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.