As young people embrace mysticism as meaning, entertainment, or both, “spiritual stores”—selling things like crystals, tarot cards, sage, and occult books—are experiencing a revival. The shops bloomed in the 1970s as a result of interest in New Age spirituality. Presidential candidate Marianne Williamson credits a New Age bookshop in Houston with introducing her to the city’s spiritual scene in high school; she later ran a similar store herself.
The traditional Christian bookstore, selling Bibles and Christian tchotchkes, is also a product of the 1970s. But while reporting a story that ran this week in Slate about the runaway Christian bestseller The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, I was reminded that unlike spiritual shops, Christian bookstores may not be long for this earth. LifeWay Christian Stores, a chain operated by the Southern Baptist Convention, announced this spring it is closing all 170 brick-and-mortar stores. Family Christian Stores, another major chain, said in 2017 that it would close its 240 stores and lay off 3,000 people. A Methodist-run chain closed its 57 stores in 2012. “We are fast approaching an America where this particular brand of religious retailer will be no more than a memory,” as the Week put it a few years ago. Independent shops are struggling, too. The only Christian bookstore in the city nearest to me, Concord, New Hampshire, closed this spring after 35 years in business, blaming Amazon for a 33 percent decline in sales in recent years. (The local spiritual shop carries on, despite multiple negative Yelp reviews of its “energy.”) Even the industry’s longtime lead trade group, formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association, has collapsed.
In their heyday, Christian bookstores were ubiquitous in strip malls and suburban Main Streets across the country. Largely an evangelical phenomenon, they sold Bibles, devotionals, music, fiction, and nonfiction, along with merch: figurines, Christmas ornaments, T-shirts with slogans like “Body piercing saved my life.” (Get it?) Critics called the merchandise at Christian stores “Jesus junk.” Chris Williams, a former employee of Family Christian Stores, described the atmosphere in a 2017 blog post marking the demise of that chain:
It was like walking into an evangelical bizarro world, where everything was a funhouse mirror image of “real-world” items. There was music that sounded kind of like what you’d hear on the radio; it might not be as good, but at least it was clean, right? There were horror novels that never got too intense and wrapped things up with a conversion experience or spiritual victory. … The idea was that the retailer knew that its shoppers enjoyed things of the world, and they provided items that were copies of that, but were “safe.”
“If it had something to do with Jesus or [Republican] politics, it was there,” Williams told me. He worked at a Family Christian store in the Detroit area from approximately 2006 to 2009. Stores took various approaches to doctrinal strictness, but given that they were for-profit businesses, most erred toward as much ecumenism as their audiences would allow. As Williams put it, “they had John MacArthur next to Joel Osteen, which was hilarious.” (Both are prominent evangelical pastors, but the former has been sharply critical of the latter.) Growing up, Williams’ Baptist parents had encouraged him to shop at Christian stores because the merchandise had effectively been prescreened for “safety”—no curse words, no sexual content. “It was my B. Dalton, my Sam Goody,” he said. “It was where I got my pop culture.”
The Christian publishing industry, and its distribution arm in Christian bookstores, plays a central role within evangelical culture, even for those who don’t read “Christian books.” Since evangelicalism has no central authority, the publishing industry’s self-defined borders have a huge impact on the people, ideas, and practices that get publicly promoted—and eventually accepted—as “true” Christianity. “Publishers have been really central to granting authority within evangelical culture … and for evangelical celebrities to be created,” said Daniel Vaca, a historian at Brown University whose book Evangelicals Incorporated: Books and the Business of Religion in America will be published later this year. “Publishers have provided a cultural center for evangelicalism.”
The bookstores have long served as one of evangelical culture’s few internal gatekeepers. When, for example, Christian bookstores promoted The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven, that stamp of approval meant more than a suggestion that readers might enjoy the book; it also meant that it is theologically sound—that it is, in some sense, “true.” The publisher of The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven yanked the book from shelves as soon as the “boy” renounced it as a fraud in 2015. But just as importantly, LifeWay announced a few months later that it had stopped selling all “experiential testimonies about heaven” on theological grounds. The genre has withered since then.
Sometimes that gatekeeping looked silly, or even harmful. In 2016, LifeWay stopped carrying books by bestselling writer Jen Hatmaker after she announced she now supports same-sex relationships. When the chain declined to carry a book by prominent Christian writer Rachel Held Evans in 2012, she lamented the “chokehold” that Christian bookstores have on Christian publishing. Her own publisher encouraged her to leave out a cheeky use of the word vagina in that book, in an attempt to conform to LifeWay’s unwritten content standards. The publisher wasn’t just being fussy: It told Evans that she could expect 40 percent of the book’s sales to come from Christian bookstores. In the end, LifeWay opted not to carry the book, for reasons that remain unclear—but it became a bestseller anyway. When the organization announced it was closing its stores this spring, Evans (who died unexpectedly in May) called it “good news for writers of faith and Christian publishing,” because writers will no longer have to “conform to Southern Baptist culture and theology to sell books.”
No one is mourning the opportunity to buy “Jesus junk” in person. But Christian bookstores did more than sell garbage and suppress “dangerous” books. They also served as discovery centers for books slightly outside their readers’ comfort zones. Exploration like that can happen online, obviously. But on Amazon, at least, there’s little sense of the kind of informed curation that Christian bookstore owners perform. (There are also fakes: Christianity Today reported this week that Amazon has sold $240,000 worth of counterfeit copies of the 2016 Christian bestseller Liturgy of the Ordinary.) You might come into a Christian bookstore for a book that reaffirmed your beliefs, but you’d encounter another one that stretched them. As an employee of Family Christian, Williams used his store discount to explore books from “edgier” writers like Rob Bell and Donald Miller, who led him to ask important questions about his faith—and ultimately strengthened it. “Without reading those books,” he said, “I might have abandoned my faith instead of allowing it to shift and change.”