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In the age of Amazon, spiritual and religious bookstores find a market that clicks

Independent shops stress face-to-face relationships with loyal customers. "It doesn't cost anything to talk to me," an owner says.
IMAGE: Robert Anderson
Robert Anderson, the owner of Edge of the Circle Books & Magickal Supplies in Seattle. Anderson says he can compete with large general and spiritual bookstore chains because 'I can listen to what you have to say about what you're looking for and show you what it is, actually, that you're describing.'Alex Johnson / NBC News

SEATTLE — Robert Anderson misses the days when the big chain bookstores ruled the world.

Anderson owns Edge of the Circle Books & Magickal Supplies in the University District of Seattle, a small independent shop offering a wide variety of books about paganism and anything else religious "that isn't Christianity, Judaism or Islam."

For independent religious and spiritualist bookstore owners, the retailing world has been turned upside down since opened its virtual doors in 1994, a year before Anderson bought Edge of the Circle.

"We have to compete differently now," he says. "When it was Borders and Barnes & Noble, we just had to have a much better selection of books on these topics than they did, which was not that hard."

Today, Anderson's shop sells a lot more than just books. You can also find jewelry, tarot decks ("I carry most of the tarot card decks that are available in the United States," he says), ceremonial daggers, goblets, chalices, pins, candles, oils, incense, altar pieces and wall hangings.

"We had to make a point to expand into the areas of the magical supplies — what's been called 'magical groceries' — that people have to have," he says.

More important, there is Robert Anderson, a patient, dryly humorous man who is happy to spend time explaining his business and his merchandise and the history behind it — really, anything having to do with paganism and the occult — to anyone who stops in and asks.

"Oh, my goodness, any moment I'm happy to have people come to learn from me," Anderson says. "You know, it doesn't cost anything to talk to me."

'Their loyalty is what makes this possible'

Amazon, itself, has been experimenting with face-to-face retailing since 2015, when it opened the first of its 18 brick-and-mortar Amazon Books stores in a mall less than a mile from Edge of the Circle.

Image: Amazon Books in New York
An Amazon Books store in New York, one of 18 brick-and-mortar bookstores the online retailing giant has opened across the country since 2015.Mark Lennihan / AP

There are three bookcases of religious and spiritual merchandise at Amazon Books at University Village, which offers the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, several Zen and spiritualist books, a guide to Wiccan practice, Martin Lings' biography of Muhammad, Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" and five different translations of the Bible (but, on the day a reporter visits, no King James Version).

For more than an hour on a weekday morning, several dozen people wander the brightly lighted aisles assessing Kindles, Echoes, Fire tablets and TV sticks, smart home appliances and Amazon-themed knickknacks, along with the odd Greek yogurt maker and a Lifeline Power Wheel Ultimate Core Trainer.

Nobody — neither customers nor staff — stops in the religion section.

Ken Fulcher thinks he might know why.

For four decades, Fulcher's family has owned Amen! Christian Bookstore in Marysville, about an hour's drive north of Seattle. He confirms that his business has changed dramatically over the years. What used to be an independent chain of 11 stores is now two (the other one was converted into a bookstore-coffee shop hybrid about four years ago).

On a busy weekday morning, Fulcher accompanies customers around the store pointing out books and merchandise he thinks they might want. For 20 minutes, he disappears into the Bible room with a man who's seeking a very specific King James Translation.

Image: Ken Fulcher
Owner Ken Fulcher in the Bible room of Amen! Christian Bookstore in Marysville, Washington. Fulchers says his job is to make sure customers 'end up with what they are looking for -- or need. The rest takes care of itself.'Alex Johnson / NBC News

"I knew you'd be in. I just didn't know what you were looking for," he tells the man, who's eventually joined by two friends, which sets off a long debate about the relative virtues of different presentations of the King James Version.

Personalized service is critical to Fulcher. "My job is to make sure that they end up with what they are looking for — or need," he says. "The rest takes care of itself."

He greets every one of his customers as soon as they enter the store, because, he says, "their loyalty is what makes this possible."

"They know that they're probably going to pay more for something here than if they went to Amazon, but they're committed to the idea that there's a Christian bookstore in our community, and they want to keep it there," he says. "So they'll come in or they'll call me and say: 'I saw this on Amazon. Can you order it?'"

'Erosion ... in the brick-and-mortar channel'

Anderson and Fulcher are survivors of a dramatic shakeout in the market for brick-and-mortar religious and spiritualist bookstores.

The Parable Group, a Christian data and marketing company, reports that sales at U.S. religious bookstores and church stores fell by 3 percent in 2018.

That's the good news. The decline was less than the 3.6 percent drop in 2017 — the same year that Family Christian Stores, which billed itself as the world's largest retailer of Christian merchandise, closed all 240 of its storefronts, blaming chronic debt from the 2009 recession and "changing consumer behavior." Sales were down by 6 percent in 2016, when Family Christian was still in business.

IMAGE: Family Christian Store
A woman shops at a Family Christian Store in Owensboro, Kentucky, in January 2014. Family Christian closed all 240 of its stores in 2017, leaving a void in the market, but sales at smaller independent religious bookstores still fell by 3 percent the next year.AP

Then, just two months ago, LifeWay Christian Stores, another major religious retail chain, said it had been losing money since 2009 and would close an unspecified number of its 174 storefronts across the country because of "an accelerated rate of erosion ... in the brick-and-mortar channel."

It's possible that the collapses of Family Christian and LifeWay could leave a void for smaller independent bookstores and chains to fill. But Emma Wenner, religion news editor for the trade publication Publishers Weekly, says it's not a given.

Wenner says a lot of sales are moving to general retail giants like Walmart and Target as religious and spiritual books have become more mainstream — some of them topping general best-seller lists with sales in the tens of millions, like Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life" and William Paul Young's 2007 blockbuster, "Shack." And that "lessens the need for religion-specific bookstores," she says.

Parable's data tend to back that up. Last year, new religious books and goods — the so-called frontlist, as opposed to older books and merchandise on the "backlist" — made up only 15 percent of the top 20 products sold at Christian retail outlets in the United States, it found. By comparison, new books and goods made up 45 percent of the top 20 religious products sold in the general retail marketplace.

In other words, "it appears that frontlist products are moving faster outside of Christian retail," said Parable, which put an optimistic spin on the numbers by counseling religious bookstores to capitalize on their "backlist breadth" of older materials.

Then there's the long-term decline of spiritual identification among Americans, who Wenner says are "feeling less mission-driven to shop" at specialty stores.

In its most recent Religious Landscape Study, the nonprofit Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life reported that religious "nones" — those who self-identify as atheists, agnostics or "nothing in particular" — rose from 16 percent of American adults in 2007 to 23 percent in 2015.

Add it all up, and it spells "a lot of trouble" for religious and spiritual retail, Wenner says. "They're hoping for stability, and that's the best case."

Sarah Bolme, director of the Christian Indie Publishing Association, says independent owners should take their cue from another modern retail giant: Starbucks.

IMAGE: Edge of the Circle books in Seattle
Pagan merchandise at Edge of the Circle Books & Magickal Supplies in Seattle. Since before there was even an internet, 'your local occult shop ... was the center of community for people" interested in non-mainstream spiritual beliefs, owner Robert Anderson says.Alex Johnson / NBC News

"Starbucks thrived because they marketed themselves as a 'third place,' a space where people can share and enjoy a cup of coffee with friends and colleagues away from work and home," Bolme wrote last year in a marketing report on what she called the decline of independent Christian bookstores.

"Wouldn't it be nice for Christian bookstores to be a 'third place' for Christians and seekers to gather and encounter God without the formality of a church building or service?" she asked.

Bolme said many religious and spiritual bookstores are setting themselves up as "third places." But she wrote: "It seems that most Christian bookstores are maintaining the old model of simply setting up shop and expecting customers to come because they are interested in what the store is selling."

Anderson of Edge of the Circle says embracing the community is a no-brainer.

At shops like his, "you can talk to somebody about this stuff who is familiar with it," he says. "I can listen to what you have to say about what you're looking for and show you what it is, actually, that you're describing.

"I mean, your local occult shop has — like, way back before there was an internet — been the center of community for people" interested in non-mainstream spiritual beliefs, he says.

'We look for niches'

Like Anderson, Fulcher has worked hard to make Amen! Christian Bookstore a welcoming place.

IMAGE: Merchandise at Amen! Christian Bookstore
Amen! Christian Bookstore in Marysville, Washington, has diversified to include Chritian-themed general merchandise and even general books of interest to conservative customers. 'As needs change, we need to change,' says Ken Fulcher, the store's owner.Alex Johnson / NBC News

While "the most important thing we have in the stores is the Bibles," he says, "we look for niches that we can fill, and as needs change, we need to change."

So Amen! sells a wide variety of greeting cards (so many that a delighted woman exclaims, "Maybe I should just invest!"). And T-shirts. And license plate frames. And banners, caps, study guides and desks, general stock geared to appeal to politically conservative customers — even Bible-themed pocket calculators ("Make Every Day Count!") and God Waters plant watering cans.

Some of it is there to reach new customers. And some of it is there to replace what used to be rows and rows of Christian music CDs — mostly gone, now, "because of all the downloads."

There was a time when the music racks "would be half as long as this whole store," Fulcher says. But "after a while, you get a feel for what your clientele are looking for."

Waving his hand at all the non-book items, he says: "We don't make a lot of money on them. But it's a steady income."