Big-city bookseller is all about personal relationships
On the days when Christian retail seems more like a weight than a wonder, it’s the stories of how they’ve impacted people’s lives that keep people plugging away in their stores, and Rick Lewis has two of the best.
Like the time he was following the horrible news of the genocide in Rwanda, wondering, “What can I do? People are dying by the thousands and I’m selling books.” It all seemed rather lightweight in comparison, even for a one-time CBA Store of the Year admired by many in the industry.
Shortly after this flood of doubt, he was at the airport to collect his wife, Susan, when someone he recognized as a customer walked over to him. She’d been meaning to tell him for ages, she said, but there were always so many other people around in the store. Now seemed like a good time.
Sixteen years earlier she had wandered into Logos Bookstore of Dallas as a pregnant teenager, being pressured to have an abortion, she told Lewis. She had asked for a book “for a friend” facing an unplanned pregnancy, and Lewis had recommended a particular title about adoption. The suggested book had really helped Lewis’ customer―who told him that she was now on her way home from visiting the author, with whom she had corresponded and who had adopted the baby at risk.
Then there was the time artist Ron DiCianni spoke at the annual Logos bookstores conference, telling of receiving a letter from someone who’d gone shopping for a book to leave her children, before taking her life. She’d left the store with a book DiCianni had illustrated for Max Lucado, and it had changed the woman’s mind.
In her letter of thanks to DiCianni she enclosed the bag the book had come in, which the artist held up before the Logos booksellers: it came from Lewis’ store.
Artful hand-selling goes to the heart.
These two encounters speak to what has been at heart of the long and fruitful Logos ministry, marking its 40th anniversary this year: sensitivity to individual needs and a keen awareness of the best resources to meet them. It’s good, old-fashioned hand-selling, which is becoming something of a lost art.
Developing the skill requires being, first and foremost, a reader yourself, says Lewis, who gets through between 80 and 100 books a year. And in addition to books, it involves reading people rather than sales reports.
“Get out on the floor and help the people,” he advises. “You have to make relationships.”
This isn’t dependent on having a certain kind of personality, Lewis insists. Look up the word introvert in the dictionary and you’ll find his face by the definition, he says, but “I look at it like people are coming into my home when they walk in the store. I can be gracious and generous, and show them around and help them find stuff.”
He sees himself as a bridge builder, whether that means helping someone explore or find faith, deepen it, or broaden it.
“When we know what someone normally reads, then when they come in and ask what I might have to recommend, I might suggest something outside of their comfort zone.” Or if they ask for a book he doesn’t think much of, he’ll tell them why he believes another one would be better.
This doesn’t mean he has to agree with every book he sells, but they do have to “reflect God’s truth or beauty” in some way. As a result, there are some non-Christian books on the Logos shelves—and some Christian titles that will never make it there.
The two criteria for exclusion are challenging the deity of Jesus “and if they attack other believers.” Committed to serving and celebrating the breadth of the Church, Lewis doesn’t have much time for Christian authors “with an ax to grind” or who spend their time policing others’ doctrine and practice.
“We’ve had some flak over the years for some of the books we do carry,” he acknowledges. “It’s because we believe all parts of the Church have something to offer, so we encourage that.”
Strategic marketing reinforces the brand.
Over four decades in the same place, close to the campus of Southern Methodist University, Logos has developed a loyal customer base, but venturing into the community to provide book tables at churches and events around the city is “part of survival.”
Lewis explains: “Even if you don’t make any money, you can write it off as advertising. If we were to just sit here and wait for people to come we would have closed the doors years ago. You just have to get outside the four walls.”
He takes the same attitude to local author signings at the store; in fact, he prefers to host them over more established writers.
“To me, it’s marketing,” he says of the local promotion. “We may sell a dozen copies or 20. That’s not much, but [the author] does get our name out to everybody they know in town. We’re there to greet them and let them know what we have to offer.”
“Name” authors, on the other hand, aren’t the same kind of draw they were in the past. “It may work in a smaller town, but not in Dallas because the city has so many different things going on all at the same time.”
Carrying some 13,000 titles, which is more than the typical Christian store, requires thoughtful merchandising. Books need to be presented so that customers want to browse without feeling overwhelmed by the selection. Logos does that by breaking up the shelves with gift displays.
There’s also a section dedicated solely to the works of C.S. Lewis, including his academic non-Christian writings.
“It’s a statement about who we are,” Lewis explains. “We’re evangelical, and we’re interested in apologetics and good writing. He’s always been a part of who we are.”
Adjust inventory when it can meet a need.
Though Logos is avowedly first and foremost a bookstore, the Lewises believe in the margin and ministry of the right gifts. They started with plush associated with children’s books like Curious George and Amelia Bedelia—the kind of general trade titles they maintain are a must for a successful kids department.
Over time they’ve expanded to include other gift lines, among them art and jewelry that appeals to those with a liturgical background. Handheld crosses have also proved popular and helpful.
“When someone comes in to get something for someone who has just lost a relative, I tell them, ‘You don’t want a book now; there isn’t a right one to read,’” Lewis says. Instead he suggests something like a cross, which can be the tangible presence of Jesus they can hold onto.
The store also carries a lot of greetings cards, not all Christian. Lewis sells more than 20,000 units a year. Recently Logos added a used books section, offering titles donated by customers for a dollar or two.
“It’s gone quite well,” says Lewis, who doesn’t mind if someone finds a secondhand copy of a book he has full-price elsewhere, figuring the customer will be pleased to have scored a bargain. Plus, he’s found that new and used book buyers are “almost two markets.”
Also popular with customers is the store’s long-running Logos Dollars program. They get a faux $1 bill for every ten they spend.
“It’s like cash burning a hole in their wallet, with our name on it.”
The Lewises each have a shelf of their own personal reading recommendations, and shoppers are also given a list of Logos’ 30 best books—created for its 30th anniversary and to be expanded and updated this year—when they check out.
Lewis says he and Susan—who bought the store 27 years ago—“have been truly humbled while thinking about what God has done with our little store.” They’ve shipped books to all 50 states and to six of the seven continents: “No one has taught the penguins to read yet.”
− Andy Butcher