Discounts and giving inspire loyalty and purpose.

For the best part of three decades, The Scroll had one of the more unusual mission statements in Christian retail, which manager David Rooker summarizes as “sell books cheap and give money away.”

With an across-the-board discount at one time of 30 percent, the Tyler, Texas store was able to put savings into shoppers’ pockets and yet also generously support a range of local ministries—making donations of more than $1 million over its lifetime.

“It’s been great to not have to make as much money as possible, have enough to give some away, and still offer great deals,” says Rooker of the store’s unorthodox approach. He has managed The Scroll since 1988, when the four couples who started the business as a co-op to make faith-based resources available more cheaply turned it over to a Christian charity.

Many of them new believers, the founders had been “aghast at how expensive Bibles were and had this idea of not making money off God’s Word,” Rooker explains. “They didn’t even charge for shipping; they tried to take donations to cover the overhead.”

While holding to the essence of the founding vision, The Scroll has had to adapt over the years to take into account the realities of business life. Now in a very different retail environment to when it started, the store has to make further operational changes while endeavoring to stay true to its roots.

Solidly in the Bible Belt, with several near-neighbor large ministries, The Scroll serves a sizeable Christian community. Helping drive the store’s success for many years was a robust homeschool supplies division. “We had people who would come from 300 miles away to see what we had,” Rooker recalls. “We hardly advertised at all because it was all word of mouth.”

But as the store’s homeschool market began to get shrunk by digital and online sales—and other categories were challenged by competing channels—The Scroll had to start tightening its belt.

‘Change of emphasis’

With price-cutting everywhere, “the whole concept of a discount store was no longer as meaningful,” Rooker notes. “It wasn’t driving sales anymore, and we couldn’t compete with Amazon. We began to realize that if we were still to exist and be of service to people, we needed to change our emphasis a bit.”

Having first reduced the standard discount to 25 percent off retail price, in 2014 the store reluctantly took the next step toward a more typical business style, becoming a regular, full-price store. However, the focus on bargains continues, with Rooker looking hard for publisher specials.

There’s an increased emphasis on “the $5 books and the discount Bibles and things like that, that publishers are promoting,” he says. “We have them much more up front in the store; there’s always a table with sales. Because the rest of the product is full price, the discounted product becomes far more important as far as putting it in front of people.”

To try to ease the transition, the store has beefed up its frequent buyer program, offering a $10 credit for every $100 spent. “It’s pretty steep,” Rooker admits, “but we felt like when we took away the across-the-board discounts we needed to replace them with something for our loyal customers.”

Discounts are still available on bulk purchases, with six of anything qualifying for 20 percent off. Additionally, pastors and churches get a 20 percent discount on their buys.

The shift to more usual pricing “did not make a whole lot of difference” initially, “but it has hurt us a little bit now,” Rooker says. “For the most part, most of the people folks who have shopped with us continue to shop with us; we do have a very loyal base.”

The Scroll still aims to support local ministries. Its website reminds shoppers that at the store “your money does double duty. Not only do you get life-bearing product to help you or someone else grow closer to our Lord, but you provide funding to meet real needs and do genuine ministry in the Tyler area.”

‘Just as valued’

Another change the store has made over the years is in adding gifts to its mix. Now “extremely important,” they weren’t part of the early inventory because “we were a bookstore,” Rooker says. “But we began to realize that gifts were just as valued by our customers as books and Bibles.”

Today gifts account for about a third of the store’s income, with a P. Graham Dunn laser engraving system a part of the department. Among its benefits: being used to produce award plaques for a local Christian radio station, which in turn advertises the store.

The Scroll has been in its current, third location, with around 5,000 square feet of sales space, for almost six years. Downsizing from the previous, larger location saved some money, and there were hopes that the move from the outskirts of Lindale to a strip mall by the old business area might boost traffic, but not so much.

Along with reducing rent, The Scroll has steadily trimmed its inventory as sales have declined. Rooker estimates that the current inventory level is about half what it was 10 years ago. As the shelves have been thinned, staff hours have been cut too, making it tough to keep on top of everything that needs to be done.

Some friends of the store come in occasionally to help clean, but though in its early days The Scroll ran on unpaid help—including some of the expectant mothers at the home supported long-term by the store—volunteer staffing was phased out long ago. It turned out to be too time-consuming to train people, David says.

‘Sense of community’

Manpower limits are behind the cutback on events over the past few years. “We used to do two or three major sales events a year, with balloons and everything,” Rooker recalls. There were homeschooling seminars and summer reading programs.

“We still do some easy stuff; we have a lot of local authors come in for signings,” he says. The store takes the books on consignment, and while the events are not big business, they help promote local people’s efforts, in keeping with the store’s strong emphasis on making a difference in the local community. Christian stores can help provide “a sense of community, as much as anything,” Rooker says. “We are not a church, but we have some churchy aspects to what we do.”

A couple of recent Bible journaling classes were popular, filling out the homeschool department at the rear of the store where tables are set out for shoppers to use while looking at the different curriculum materials.

The Scroll carries used homeschool curriculum on consignment, and offers donated used books in the same area, for between 50 cents and $3.99. “They have certainly helped,” Rookers says of the secondhand sales. “They have probably added a percentage point to the bottom line.”

Having had to cut back on its charitable giving in recent years, Rooker still hopes to see business pick up so that he can donate more again. The current lease runs through the end of 2017, after which The Scroll’s future is uncertain. Yet Rooker believes that Christian retail is still important, while acknowledging the need to “find the form that works.” Yes, Christian products may be available elsewhere, he adds, but “gas stations, the internet, Barnes & Noble aren’t going to provide the kind of personal touch Christian stores do.”

Despite the challenges, Rooker remains upbeat, quoting Proverbs 17:22: “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” He adds: “If you can’t enjoy it, there is really no reason to stick around in this business, that’s for sure.

“The whole basis of our faith is that we have a God who is bigger than what we are doing, and the whole concept of eternity is huger than what we are doing right now. What seems terrible to us is kind of trifling in the big scheme of things … If the store lasts or doesn’t that is just what it is, and I have had a blast doing this for almost 30 years.”

— Andy Butcher