The Local Theological Bookstore

Tim Challies has a post on his blog called “The Local Christian Bookstore,” spurred by an article at Slate on the recent Amazon.com marketing tactic that many decry as being anti-small-business. In the post, Tim talks about not agreeing with those who say there is an ought required in the argument for Christians to support local Christian bookstores. He says this especially because so many Christian bookstores sell junk–whether of the published, or trinket variety–and aren’t worth supporting in the first place. Why not support Westminster Books or even Amazon, when you can cut through the garbage, and get good bargains?

I agree with most of what Tim says on this. I’m hard pressed to find an ought involved in the discussion, and I also agree that so many Christian bookstores aren’t worth the time spent perusing their shelves.

But, I do want to add something to Tim’s post that gives shade of a different perspective; one that comes mostly from my own experience. I’m not writing this at all to force my experience on others, only with the hopes of adding a bit of nuance and perspective.

I work at Crux Books that is housed at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto. While many may want to call us a Christian bookstore, I don’t look at what we do that way (Note: I am speaking solely for myself, and am not speaking officially for the store or the owners!); rather, I see us as a theological bookstore. It may sounds like semantics, but for me, it makes a world of difference. At Crux, you will find books that cut across a wide spectrum in terms of denominations and theological content. We carry books by John Piper, D. A. Carson, and Wayne Grudem, alongside ones by Pope Benedict, John Meyendorff, and Gerd Thiessen. We have books on Reformed theology, Catholic theology, and eco-theology. You’re as likely to find a book by Daniel Dennett on our shelves as you are books by Alvin Plantinga. What you won’t find, is Jesus Junk, Testamints, or hokey books by the lowest-common denominator evangelicals or otherwise. The difference between Crux and Christian bookstores is that we trade primarily in quality books related to theology that represent the wide swathe of Christianity.

One of the reasons for the variety of theological perspectives at Crux has little to do with the store’s own theological bent. Rather, we sell textbooks to the theological colleges of Toronto School of Theology and the University of Toronto, as well as some other departments in classics and philosophy. So, we do textbooks for the low-Anglican Wycliffe College, the high-Anglican Trinity College, the United Church Emmanuel College, the Department of Religious Studies at U of T, the Roman Catholic St. Michael’s College and Regis College, the Presbyterian Knox College, and interestingly, Toronto Baptist Seminary.

And I think what we do is a great service to the wider theological, and yes, church community. Although I am proudly a Reformed Baptist, I am glad that there is a place that I can go to buy books by theologians who differ vastly from my perspective. It is important for me, as an historical theologian (in training!) to be reading the Orthodox historian John Behr, as much as it is that I be reading Peter Leithart. I need a place to go where the staff are mostly trained in theology, some of whom are working on or have PhD’s, who can recommend all of the latest and most relevant books on whatever subject I’m looking for. I can talk to Ronnie about which Greek/Hebrew grammar to buy, to Heather about standard books on women’s studies, Cindy on spirituality, Alain on classics, etc. We are like a walking annotated bibliography that will only be a help to those wanting to know more about books in their field.

And probably most relevant to the whole Amazon discussion (Amazon is a curse-word in our store!), is that we offer our books at an awesome price! First-time customers come in the store and see our price-tags that have two prices listed on them. They always ask, “Am I paying the higher or lower price?” We delight to explain to them that the higher price on the tag is the regular retail price that they would have to pay at most stores (including Amazon), and that the lower price is our own, discounted price. Typically (though not always), Crux sells their books at a cost of 20% less than the typical retail store. We also will have crazy discounts on certain items, sales that range from 50% to 90% off, and we have a phenomenal used section upstairs where great bargains are found. Most often, we undercut our competition. If a customer needs to order a book, we can typically get it in 3-5 business days. We ship all across the world (sometimes we’ve shipped to missionaries on remote islands), and will do conference book-tables anywhere we’re needed. We also have great coffee, hot chocolate, tea and cappuccino! So if price is an issue, which I think is legitimate (especially for starving theology students), then Crux is still the place to go.

So, with this shameless appeal, I want to make sure that Crux is distinguished from the kitschy bookstores that Tim is talking about. And I want advocate for a differentiation in language between “Christian” bookstores and “theological” bookstores, because the latter has a broad range of subject matter reflecting a broad range of theological orthodoxy, that serves the church as well as the academy.

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18 Comments

Filed under books, challies, crux books

18 responses to “The Local Theological Bookstore

  1. I appreciate you walking annotated bibliography’ers.
    : )

  2. Ian,

    I haven’t read Tim’s article yet, but I agree completely with what you’ve written (and I expect I’ll agree with Tim). I don’t tell anyone I work at a Christian bookstore. I tell them I work at a Theological bookstore.

    Come on by folks, we got what you want. If you we don’t got, we’ll get it. If we can’t get it, Ian will write it. If he can’t write it… you don’t need it.

    Something like that.

    Andrew

  3. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto, I spent lots of time at Crux and I can say that it is most definitely different than those Christian bookstores that Challies is describing in his article, though I don’t visit any of those. The selection is brilliant and the staff is always incredibly helpful.

    I think your point in the third to last paragraph is especially important. It is absolutely worthwhile to be in a store that is frequented by and staffed with a community that offers a wide range of knowledge on a subject and can help you along with your journey.

    Shopping on Amazon is fine if you know what you want. Yes, it recommends books based on what you’ve purchased but this is just automated and really offers no expertise that helps you cut through the crap and get to the good stuff. When I want to start learning about early Christian mysticism, and I do, I can wander into a store like this and I know I’m in good hands.

  4. I misspoke. Now that I’ve read Tim’s article, I find myself disagreeing with most it.

  5. Michael Plato

    As a regular at Crux, I concur that this is the type of business definitely worth supporting. Not only does it carry an in-depth selection unlike at any other bookstore, it also has a congenial atmosphere for both light and heavy theological discussions! The only thing that would make the store more interesting and lively is if the books were shelved as either “orthodox” or “heretical”. Aside from the question of who would get to pronounce this judgement, it would certainly lead to a great generation of opinion!

    • Mike: We’ll let you be the guy to decide, and then we’ll put up a picture of your face and your email address, so that when authors deemed “heretical” come in, you can explain your judgment! :)

  6. This is a spot-on example of how a non-chain bookstore needs to work. The problem with most Christian bookstores is that rather than develop a specific identity, they’ve gone lowest common denominator. You can only go lowest common denominator if you have enough space to carry everyone and low enough prices to overcome any offense in the lowest common denominator categories (that is, Amazon). Christian bookstores don’t have to be the way most of them are. Crux sounds like it proves the point.

    • Crux really has forged its own identity, and has its own ambiance. Regular customers feel like its home–I say this because I’ve been a customer before working there, and that’s how it’s always felt. It’s funny, I work there now, but most of my paycheck goes back to the store because I always end up buying more books!

  7. Stephen

    Ian, thanks for following up to Challies’ post (and good job getting linked too!). I would say that actually your bookstore is pretty similar to most bookstores that serve a Christian college audience. Crux is probably more unique in being able to serve so many denominations, but I have been to several seminary type bookstores that enjoy not having to stock the “trinkets and toys” of the mainstream Christian bookstore. The difference is that you already have a market – hundreds of students every 6 months coming in to buy a half dozen or more books that their professors put on syllabi. The common bookstore doesn’t have this luxury and has to go “lowest common denominator” to hope to make any profit. I think the missing element in the spectrum of Christian bookstores is the theologically-informed local CHURCH bookstore that can operate as a ministry rather than as a business, but that’s another argument.

    Thanks for all your work! I love seeing the energy of people looking to get great books into the hands of other Christians.

    • Hi Stephen, Thanks for the comment! I think what distinguishes Crux from other stores is the bit about our price difference. I’ve been in plenty (don’t tell my wife!) of academically oriented bookstores, theological or otherwise, and Crux is consistently more competitive. Also, we ship to anywhere, which a lot of places don’t do.

  8. Eric

    Hey Ian,

    I linked here through Tim’s site and really enjoyed your article. While I agree wholeheartedly with Tim’s conclusion about Christian bookstores, I certainly think there is an exception there for university-type bookstores that cut out most of the junk.

    However, I just did a cost comparison between Crux and Amazon: Amazon won 5 out of 5 books, by at least 10%. Granted, I didn’t look for any obscure books, perhaps that is your specialty. For example, Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek is about $10 cheaper on Amazon with the conversion rate (since I’m assuming your prices are listed in Canadian dollars). Any thoughts?

    • Hi Eric, thanks for your comment.
      I just went to Amazon.com and did a check on the Mounce grammar, and went through most of the check-out process to determine the total. To get it for the cheapest shipping option, it says that it is $42.04 USD ($42.90 CDN). This would mean, though, that it takes 3 wks to arrive. Crux has it for $43.99 and if you live nearby, you’d get it for that price (+ tax). If you had it shipped, it would only take 3-5 business days (though I don’t know the shipping cost off-hand, I’m not at work). The quick ship option with Amazon puts the price at $57.04 USD ($58.21 CDN). So this of course makes it more beneficial for people in the Toronto area to come in and pick up the book, which we regularly stock.
      Also, in terms of our online inventory. We’ve just overhauled (and are continuing to tweak) our site, so it’s always better to call to confirm prices. Sometimes it defaults to the retail price instead of our own. Our prices also generally stay standard, whereas Amazon’s will fluctuate. What you can get cheap one day, might go up the next because of the nature of our discounting process and theirs. Checking with Crux is good, because there are times when we find bulk discounts and can therefore offer a book for a time at an even cheaper price.
      A final note on this, which is more an appeal to a good principle, rather than an ethical norm (in my opinion). By purchasing from a place like Crux, you know that the money is going to the store, its owners, and workers (all of us are students), and so you’re supporting the “little guy.” Not everyone can afford to do this, which is understandable, but it is a nice bonus when you can.

      • Eric

        Thanks for the response, Ian. That’s good to know about your online shop. I’m always looking for a local bookstore (even if it isn’t local to me, as is the case with Crux) to support. As someone who runs a small business to pay for seminary, I know how crucial support for the little guy is.

        I have put you guys on my places to check out next time I’m in Toronto!

  9. Nice article. I would recommend brightening up your page, though. It was so dark I found it physically hard to read. Thanks!

  10. Archives in Pasadena CA is like your store. Its primary customers are Fuller students, because they are in the neighborhood of Fuller. Though the owners are more theologically liberal, they carry a lot of great stuff that I, as a Bible believing Baptist, love to read. It has become one of my favorite places in the world to visit. Amazon just can’t provide that esoteric feeling I get when I walk amongst the shelves of used theology books.

  11. What’s with the Wright book Clary? :)

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