about the numbers. He orders from publishers whenever possible—combined, they get about 60 percent of his business— to earn the cheapest shipping rate. He uses a California-based freight consolidator to merge different mainland orders and send them on to him. Orders can take a good while to arrive, so he has to be thinking well ahead.
And there’s another issue. “Because of the shipping and time delivery problems, we have to overstock,” he explains, noting that just-in-time replenishing simply isn’t practical for him. “I cannot stock like they do on the mainland; I carry three weeks of inventory, because when I order it can take a week and a half to four weeks to get.
“So in order not to lose sales I overstock on items that I believe will sell; it’s a bit of a guessing game.” That guessing is made more educated by close study of sales reports. “I am very thankful for our computer inventory system,” says Ashizawa, “without it we wouldn’t be able to survive.” Since the economy took a nosedive, he has also kept up much more on returns, doing them at least three times a year.
Making things stretch extends to bills, too. “I use credit cards as much as possible to pay invoices, and I pay them off every month. That means 20 to 30 days’ float time on cash flow, which helps a helps a lot,” Ashizawa says. “I’m very careful to make sure if I don’t get a statement to call to be sure I pay on time.”
The reliance on data is augmented by the intuitive feel for what customers want developed over the more than three decades since he gave up a promising career in hospital administration to open Logos with a group of friends. Originally part of the board, he found himself managing the store with Becky also on staff. Though she later left for other full-time work, she still helps out in her spare time.
Another high hard cost for Logos is rent for its 4,000-square-foot space. Though the store was forced to move out of a popular mall location of about a decade, it stayed in the general area in near downtown Honolulu, on Hawaii’s most populous island. “It’s expensive to be where we are, but we believe we need to be here in order to have the customers come to us,” says Ashizawa. “We’ve seen other stores in not-so-high traffic areas and they’ve not done well and they’ve closed.”
Even so, drawing traffic remains a challenge. Ashizawa sends out a monthly email to around 8,000 customers, with the Association of Logos Bookstores’ twice yearly catalogs going out to almost twice that number. Then there are events—a summer reading program for kids, a Vacation Bible School workshop, and bi-annual book signings by local authors. He’s tried to get some big-name guests, figuring that authors and speakers visiting Hawaii from the mainland might like the opportunity to pay a visit to the store and so write off some of their vacation on their taxes, but without success. “Almost no interest,” he says. “When they come to Hawaii they just want to have fun.”
He does see some well-known people when he provides the bookstore at the annual Hawaiian Islands Ministries conference; the biggest event of its kind in the state draws a number of mainland speakers and writers. It’s a big undertaking, getting lists of all the speakers’ recommended titles and ordering them but worth it. At the two-and-a-half-day gathering the store does a third of a typical month’s sales.
With his shopping constituency so attuned to online shopping, good in-store service is essential. Trimming staff to help keep costs down—there are now five full-timers and nine part-timers for the store’s six-day, 60-hour week—has meant making other adjustments to ensure that customers are treated well.
Among them has been some internal reorganization, with an information/help desk placed in the center of the store, sided by gift counters. “When people come to the cash registers, it can be hard to tell if they’re waiting to check out or waiting for help,” explains Ashizawa. “We wanted to be more accessible, to reach out and help them better.”
With the new configuration, when customers walk into the store the central desk “gives them an opportunity to seek assistance, which has worked out pretty well.”
Despite a tight control on money, Ashizawa budgets for a mainland trip almost every year. CBA’s summer show offers an invaluable buying forum, he says, and the Logos association meeting that precedes it—where his store has earned honors several times—provides priceless fellowship and training.
“Without the association we would probably have closed 20 years ago,” Ashizawa admits. “They’ve provided expertise and answers to so many questions. The camaraderie, the tears of joy, the learning how others do it have all been key in helping us to survive.”
Looking back, he admits that “the romantic idea of a bookstore gets dispelled pretty quickly,” but he remains convinced of the ministry responsibility. “It’s a mission to serve God through providing resources to our Christian community, and being open to those who are seeking.”
Affirmed by the response to the store’s fundraiser, Ashizawa is renewed in his confidence that brick-and-mortar stores still have a place. Online searching is limited, he points out. “You can read a few pages, but for somebody who is searching for something to try to grow their Christian faith, it’s really important for them to be able to have a physical book in their hand, to thumb through it—more than just look at the table of contents— and see whether it’s going to meet their need. I think that can only be done in a bookstore, with a physical book.”