Why Amazon is my favorite Christian bookstore.

My hometown has one bookstore—only one—which specializes in new books. [Update, 2018: Not anyore.] Although specialize isn’t the proper word. That’d be Family Christian Stores, which isn’t so much a bookstore as your one-stop shop for all things Christian. It sells tchotchkes about as much as books: CDs, shirts, toys, art for the walls… you know, “Jesus junk.”

’Twasn’t always thus. We used to have a Borders. It closed when Borders went bankrupt in 2001. In the ’90s we had a Crown Books, and that closed too. All that’s left are the used-book stores which sometimes carry a new book or two. And the book sections of Walmart, Costco, Target, and other department stores. And the local library’s monthly book sale. There’s the odd church bookshop, but they’re not open unless the church is, and not even then.

Why can’t a town of 90,000 sustain a new-books bookstore? Because those stores, for the most part, don’t know what they’re doing. They didn’t realize, till it was too late, their primary competition was Amazon—and that Amazon had ’em so beat, people would shop at Amazon while browsing their stores. I did it myself. Soon as I found a book I was interested in, I took down its ISBN and looked it up on Amazon. Guess who always had the better price.

No, Amazon hasn’t paid me to sing their praises. This is just fact. Even when a bookstore marks everything at 20 percent below the suggested retail price, Amazon undercuts ’em. Even when the books are on the clearance shelf at 60 percent off, or $2 bargains, Amazon has ’em beat. I’m not the only customer who noticed this. It’s why people were walking around the bookstores with their smartphones out, comparing prices, going with Amazon, and buying nothing from Borders but the coffee. Seattle’s Best Coffee did really well. Borders, not so much.

I know: Brick ’n mortar bookstores have tremendous overhead. They need to pay their clerks, and buy a lot of inventory so they can show off how much inventory they have, and make up for the books which get shoplifted—or damaged by careless customers who spill a latté on them. I’m not unsympathetic. It’s hard to beat Amazon. But compete they must, or they’ll close. They didn’t compete, so they’re gone.

The used-book stores do compete: Their prices are nearly always on par with Amazon’s used-book prices. Stands to reason: Often they’re the ones selling their used books over Amazon. Once you factor in shipping, the used-book stores have the better price. Or they don’t, but you don’t mind paying an extra dollar to get the book immediately.

Sometimes I sell my old books to the used-book stores. A few years ago I discovered they’d use Amazon as their basis of what to offer me for my books: If my book was going for five cents, they wouldn’t bother to buy it. If it was going for $5 they’d offer me $2—and sell it for $7, which is cheaper than the $8 you pay for a $5 book plus shipping. Savvy. (So was I: They offered twice as much in store credit, so I’d take the $4 in credit and buy more books.)

And when it comes to Christian books, Amazon became my store of choice as soon as I discovered used Christian books… something you’re not gonna find at Family Christian or Christian Book Distributors.

Christian bookstores’ problems.

Plus Amazon irritates me less than the Christian bookstores. I’ll explain.

Too many Christian stores overcharge. ’Cause Christian guilt. Many a Christian insists it’s our duty as Christians to support one another’s businesses. So if you’re gonna buy a Christian book, go to a Christian bookstore, and not to those heathens at Barnes & Noble. We gotta support our own. If they go under, the kingdom retreats and the devil wins, right? So, many a Christian bookstore, knowing this argument is going around (and even spreading it a little), take advantage and charge just a little more than their competitors. I call it a guilt tax.

The other is every Christian bookstore is not so much a bookseller as a specialty shop. Their book selection caters to a very narrow demographic: Conservative Evangelicals. If I wanna find something published in the last five years by a conservative Evangelical, it’ll be there. If I want something by, say, a progressive Evangelical… maybe it’ll be there. Something by a conservative mainliner or Catholic… maybe it’ll be there. Something by a progressive Catholic: Not a chance.

But I can always find Amish romance novels, Thomas Kinkade posters, or those Christian T-shirts which look at first glance like Hunger Games memorabilia… only they’re not. Hey, who’s gonna peddle us our favorite Jesus junk, if not them? Our churches? Oh right, our churches

Back to the demographic. Catering to this narrow demographic means there are a lot of books which aren’t getting to the Christian reading public. Not because the public is clamoring for them; the public doesn’t even know they exist. (Unless they shop on Amazon.) If you’re a Christian and can’t get your book into Christian bookstores, you’re not gonna sell books, period.

In 2012, Rachel Held Evans wrote a book called A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Basically she followed the latest publishing fad of doing something ridiculously extreme for a length of time, then writing about it. Instead of cooking everything Julia Child ever wrote, or reading a whole encyclopedia, or eating nothing but McDonald’s burgers, she followed a very strict interpretation of every command in the bible regarding women. Naturally the book includes social commentary about the way the world, Christians in particular, treat women. I read the book: We suck. There, saved you $10.

But in her book, she used the word “vagina.” As you would in any work where sexual politics comes up. What’re you gonna do, call it a hoo-ha? But her publisher balked: They knew darned well the Christian bookstores, LifeWay Christian Stores in particular, would have a problem with it.

Evans went on an entirely justified tear against Christian bookstores: Because the stores want only “safe” products in their stores, they discourage any challenging products. Same thing’s true of Christian radio stations. Nobody wants to provoke, even if the provocation legitimately comes from Christ himself. As a result there’s a lot of watered-down, milquetoast, bland stuff in Christian media. Any author who really wants to shake up the church, can’t disseminate their message through Christian bookstores.

I’d rant right along with Evans, but here’s the thing: I’ve known Christian bookstore owners. They aren’t “safe” because they think that way. They’re “safe” because their customers will boycott them otherwise.

The customer is always right?

Like all capitalists, you gotta sell what the public will buy. Otherwise you won’t stay in business. And the public, particularly the Christian public, likes crap.

We want bibles with built-in, lightweight commentaries which never, ever tell us anything we don’t already believe. We don’t wanna know there are controversies about how to interpret various passages. We want doctrinal certainty, even if it’s not justified. We want feel-good devotionals that make us feel warm and cozy instead of repentant.

We want Christian T-shirts covered in catchy slogans or pop culture parodies. We want Kinkade snowscapes and lighthouses and isolated woodland cabins that for some reason are internally lit by nothing but halogen spotlights. We want Jesus fish for the SUV’s bumper, and if at all possible, do you have one of a Jesus fish eating a Darwin fish? Because we think Jesus is all about attacking the lost, not seeking and saving them.

If anybody in our lives are anti-Christian, we want books which prove them wrong. We want tracts which insult and mock their beliefs, ’cause we figure finding out you’re stupid will instantly make you seriously rethink your affiliations. Right?

Okay, enough sarcasm. Time for a primal scream break.

And I’m back.

You know the kind of customers who frequent bookstores—any bookstores? They think they’re intellectuals. They’re not, but think they are, ’cause they read. They might read nothing but fiction, or pseudoscience, or conspiracy theories, or political stuff—but they read, and that’s all the excuse they need to speak authoritatively about everything. Whether they understand it or not. ’Cause they read.

Christians are the very same way. If they read, they’re just as much a fake-intellectual blowhard as any pagan. And they won’t hesitate to give the poor besieged bookstore owner their uninformed opinion on every Christian book with any hint of controversy. I’ve overheard a whole lot of these one-sided conversations between my bookstore-owning friends and the know-it-alls. Believe you me, it ain’t worth it to own a Christian bookstore. I know Jesus wants us to love everybody, but these are the very same sorts of Pharisee who pissed Jesus off most. They made him tired. Made me tired. Made my bookstore-owning friends tired. It’s why they got out of that business.

They carried non-Calvinist books, so of course the Calvinists complained. They carried Catholic books, and the anti-Catholics spread rumors about them. They carried scholarly commentaries, and the Fundamentalists complained because those scholars taught at “liberal universities” like Princeton, Cambridge, and Fuller Seminary. They refused to carry certain hateful Jack T. Chick tracts, and were accused of being anti-evangelistic by people who love those damned things.

So when Family Christian Stores offered to buy them out, they jumped on it like a fat man on a bacon burger. They were never gonna make enough money to retire by fighting the good fight. Let Family Christian sell out.

Which it does. Capitalism is a merciless god, so it’s much easier to bend over and let the marketplace have their filthy way with them. If the customers object to a controversial book, they just pull ’em off the shelves. (And quietly sell them on their website.)

Case in point. The most popular Christian band on the planet is U2. You will rarely if ever find a U2 album in a Christian bookstore. Because sometimes Bono says “fire truck” without the iretr in the middle. And in his charity work he’ll work with presidents in the opposition party. So he can’t be Christian, claim the strictest Christians among us: He compromises. (He doesn’t consider them compromise, but they do.) Christian bookstore owners, much as they themselves might listen to U2, don’t even bother to put them on their shelves: They know they’ll catch hell for it.

More accurately they think they’ll catch hell for it. They don’t know—they’ve never actually tried it. They don’t have the backbone to push the envelope. They get enough grief for the stuff they display as it is.

By way of comparison, secular bookstores don’t care. To them, they’re in the book business—and the freedom-of-speech, freedom-of-press, freedom-of-expression, freedom-of-opinion business. Complain to those stores about the books which offend you, and they’ll be offended, and correctly say, “So don’t buy them.” Organize a boycott, and watch it backfire: They’ll tell everyone you’re boycotting them, and why, and get lots of publicity from fellow free-speech advocates in the press. People will deliberately buy the book you’re boycotting, just to uphold freedom of speech—and to bug you, as a bonus. I’ve seen more than one secular bookstore do this. I’ve never, ever seen a Christian bookstore even try it. Or even think to. ’Cause they know their customers don’t give a rip about free speech—and those customers who do, shop at secular stores instead.

Sometimes I need a challenge.

Hence my statement Amazon is my favorite Christian bookstore. All the Christian books which Christian bookstores don’t have the guts to carry: They’re at Amazon.

The Christian stores will publicize the latest by their “safe” authors. And because they’re “safe,” I already know they won’t challenge me at all. (Well, they might challenge my gag reflex.) Secular stores will sell anything, including fringe Christian authors. Or Jews or Muslims or pagans who try to write a book on Christianity. I may totally disagree with them—or find I agree quite a lot—but either way they’ll make me think.

That’s why I miss having new-book bookstores in town. You wanna browse the stuff that’ll challenge you, you gotta hit up a secular bookstore’s religions section. Of course, in their absence, I can’t browse anything more than the public library. Which means I won’t find anything other than best-sellers. Still, the diversity is better than the Christian stores.