Customers embrace their local store with a dual purpose.
An evangelical Episcopalian, a Jewish atheist, and a humanist: it may sound like the start of a walk-into-a-bar joke, but it is actually the lineup from which you will find someone behind the counter at what may be one of Christian retailing’s most idiosyncratic stores. After all, nowhere else is a passerby likely to walk in and buy the copy of The Satanic Bible featured in the Halloween window display, as they did during our visit to Logos Bookstore in Manhattan.
But owner Harris Healey—the believer in the store trio—has no qualms about carrying a title that would almost certainly not make it across the threshold of any other Christian store. Offering the book—which when not featured in a seasonal window promotion would otherwise be on the shelf in the store’s comparative religions section—is part of the strategy that has enabled the store to survive 40 years in New York City, now as one of the last independents on the Upper East Side.
“We’re two bookstores in one,” Harris says of the 826-square-foot space sandwiched between a salon and a comic book store. “If they go down the right side, secular people think we are a religious bookstore. If religious people go down the left side, they think we are secular.”
That dual clientele points to another way Logos differs from many other Christian stores—as a neighborhood business, mostly serving people who live in the immediate area, rather than a destination spot.
“We sell Christian religious materials alongside what we believe the local public wants to see,” explains Harris. “Our mission is to show, hey, Christ is here: people find we have materials they are comfortable with, and then they look around and see these others.”
Though he and his staff “encourage dialogue”—they “don’t proseltyze.” As a result, “people get us after a while. If their need has been met, they don’t blow up about materials they don’t believe in.”
For the most part, customers aren’t from the “conservative Christian culture,” Harris says. “Basically, New York City isn’t that. They embrace, more than anything, secularism. Judaism is quite strong; a lot of the secular Jews are rediscovering their religion.”
With a master’s degree in theology, Harris sees his store—part of the Association of Logos Bookstores—as his parish, in some ways, with a quiet mission. “Christian ministry is to welcome people,” he says. “You have to be in the world—but not of it—to talk about Jesus. That’s what I think the store does.”
For him, a bookstore should be “a place for an exchange of ideas, where the atheist, the true believer, the Jew, and the Muslim should all be able to shop in peace, side by side.” Harris’s staff includes Ben, the Jewish atheist who leads the monthly interfaith Sacred Text group that studies the Bible; and Nick, the humanist who believes in the importance of serious religious books being sold.
You won’t find any “out-and-out pornography” at Logos, but in addition to alternative religion and some edgy contemporary mainstream fiction, there are general nonfiction titles aimed at eclectic readers, like Amy Schumer’s memoir, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo.
The marked absence of bestsellers is another clue to Logos’ unique situation. They were part of the inventory before the store moved to Manhattan in 1995, forced out of its long-time Madison Avenue location by rising rents.
“The big impulse buys are done during someone’s lunch break; either they go online or to a physical bookstore,” Harris observes. “We were getting amazing business during lunch there.” Since the relocation, however, popular sales of the likes of James Patterson have been “a lost cause, because everybody has bought him right away.”
Weekends are busier than weekdays at Logos now, when most of the general market traffic arrives. Among the specialty sections in the store are New York City, Philosophy & World Religions, Poetry, Science & Nature, Spirituality, and Christian History and Thought.
Children’s books emphasis
Interestingly, much of Logos’ Christian clientele drops by during the week. They may have heard of or seen a book at one of the megachurches in the city but not wanted to have to wait in line at the book table or store there, and decided to visit Logos later instead, Harris says.
In addition to Sacred Text, there’s a monthly book club, Kill Your TV, now in its 19th year. Around a dozen or so people turn out for the gathering, which recently tackled Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Most titles are the focus of discussion for just one month, though big classics like Don Quixote and Ulysses have been stretched to two. It’s not all weighty stuff, either; Italian author Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend was the selection not long ago.
Attendees at both groups get 20 percent off purchases made at the event, as do those bringing little ones to the Monday morning children’s story time. There aren’t as many sales here, however, when the wheeled card racks down the center of the store are pushed to one side to make room for nannies with children and their strollers. But “if the kids liked it, then the parents come back at the weekend and buy [the featured book] at regular price,” Harris notes.
Children’s books are a heightened emphasis at the Manhattan location, reflecting the more residential local population. Tucked away at the back of the store, the department features titles displayed face-out: many kids’ books are so thin that they just disappear when spine-out, Harris discovered.
“People are always looking for children’s books,” he says, “and they are one area they don’t go online [to buy]. They want to touch and feel it and see if it is going to work for their children.”
As part of the relocation, Harris decided to model the former upholstery store into which he was moving on NYC’s famous Rizzoli Bookstore. Logos’ wooden floors, dark wood fixtures, and wheeled ladders evoke an old-time bookstore, a feel accented by Harris’s personal blazer-and-bowtie dress code. Although there’s less space in the current location, the store looks roomier than it did in midtown because of the high ceilings, fixtures, and face-out displays.
Good displays needed
With the emphasis on serious books, the gift selection is small. Greeting cards sell well, among them prints of original works by several artists. Their large canvases don’t sell often, but they disguise the empty higher shelves and add to the store’s arty, thoughtful feel.
As a neighborhood business, window displays appealing to passers-by are important—hence the Halloween focus. “It was culturally relevant,” Harris says, adding that it has also reduced criticism of the store’s Easter display “because people accept that’s cultural, too. If I keep Christian religious book windows too long, it goes negative.” The store’s Valentine’s Day display “always gets a lot of attention.” Inside “more critically displaying” books of all kinds, such as with the kids’ titles, has been important, Harris says.
Space being at a premium, the store mostly carries single titles. There isn’t enough room for a used book section, so non-movers are priced from $1 to $3 and left in rummage bins near the front window. Weeding them out this way instead of keeping them on the shelves at a percentage discount has made it possible to expand the history section.
Having started his career as a buyer’s assistant in 1980 before becoming assistant manager, then manager, Harris took over the store in 1991. “I’ve seen a lot of changes in the business,” he says, Amazon among the biggest, of course. But since relocating he has seen people embrace their local bookstore.
“We help people out as much as we can, so they will stick with us and special order.” As a result, he isn’t faced much with demands to match or better online prices. “People know we’re providing them with a service,” he says. “If they want the book right away and we have it, [the benefit] is obvious to them.”