What’s become of Catholic bookstores?

Sales associate Maria Druke talks with Sister Andrew Marie Tyler at Pauline Books and Media in Old Town Alexandria, Va., in 2011. Operated by the Daughters of St. Paul, the store has been a fixture on well-traveled King Street since 1982. It is one of several bookstores the order runs in North America. CNS photo via Nancy Wiechec

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In an era when anyone can order a book from their smartphone and have it on their doorstep within a day or two, Catholic bookstore owners like Cecilia Balog have to make do with lower sales.

“That’s what we call the new normal. You just have to get used to it, and hopefully you survive,” said Balog, co-owner of The Paschal Lamb Catholic bookstore in Fairfax, Virginia.

Balog told Our Sunday Visitor that the “Amazon Effect” has been impacting her business, which she started in 1987, for several years now. With the convenience of online shopping, fewer customers are walking through The Paschal Lamb’s doors.

“People are isolating themselves in their homes, in front of their computers. A lot of people aren’t shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. They just find it a lot easier to go online,” said Balog, who added that shopping from home is not the same as buying from a trusted local retailer.

“There really isn’t a substitute for coming into a store like ours in times of crisis, in times of family celebrations and things like that,” Balog said. “Amazon is not going to give a customer what we give the customer.”

Learning to compete

Dozens of Catholic bookstores across the country in recent years have shuttered their doors because of the ongoing evolution and disruption of the national retail market caused by e-commerce, led by the digital retail-giant Amazon.

An overview of local news reports since 2012 tells similar stories of Catholic booksellers in Virginia, Rhode Island, New York, Kentucky, Connecticut, Michigan and elsewhere around the country having to close their stores because they were having difficulty competing in the new economy.

“Amazon is the 800-pound gorilla. They have momentum and fabulous synergy with the other services they offer. It is a hard environment in which to compete,” said Matthew Pinto, founder and president of Ascension Press.

Catholic publishing companies such as Ascension Press have adapted to the changing market, selling directly on Amazon, for example, even as they still harbor a soft spot for the Catholic bookstores that for years were their most reliable partners in selling books and other religious items to Catholic audiences.

“On a natural level, it is sad because the people who chose to take the risk to start a Catholic bookstore five, 10 and 20 years ago are really good people who have a heart for mission, so it’s regrettable on that level,” Pinto told OSV, adding that Catholic publishers and booksellers all have had to adapt and work harder to stay afloat.

“It really is causing publishers to learn how to do and master more … direct-to-consumer strategies and their own proficiencies at digital marketing,” Pinto said.

Online, church presence

Over the last 10 years, market pressures forced Gregory DiCocco — whose family has owned and operated the St. Jude Shop in greater Philadelphia for almost 55 years — to downsize from seven retail locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the flagship store and two small satellite shops.

“As nice as our stores were, and in key locations in the Philadelphia area, it just got to a point where there was nobody really coming in. Everything was being fulfilled out of our main store here,” said DiCocco, who told OSV that many customers did not have time to stop in and shop during the day.

“Most of the time our (online) sales were coming in at nighttime, when people are home and the children are asleep. Our orders come in all through the night,” DiCocco said.

Catholic retailers that have survived and are doing relatively well are those businesses, like the St. Jude Shop, that have embraced the internet in their sales strategies. DiCocco said his family business operates four websites that market and sell books, religious gifts and sacramentals, as well as showcase the renovation work that the company also specializes in.

“Our presence on the website is pretty strong,” DiCocco said. “Our business has changed from a strong retail to a strong online and church renovation business.”

Some Catholic bookstores have adapted by trying out other new approaches, such as opening in-store cafes, holding more speaking events with book authors, setting up vendor tables at Catholic events, selling books after Masses, as well as partnering with local priests and parishes.

“It seems to me that those stores that are going to the people, where they can buy the book on the spot, seem to be doing well, but those stores who are at the status quo from 10 years ago are struggling,” said Charlie McKinney, president of Sophia Institute Press.

“They do other things to bring people to the store besides sell books and religious items,” said Anthony Ryan, marketing director of Ignatius Press, who told OSV that Amazon has become the Catholic publishing company’s top distributor of its content.

“Amazon is a mixed blessing,” Ryan said. “We’re happy to sell our books wherever we can sell them. The whole idea is to sell the Catholic faith, and you work with whatever modern means are out there.

“But we’re sorry that it has such an impact on brick-and-mortar Catholic stores,” Ryan added. “We have mixed feelings about it, but we have to do what we can to promote our books. As hard as it is for Catholic stores, we can’t say, ‘Well, we’re not going to do it because it hurts Catholic stores.'”

A faithful demographic

Amid the market disruption that has hurt local bookstores, Catholic publishers told OSV that their sales have remained solid. Catholics who want to learn and grow in their faith are buying books from the publishers’ print catalogues, going directly to their websites or clicking on Amazon to purchase those items.

“Given all the challenges, the digital revolution, the e-books, the sex scandals in our Church, amid all of that, we’re doing fine,” Ryan said.

The clergy sex-abuse scandals, while turning off many Catholics from attending Mass or donating to the weekly collection basket, so far does not seem to have had a significant impact on Catholic publishers or booksellers. The reason appears to be that people who shop at Catholic bookstores and buy spiritual books online are the least likely to abandon their faith in the midst of scandal.

“I think certainly there are a lot of people who are concerned about the scandals in the Church, and it’s caused some people to redouble their commitment to the spiritual life,” McKinney said. “Our core audience appears to have turned to prayer. Our books tend to help with spiritual growth, and it seems we’ve become a very helpful resource for them.”

Local Catholic booksellers like Balog, the co-owner of The Paschal Lamb store in Virginia, also can help customers who have questions that are not easily answered by an Amazon Prime account. Before speaking with OSV, Balog assisted a woman who had entered her store looking for a gift to console the parents of a close friend who had died suddenly.

“Try to go to Amazon and have them help you like that. It’s entirely different,” Balog said. “You can’t give your money to Amazon and expect your Catholic bookstore to be around forever. It doesn’t work that way.”

Brian Fraga is an Our Sunday Visitor contributing editor.

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