Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Late Great Christian Obituary

Back in 1970 a casual visit with R. Gordon Mitchell in Toronto led to a 15-year career as a Christian bookstore owner/operator.

My father, knowing my desire to be involved in Christian bookselling, had arranged the get-together with Mr. Christian Books in Canada, Gordon Mitchell. After some discussion concerning the trade and my expression of interest, Mr. Mitchell posed the question, “why don’t you buy the bookstore in Peterborough?” We responded, “is it for sale?” When the answer was in the affirmative, the wheels started turning and I owned the Ambassador Bible Book Store in January 1971.

For fifteen years I lived on the edge, struggling to increase sales, satisfy customers, offer services beyond the norm and pay the bills. As I look back on that period of my life I recall only the fond memories. Lives transformed as customers came to know Christ. Friendships forged that continue to this day.

Since the business was sold in 1986 I’ve continued to be a bookseller at heart. Our local Christian bookstore is a favourite place to visit. When traveling, and I’ve been around, I always seek out the local Christian bookstore.

Last fall, the business that R. Gordon Mitchell founded many years ago, R. G. Mitchell Family Books, filed for bankruptcy. Fortunately the founder was not around to see the huge BANKRUPT sign draped over the front of the building. He’s in heaven! Mitchell’s was more than a retail outlet. They had a huge wholesale business and represented many of the major Christian publishers. I made many a visit to their Gordon Baker Rd. location during my 15 years in the book business to pick up supplies.

So what happened? What led to their demise? I can’t say for sure but I do know that a number of factors could have precipitated the events of the last few months.

Among them could be:

- The general downturn in the economy

- The proliferation of online suppliers of books…places like CBD (Christian Book Distributors, Amazon and Chapters/Indigo

- The availability of many of the bestsellers at greatly reduced prices at stores like WalMart, Costco and other big box stores

- The illegal pirating of music and videos

- Unwise business decisions

- Growing too quickly

Whatever the cause, it was a sad day today when I dropped by for the liquidation auction. The retail sales area had been cleaned out of books, music, cards and the stock that was normally carried. Over the last few weeks the discounts had increased and books could be had for less than a dollar.

"What once was Zondervan, Cook and Revell...Today was Samsung, HP and Dell..."

Today the area was filled with electronic equipment, computers, printers, work stations, chairs, office equipment, telephones and other various and sundry items. Shelving, conveyor belts and other warehousing materials were available out back. As I entered the store, the sound of the auctioneer hawking his wares greeted me. It was not a welcoming voice or a pleasant smile. This was big business. Get the most you can for whatever is left. A sad day indeed!

Unfortunately Mitchells won’t be the only store that will have to close up shop. The Christian bookselling industry is struggling. Many mom and pop shops have had to liquidate and clear out. More will follow.

When I bought my store I picked up some helpful literature from our trade organization the Christian Booksellers Association. One item was a brief article entitled The Late Great Christian Bookstore. The title was a take-off on the popular bestseller at the time, The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. The article spoke of the struggles encountered by Christian bookstores and how they could be overcome. Sad to say, too many stores didn’t take heed.

So what can be done to help prevent these tragic store closings? I have a few suggestions for what they’re worth.

- Support your local Christian bookstore.

- Give them the majority of your business when possible. The price might be cheaper if you order online but how many phone clerks have prayed with customers, taken them for lunch or spoken a word of encouragement during a difficult time?

- Encourage others to patronize your local Christian bookstore.

- Don’t expect your store to carry every Christian book available. They can’t! The smaller the town, the fewer the titles that can be carried. Ask them to order the book.

- Drop by even if it’s just to speak a word of encouragement.

- Be a friend.

I’m committed to supporting the smaller, independent Christian booksellers.

I hope you'll do the same!

Note: If you're visiting Emmaus Family Books in Peterborough tell Jim Rose or any of his staff that you read this post on Pilgrim Scribblings. He'll be glad to hear from you and you never know what he might do. Just a hint...


  1. Thanks for this... good column. It helps in the process of the staff finishing / going through the grieving process. There has still been no word from any Mitchell family member to those staff members who really put their heart into their work and were walked out of their job by a bankruptcy trustee - so we must remember that we do our work as unto the Lord!

  2. thanks for your reflections on Mitchell Books and the bookselling industry-

    Thanks for your encouragement to people to drop in
    and support Christian bookstores

    Those of us still in the business will carry on and be faithful and try to be a light in our community
    These are changing and uncertain times
    Lando Klassen House of James, Abbotsford

  3. Great thoughts David, carrying on from what we started discussing on Boxing Day! Sad that the closest source for us now is ordering online from Chapters! We will have to swing by Emmaus on the rare occasion we visit Peterborough!

  4. David -
    a small world - my family (grandmother, aunt, etc.) are close relatives and friends of the Mitchell's. I'd been to their home(s) as a child with my grandparents on a few occasions. I have fond memories of them.

  5. I work at a Christian bookstore, Harmony House, and it was a very sad day when RGM closed their doors. We miss our Mitchell family very much! We travel to Peterborough often and usually make every effort to stop in and say hi to Jim at Emmaus! Please keep us in South Porcupine in your prayers and we are also praying for the other Christian bookstores! It isn't just Bible and book is ministry!

  6. What precious memories of respecting and admiring RGMitchell, as I attended the same assembly many years go. One special event was when he introduced me to Joni Eareckson Tada and she asked if she could use of my poems.

  7. thanks again David for your observant points on preventing a christian bookstore closure. very helpful. i'm sure i'll be receiving sound wisdom from you in the days to come. ;o)peace, Vaclav

  8. Thanks We are new in town and are looking for the bible book store.