>>>While many independent Christian retailers feel a sense of responsibility to provide a safe place for their customers, that caution is typically heightened at church-run stores that can be very conservative in regard to what goes on their shelves. Which makes what Chris White is doing even more unusual.
Visiting the Stained Glass Book Store he runs at Boise Vineyard (Boise, ID), you’ll find both the “Hunger Games” and “Divergent” young adult series next to the latest issue of Dr. Who magazine—certainly not the kind of titles carried in many other Christian stores.
“I’m not trying to be controversial,” White says of the selection he’s championed since taking over the store last year, though it has raised a few eyebrows. “But I do want to stretch people’s thinking. If God can speak through Balaam’s donkey, He will use anything He can to communicate with us.”
That’s in keeping with an expansive view at the large church—more than 1,000 members— that has a vibrant arts community including groups for painters and writers. Himself an author and musician, White says he’s continuing the vision of the store’s 10-year history, which has always seen it carrying some titles that might be considered risky. “All I’m doing is hacking wider the brave trail blazed before me.”
Church leadership is hands-off, leaving White to run the store in Heritage Hall—a large center sometimes used for events on the church’s sizeable campus—as he sees fit. “I have one rule, and it’s pretty loose,” he says. “As long as it’s not derogatory toward Christ, I’ll consider carrying it.”
That means that in addition to a fairly large Christian living section, Stained Glass has room for the latest Lee Child thriller, which White read to make sure it was OK.
On the other hand, he decided not to carry John Green’s bestselling YA tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars, returning a few copies he had ordered in response to requests.
“It’s not useful, in my estimation,” he decided. Veronica Roth’s Divergent, however, “is a good book,” he says. “It’s about identity, and there’s no greater or more formative question for a teenager.”
Recognizing that the YA category “has overcharged emotion and controversy built in,” White is especially careful to weigh each title he carries in this section. Markus Zusak’s award-winning The Book Thief passed the test, though White knows some might be surprised.
“In the end, I’ve decided to stock books that, even though I’ve not read all of them cover to cover, are at least decent, that at least have some redeeming features, that at least go beyond gratuitous entertainment and get people thinking,” he said.
Acknowledging that he’s “not on the timid path,” White believes that “if you’re an authentic Christian and you’re led by the Holy Spirit, you’re going to know what book is OK for you.”
White’s inventory is different in other ways, too. A sizable history section includes classics like Winston Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
“I love history, and I’ve read a lot of it,” he explains, echoing Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough’s view that the subject is the single most important one anyone can study. “It brings perspective and gives you more of a context for your own life. By learning about the past we prepare for tomorrow.”
This wide selection is all part of the store’s mission to equip members of the local body in their walk with Christ.” Think of Stained Glass as “an armory of the arts,” White says. “A place from which words fly and quite possibly put a dent in the big bad world.”
In addition, he hopes that the somewhat idiosyncratic selection might draw in nonchurchgoers from the local community. He’s been in touch with another independent bookseller in the area, and the two have been kicking around the idea of a Book Crawl— like a pub crawl but with books instead of beer—which would invite book-lovers to take part in a tour of all the local bookstores.
Though he worked at Best Buy for a while when he was younger, White has no real background in retail.
“It’s not rocket science,” he says, “though it does take some street smarts.”
One advantage he has is that the church’s administrative staff handles the accounts, leaving him to concentrate on the operational side of the business. “That’s been very freeing. We just get to open the gates and sell stuff.”
The “we” is he and his wife, April, who manages the Stained Glass Coffee Shop across from his bookstore. The couple has been part of the church for 15 years.
The store is open throughout the week, though most sales occur on Sundays and when there are events in the hall. Since inheriting responsibility for the operation, White has made some changes. The new name, replacing The Book Cellar, acknowledges the large stained glass window rescued from an old church in the area that is now featured in one end of Heritage Hall.
“We thought of how the Body of Christ is like that. We’re all different shapes and sizes and colors, and yet we’re all part of the same window,” he says. “And so the idea is that we can all catch the light.”
White has added a couple of easy chairs and magazines to the store’s tight, 850-squarefeet space. The 30-40 titles “bring a different kind of customer” and are ordered on a returns basis so there is no major outlay for him.
Meanwhile, he’s gotten rid of CDs, offloading a boatload that hadn’t sold with a big sale, though he will special-order on request.
“We’ve seen the paradigm shift from ownership to streaming, and that’s probably going to happen too with other media, like movies,” he says. “I’m not trying to be critical of more traditional businesses, but I am trying to offer something that’s a little bit unconventional, hoping we can build a loyal customer base.”
One or two people have questioned some of the changes, but most have been supportive. He welcomes the opportunity to discuss what he’s been doing because he’s a great believer in conversation. It cements personal relationships, which he believes long-term will trump price and convenience—often the big draw for church-based stores.
[quote]“A place from which words fly and quite possibly put a dent in the big bad world.”[/quote]
Though he discounts for regulars and church ministries that buy in bulk, generally he goes by the recommended publisher’s price. “I compete on relationship and customer experience and ambiance, because it’s something the big guys can’t do.”
White isn’t chasing after bargain hunters who “want to walk out as soon as they think they can do better somewhere else. I encourage those who are determined to go do so. I don’t want a high-maintenance, high-cost clientele.”
Still, the financial challenges require “an irrational love and affection for the written word to carry on,” he says. “I have that fun little disease. My most loyal clients share a little of it with me, and so we enjoy some common ground, which is crucial when one competes on relationship and experience.”
A former Marine, White describes his store move by an old military term: “a lat move.” Writing has something to do with books, so the thinking goes that “any stargazing writer has this sort of ingrained predisposition to be good at running a bookstore.”
The media world is in turmoil, White notes, “and as an independent author I’m fully aware of the implications,” he says. “But there’s always going to be some form of retail out there. The world is changing, and if you’re a bookstore owner or manager you need to be flexible, without compromising the principles of what you believe you should carry.”
– Andy Butcher