>>>Though Ruth James acknowledges that a heart for ministry isn’t much good without a head for business, at the end of the day she credits divine guidance more than conventional wisdom for a quarter century’s success.
While many of her independent peers have been retrenching or retiring as the industry continues to shift, James has seen the small chain she co-owns and runs with her daughter Natalie Church quietly thrive as she swims against the prevailing tide. From where they are to what they carry, Ruth’s Christian Bookstores defy some of the accepted ways of doing things.
[quote]“I was setting up the Stillwater store late one night and I cried out to God, ‘If this is Your will for us to open this store, then show me, Lord,”[/quote]
A Humble Beginning
Four of the mother-and-daughter pair’s five flourishing locations are in enclosed malls, which most other Christian retailers abandoned long ago in the face of high rents, long hours, and an increasingly incompatible shopping environment. During that same time, Ruth’s increased their inspirational gift offerings long before other Christian retailers, but as many have shifted that way in more recent times, the stores’ shelves have been thinned of gifts to make more room for—of all things—books.
“You find a way to stay in the calling God has placed on your life,” says James of her atypical approach, which was born out of necessity.
She was a 40-year-old farmer’s wife when Christian retail first beckoned. God had done “a really deep work in me,” and when she asked a pastor what he would do if he were not leading a church, she was intrigued when he said he would run a Christian bookstore.
James ordered some Christian books to sell in a brown metal building at the back of the family farm—in a rural Oklahoma community with a population of just 900—that she had used for making custom drapes.
“I didn’t really feel like I knew what I was doing,” she admits. “If I had really known what I was getting into, I probably wouldn’t have done it.”
A year later she was offered a spot at Oakwood Mall in nearby Enid, later realizing that arriving in May—just in time for the busy graduation season and Mother’s Day—counted for a positive launch into real business.
A God Story
In the 25 years since, James and Church have cautiously expanded. First came a spot in a mall in Oklahoma City (Quail Springs Mall), then Muskogee (Arrowhead Mall). Stillwater, the exception to the inside mall rule, was added three years ago, while the Bartlesville location opened two years ago in the city’s Washington Park Mall.
The expansion has been based on God’s leading rather than some business master plan. Each store has a “God story” of how it came about, says Church, “whether it be God’s timing of a lease coming open in the last hour, to hearing a preacher on the radio who challenged me of when was the last time I’d taken a risk for God.”
Then there were confirmations when doubts would start to rise. “I was setting up the Stillwater store late one night and I cried out to God, ‘If this is Your will for us to open this store, then show me, Lord,’” Church recalls. “I looked down to where I was putting out books, and I saw one by Bill Hybels titled The Power of a Whisper: Hearing God, Having the Guts to Respond. I just started laughing.”
If James had to identify a key practical factor in her success, she would point to location. Except for Oklahoma City, each store is in a small town with no other Christian retailer around.
“The people appreciate us being there,” she says.
Though the stores’ success may in part be attributed to their serving part of the Bible belt, by no means all who shop are believers. Unlike many Christian stores, Ruth’s stores aren’t destination shopping. Because of their mall locations, they draw a lot of unchurched visitors.
“Many people just wander in,” says James. “A lot of times when people are in the mall, they’ll visit most of the locations.”
Through the years the stores have proved to be “a first step back into church and into faith” for a number of people. The chain’s name—and shoppers’ wrong assumptions—also brings people in the door. It’s not uncommon for out-of-town visitors or telephone callers to confuse the stores with the Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse chain. And at the Stillwater location, Ruth’s carries customized inspirational t-shirts that mimic those of Oklahoma State University’s popular sports teams. Some shoppers who see them displayed in the window “don’t realize we’re a Christian store until they’re inside.”
In another approach that bucks what seems to be sound strategy, the stores don’t carry items with appeal to the general market, even with so many casual shoppers.
“We’ve consistently stayed with Christian things and not gone general market,” James says. Gifts have “Scripture or some kind of declaration on it; we won’t just get in the latest fad that works well in retail.”
“We try to make people feel special and know that we appreciate them coming in,” says James. “We have a pretty large area for children that’s family-friendly. We’ve tried to make it so that, no matter how much work it is to have children in and out of the store all the time, when the family comes to the mall, they want to come here. There’s a place for them to enjoy themselves and play.”
The stores host screenings of new “Veggie- Tales” releases in the main mall court, with gift bags, coupons, and a prize wheel.
“We’ve been doing that for close to 20 years,” James says. “A lot of stores have stopped doing it, but we have customers who came when they were little and now bring kids of their own.”
A couple of the locations are located near their mall’s theaters, making them a prime pass-the-time place to browse before the movie starts. The stores try to cater to families, recognizing that frazzled parents welcome kid-friendly mall locations. James and Church invested in helium tanks to be able to give away free balloons.
James took an unorthodox approach last Christmas, when the season started disturbingly slowly. “The Scripture came to mind that it is more blessed to give then to receive,” she recalls, prompting her to think how her Christian stores might stand out in the midst of so much buy-buybuy seasonal emphasis around them.
[quote]“We try to make people feel special and know that we appreciate them coming in,”[/quote]
So Ruth’s launched a 21 Days of Christmas campaign, with giveaways and prize drawings. Staff morale improved, and customers responded warmly. Though sales weren’t the goal, “business went up, and we generated a lot of goodwill.”
While others have dropped it, James keeps the word Bookstore in her business’ name. Fiction sales are down, but other categories remain strong, notably devotionals.
“We’re carrying more promotional books,” says James, “and we make sure we always have the $5 specials in.”
With gifts going down from about 40% of inventory a few years ago to around 25%, more space is being given to books and Bibles, which remain the top seller. Staffers will imprint Bibles for free and volunteer to pray over every Bible sold.
“Usually when someone is buying God’s Word, it’s a special event; they want the recipient to increase their relationship with the Lord,” notes James. “We hardly ever have anyone reject the offer [to pray]. We pray and agree together over God’s Word for the person. It really seems to bless the people. It makes a connection with our customers; they are brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Though James has no plans to retire, as she celebrates her silver anniversary in the industry she looks back on “the incredible opportunity, the great honor to be able to minister to God’s people and to serve them.”
Ministry is “like a river,” she reflects. “It flows from the Lord into you and then out to the people, then it refreshes you even more. People have been so gracious to come back and tell us when we’ve been a help to them; it refreshes you even more.”
[button color=”green” size=”medium” url=”http://www.ruthschristianbookstore.com” target=”_self” ]Ruth’s Christian Bookstore[/button]