Why Amazon is my favorite Christian bookstore.

by K.W. Leslie, 13 May 2022

Unless you count all the mini-bookstores found in the larger churches, my hometown has only one bookstore. One. It’s downtown; it mostly sells used books.

We used to have a Borders, a Crown Books, a Book Outlet, and multiple used bookstores. And a Family Christian Stores—which wasn’t so much a bookstore as a one-stop shop for all Christian. They had books, but they had even more Christian tchotchkes: CDs, shirts, toys, art for the walls. “Jesus junk.” Now we have just that one bookstore… and the book sections at Walmart, Costco, Target, the other department stores, and the thrift stores. (And the local library’s monthly book sale.)

Why can’t a town of 102,000 sustain a new-books bookstore? Because those stores, for the most part, didn’t know what they were 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. I’d browse their stacks, find a book I was interested in, take down its ISBN, and look it up on Amazon. Guess who always had the better price.

No, Amazon doesn’t pay me to sing their praises. Even though I link a lot of the books, movies, and albums I mention on TXAB to their website.

I learned a long time ago, and keep seeing it: No matter the bookstore, Amazon offers a lower price on the same book. Even if the bookstore marked everything at 20 percent below the suggested retail price. Even when the books are on the clearance shelf at 60 percent off. Even when they’re in a $2 bargain bin. Even when I find ’em at Dollar Tree for $1.25. Amazon regularly has ’em beat.

I’m not the only bookstore customer who noticed this. I’ve seen other customers browse the bookstore… then whip out their smartphone, compare prices, go with Amazon, and buy nothing from the bookstore but their coffee. If that. Too often Starbucks is cheaper.

I realize brick ’n mortar bookstores have tremendous overhead. They need to pay their clerks. They need to buy inventory so the shelves aren’t empty—and to make up for any books which get shoplifted, or damaged by a careless customer who spills a latté on ’em. Book prices have to go up to pay for this stuff. It’s why Amazon itself dabbled in the brick ’n mortar bookstore business for a while… then moved right out of that business. Made ’em less competitive. Eliminate that overhead and you’ve got a huge advantage.

I’m not unsympathetic to small, struggling bookstores. It’s really hard to beat Amazon. But they gotta figure out a way to compete—or they’ll close. The other bookstores in town didn’t compete, so they’re gone.

The used-book stores can compete: Their prices are nearly always on par with Amazon’s used-book prices. Stands to reason: Often they’re the ones selling 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 that book immediately.

Sometimes I sell my old books to the used-book stores. But years ago I discovered they used Amazon as their basis of what to offer me for my books: If Amazon’s booksellers were charging only 5 cents for my book, the bookstore refused to buy it. If the book was instead going for $5, they’d offer me $2—then sell it for $7, which is cheaper than the $8 you’d 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.)

Anyway. As soon as I discovered used Christian books, Amazon quickly became my bookstore of choice.

Christian commerce… and guilt.

Lemme start by saying I have no problem with capitalism: You wanna buy an item, sell it for more than what you paid for it, and pocket the difference. Or you wanna make an item and sell it for an amount that more than pays for your labor costs. You have competitors and want to beat them fairly; you want customers to be pleased with your product, prices, and service, and come back to you with more business, and send friends to you. There’s nothing wrong with any of these actions. Go forth and be fruitful.

I do have a problem with people who tell me, “You should come to my business, even though my competitors offer better products, prices, and services, because I’m Christian.” Or because I’m local, or because I’m a woman or minority, or because I vote the same way you do. Or some other reason which is supposed to excuse worse goods and services.

You’re not a charity. You’re not a children’s lemonade stand. You’re supposed to know what you’re doing in the marketplace. If you don’t, you need to do something else.

Christian bookstores—as well as Christian chothing stores, Christian craft stores, Christian fast food restaurants, Christian auto mechanics, and any business which likes to let everyone know the owners believe in Jesus—regularly try to play the Christian card to attract customers. Supposedly it’s our duty as Christians to patronize one another’s businesses. So if you’re gonna buy a Christian book, go to a Christian bookstore. Don’t go to those heathens at Barnes & Noble. We gotta support our own.

After all, if the business goes under (as Family Christian Stores did in 2017), doesn’t that mean God’s kingdom has retreated and Satan wins?

Me, I don’t confuse selling T-shirts which say “Rapture Ready” with God’s kingdom. If a business folds, that’s rough for the owner and employees, who now have to find other jobs… but life goes on, doesn’t it? And now all these Christians, who were previously huddling together in the Christian business, only interacting with fellow Christians, will now go work among pagans and maybe be the light of the world to them. For once.

I have zero interest in subsidizing some Christian capitalist who can’t do capitalism right. I would only be a temporary solution to the real problem: They’re inadequately competitive, and their business is gonna inevitably fail.

(Often to competitors who also happen to consider themselves Christian. But unlike the “Christian business,” they don’t use it to guilt-trip customers into supporting their slowly failing venture.)

Christian bookstores and Jesus junk.

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. But here’s the thing: Sometimes I want something by a progressive Evangelical. Will it be there? Maybe. How about a conservative mainliner or Catholic? Maybe. How about a progressive Catholic? Not a chance.

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 of course they shop on Amazon.

Rachel Held Evans was a rather well-known progressive Evangelical turned mainliner. While she was Evangelical, she had no problem getting her books into Christian bookstores. Once she went Episcopalian she hit all sorts of unexpected roadblocks. Because the bookstores don’t wanna upset their demographic. So I might not find all her books in a Christian bookstore, but I can find every single one of ’em on Amazon.

In 2012, Evans wrote her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. Basically she ripped off A.J. Jacobs’ hilarious The Year of Living Biblically and followed a very strict, literalist interpretation of every command in the scriptures regarding women. Naturally Evans’s book includes social commentary about the way the world (Christians in particular) treat women. I read the book: We suck. There, saved you $10.99.

But in her book, Evans 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 would have a problem with it. LifeWay Christian Stores, the biggest Christian bookstore chain in the United States, in particular.

On her blog, Evans went on an entirely justified tear against Christian bookstores: Because these stores want only “safe” products in their stores, they discourage any products which actually challenge people. Same with 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 truly 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 can’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 which make us feel warm and cozy instead of repentant.

We want Christian T-shirts covered in catchy slogans or pop culture parodies. We want Thomas Kinkade snowscapes and lighthouses and isolated woodland cabins that for some reason are internally lit by nothing but 200-watt halogen spotlights. We want Jesus fish for the SUV’s bumper—and do you have one where a Jesus fish is eating a Darwin fish? Because we prefer to imagine Jesus destroying the lost, not seeking and saving them.

If anybody in our lives is antichrist, we want books which prove them wrong. We want tracts which insult and mock their beliefs, ’cause we like to think if you find out you’re stupid, you’ll instantly repent and 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. Those of us who read, no matter what we read, are usually just as much a fake-intellectual blowhard as any pagan. And we won’t hesitate to give the poor besieged bookstore owner our 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 anymore. I know Jesus wants us to love everybody, but these narrow-minded mouthbreathers are the very same sorts of Pharisee which pissed Jesus off most. They made him tired. Make me tired. Made my bookstore-owning friends tired, which is why they got out of that business.

My bookstore-owning friends carried books by non-Calvinists, so of course the Calvinists complained. They carried Catholic books, so the anti-Catholics spread rumors about the booksellers. They carried scholarly commentaries, and Fundamentalists objected because these 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 their bookstore, 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. May as well sell out. I entirely understand.

Another point. The most popular Christian band on the planet is U2. (Yep, they’re Christian. Always have been. Go listen to October again.) 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 the strictest Christians among us insist he can’t be Christian: He compromises. (Bono doesn’t consider his acts to be compromise, but they certainly 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: The bookstores will tell everyone you’re trying to censor them, and get lots of publicity from fellow free-speech advocates in the press. People will deliberately buy the book you’re boycotting, just to bug you—and yeah, uphold freedom of speech. 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.

Well, some of those customers do. Like me. But we usually 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 writings 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 be surprised to 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, there’s not much to browse at Walmart. Just best-sellers. Still, the diversity is better than the Christian stores.