June 6, 2008 Volume 22, Number 06
Christian retail chain closes shop on a high note
By Doris Fleck | Special to ChristianWeek
General manager Larry Thiessen remains upbeat about the closure of four Christian Publications stores in Alberta and B.C. PHOTO: PETER FLECK
CALGARY, ABChristian Publications is closing up shop while the going's still good.
Faced with skyrocketing lease rates and a dramatically changing marketplace, the four-store Christian retail chain headquartered in Calgary has chosen to go out on a positive note.
"We can choose to exit honorably," says general manager Larry Thiessen. "Let's celebrate three decades of good work, celebrate our staff, honour our venders and go out saying, 'It's been a great time,' rather than risk being forced to the sidelines."
In the last five years Christian retailers across Canada have been struggling to stay afloat. Once the only providers of Christian books, music and curricula, they are now being undercut by national bookstore chains, big-box department stores, wholesale clubs and the advent of convenient and affordable online shopping.
Ironically, bestselling Christian books like The Prayer of Jabez, Left Behind and The Purpose Driven Life ended up doing major damage to the Christian retailer. Wholesalers like Costco and big-box stores like Wal-Mart picked up on the religious market trend and began selling huge quantities at a discount that Christian stores were hard pressed to match.
"That doesn't bring your store down," Thiessen says, "but your niche market has a hard time growing."
Then churches like Willow Creek began writing and providing exclusive sales for their own curricula. "In one fall quarter every single major church account we had evaporated," says Thiessen.
Digital downloading also took out much of the Christian music market. It wasn't long until the final death knell came in the fall of 2007. Once the Canadian dollar reached parity with the U.S. greenback, stores were forced to sell their older inventory for close to cost.
This January Blessings Christian Marketplace closed 19 stores across the country in an effort to survive. That left them with just four stores in Calgary, Edmonton, Langley and Chilliwack.
"If you can't cover your costs, you can't do the ministry," says Blessings president Mark Hutchinson. "We had no alternative but to close down."
End of an era
This year the lease at Christian Publications' landmark downtown Calgary store was up for renewal. The Christian & Missionary Alliance district that owned this prime real estate, had already decided to sell the land.
"It would have been bad stewardship to sit on this building with the value that it's gained," Thiessen says.
At the same time, their south Calgary store was served notice that the lease was not being renewed. With no affordable rental space available, the difficult decision was made to close the south Calgary and Edmonton stores by the end of June. The Kelowna location will either be sold or shut down by mid-summer and then the downtown Calgary store will celebrate the end of an era in August.
Although this has been Thiessen's life work, he says: "Maybe the best thing that can happen is for this to change so that these products become available almost everywhere. Thousands and thousands of more people have access to it."
Hutchinson says he's sad to see Christian Publications close. "They were a true ministry," he says.