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 CNS Story:

BOOKSELLERS Aug-10-2011 (980 words) With photos. xxxn

Catholic bookstores working hard to compete with online sellers

Sister Joan Paula Arruda looks over new stock at Pauline Books and Media in Old Town Alexandria, Va., Aug. 10. Operated by the Daughters of St. Paul, the store has been a fixture on well-traveled King Street since 1982. It is one of 13 bookstores the order runs in North America. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

By Liz O'Connor
Catholic News Service

KING OF PRUSSIA, Pa. (CNS) -- Like most small- and medium-size bookstores, shops specializing in Catholic religious books have been hit by the ubiquity of such online giants as Amazon.

"We rely on hard work and God's grace," said Helen Dorin of Boric Religious Supply in St. John, Ind., which is going into its third generation as a family-operated book and religious articles store.

"It has hurt us," she said about Internet book sales. "Customers will come in and browse our books, and then go and order online."

Booksellers are less sure of the effect that relatively new electronic books are going to have on their market.

Neil McCaffrey III, author of "The Intelligent Catholic's Guide to Operating a Catholic Bookstore" and a publishing veteran, notes that "as rapidly as e-books are moving, they're moving fiction rather than nonfiction" and most Catholic book titles are nonfiction. E-books represent a small segment of the Catholic book market.

Nevertheless, several of the publishers' representatives interviewed by Catholic News Service at the annual trade show of the Catholic Marketing Network in King of Prussia, said their companies were moving into the e-book market.

Chris Veneklase of Ignatius Press said all their titles being published now and in the future will be offered as e-books, and Ignatius is gradually putting its existing booklist into an e-format. E-books are sold online and not through conventional bookstores; some major Catholic publishers offer downloadable e-books and even phone applications on their sites.

Robb Holzrichter of Liguori Publications said Liguori is starting to publish e-books but will always have traditional books as well. "Kindle or not," he's convinced there will always be people "who want the touch and feel of paper."

Sister Mary Mark, publisher of Pauline Books and Media, said her order, the Daughters of St. Paul, currently offer more than 50 titles in e-books although they have many, many more in print. "Little by little we're working our way into that format," she said.

The Daughters of St. Paul operate 13 book centers in the U.S. and one in Canada, all staffed at least part of the time by religious of the community. She said it's hard to tell what effect online bookselling has had "because of the economic slump all over the country.

"People are more thoughtful in making their choices," she said, and the dollar amount per purchase might be smaller than before. For example, she said, a mother coming in with children might still allow each child to choose a book, but it will be a $3.95 or $4.95 book, not one for $23.95.

Several of the bookstore owners spoke of having staff able to help customers as key.

The Daughters of St. Paul do that as an important part of their ministry. Dorin said her Indiana bookstore is 40 miles from the Chicago Loop and serves customers who drive as far as 20 to 40 minutes to it as a "destination store." People come on a mission, she said, and it's important to have knowledgeable and sympathetic salespeople available.

"Often they're scared to admit they've never read the Bible," she said as an example, and for such readers she'll sometimes recommend a youth Bible that has helpful notes.

"Others are serious Bible students," and for them she needs to stock Bibles with footnotes and Bible commentaries, she explained. That means "a lot of money tied up in inventory," and in recent years she's found herself trying to spread out her purchases, so that she may have single copies of a variety of books rather than a dozen copies of the latest release by a popular author.

"You do a little bit of ministry," agreed Patty Broesamle of the Paulist Book Center in Costa Mesa, Calif. "You have to be very cautious about people's feelings," she added, as some come into the store looking for a book that will help with a difficult situation.

Bookstore operators agreed that e-books are not currently as big a threat to bookstores as are the online booksellers. "I've worked here for a really long time," Broesamle said, and she believes books are going to be in demand as long as there are people "who want the written word and want to look at it and hold it."

Carrying religious articles ranging from art to crucifixes to rosary beads help many religious stores keep their heads above water.

McCaffrey said it's typical for a store inventory to include more than half nonbook products. It's especially helpful for stores to be "wired in" to parishes and/or dioceses to regularly supply such needs as candles and vestments.

Even with that, he said, in the 30 years that he's been dealing directly with Catholic stores, about 40 percent have closed or have significantly reduced their bookselling operations.

Many successful Catholic bookstores have their own websites through which customers can order books and religious items. They also rely on such tried-and-true efforts as advertising in diocesan newspapers, parish bulletins, and anywhere they can get a notice posted free or at reasonable cost.

Dorin offers discounts to frequent book buyers and for multiple purchases, runs a Bible campaign each August, and tries to keep tabs on what's happening in local parishes and offer appropriate books. Broesamle offers books for sale at diocesan and regional catechetical conferences and even at parish events, sending books on consignment if she or a staff member can't be present at smaller venues.

Booksellers' most often-mentioned complaint, aside from customers who browse and then leave to buy online, is that a diocese or parish will offer courses and advise students to get their books online instead of supporting their local Catholic retailers.

"Content delivery is really the focus," Holzrichter said. "How are we going to deliver the message of salvation?" Whatever the medium, he said, Catholic publishers and booksellers "all have that same goal."


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