BOOK­STORE KEEP­ING FAITH

Ledger-Enquirer - - Front page - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH EISENSTADT EVANS

By­ron and Beth Borger’s Hearts & Minds Chris­tian book­store has thrived but now faces con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges.

- The first book that By­ron and Beth Borger sold at the Hearts & Minds book­store was a copy of Vic­tor Hugo’s “Les Mis­er­ables.”

For the Borg­ers, it was a per­fect fit.

But their cus­tomer was a bit per­plexed since the book isn’t stan­dard fare at Chris­tian book­shops.

“The first cus­tomer asked, ‘What kind of book­store car­ries Les Mis?’ ” said By­ron Borger. “We said, ‘What kind of book­store doesn’t?’ ”

Hearts & Minds has long been an anom­aly in the world of Chris­tian re­tail.

The Borg­ers, who pre­vi­ously worked for a Chris­tian cam­pus min­istry group, launched their Dallastown store dur­ing the faith-based-book­store boom times of the 1980s. They bucked evan­gel­i­cal con­ven­tions by in­clud­ing Catholic writ­ers such as Thomas Mer­ton, tack­ling top­ics like racial jus­tice and fea­tur­ing books by spir­i­tual for­ma­tion pro­po­nent Richard Foster, whose take on the Chris­tian life was con­sid­ered rad­i­cal.

Back in the day, they faced boy­cotts, pick­ets and even death threats from the Ku Klux Klan over a dis­play of books from Martin Luther King Jr., said By­ron Borger. The store sur­vived them all — and thrived for years, at­tract­ing fans among cus­tomers and au­thors.

Con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges are dif­fer­ent — and per­haps more threat­en­ing.

With on­go­ing demise of Chris­tian re­tail stores, con­soli- da­tion in the Chris­tian pub­lish­ing in­dus­try and the con­tin­ued dom­i­nance of on­line sell­ers such as Ama­zon, the fu­ture of this idio­syn­cratic ven­ture is un­cer­tain.

In re­cent years, the Borg­ers have cut back on staff and dipped into their sav­ings to keep the store go­ing.

“I’m not em­bar­rassed to say that we have not been do­ing well,” said Borger. “We have not been self-sus­tain­ing.”

De­spite the strug­gles, Hearts & Minds has a loyal fol­low­ing, read­ers who ap­pre­ci­ate the cou­ple’s wide-rang­ing knowl­edge of the Chris­tian book scene.

The store ap­peals to main­line Protes­tants and what Beth Borger refers to as “think­ing evan­gel­i­cals” — Chris­tians with tra­di­tional be­liefs about the­ol­ogy whose faith prompts them to care about in­jus­tice. There are more than a few in the mid-At­lantic and Mid­west re­gions, where Hearts & Minds draws most of its sup­port, said Beth Borger.

“Think­ing evan­gel­i­cals are one of our core cus­tomer-based groups, and frankly, I think there are a lot of them around. I don’t feel like a lonely voice,” she said.

A third of the Borg­ers’ busi­ness in­volves trav­el­ing to con­fer­ences and other events, like the an­nual clergy re­treat of the Epis­co­pal Dio­cese of Penn­syl­va­nia, where By­ron Borger’s book rec­om­men­da­tions at the speaker’s mike were a prom­i­nent part of the fare, and the ad­join­ing room be­came a pop-up re­tail venue.

But even those “fun” events mean that the pair must spend many hours on the road and cart books back and forth from their store to ho­tels and con­ven­tion cen­ters, he said.

They haven’t had the money to put their en­tire stock on­line and the point-of-sale soft­ware needed would re­quire an­other full-time staffer.

“Our web­site is not what it should be,” he said.

The Borg­ers’ strug­gles come at a time of con­tin­ued tur­moil in the Chris­tian re­tail world. In 2017, the na­tion’s largest Chris­tian mer­chan­dise chain, Fam­ily Chris­tian book­stores, went out of busi­ness, shut­ter­ing more than 240 stores across the coun­try.

At the same time, said Pub­lish­ers Weekly re­li­gion ed­i­tor Emma Wen­ner, there’s an in­creased in­ter­est in books on re­li­gion and spir­i­tu­al­ity, in­clud­ing those for the so-called nones, peo­ple who may be look­ing for an­swers but don’t iden­tify with a par­tic­u­lar faith.

“Pub­lish­ers are do­ing OK,” she added. “It’s the re­tail­ers who are re­ally suf­fer­ing. The re­tail­ers have to find the book buy­ers.”

That’s led to a kind of love­hate re­la­tion­ship be­tween book­stores and pub­lish­ers.

“It used to be that writ­ers wrote books, pub­lish­ers pub­lished them, and book­stores sold them,” said By­ron Borger. “Now writ­ers have to mar­ket their books and pub­lish­ers sell them half-off.

“They are our friends one day, en­e­mies the next.”

The chal­lenges fac­ing Chris­tian re­tail ex­tend be­yond the re­la­tion­ship be­tween au­thors, pub­lish­ers and sell­ers. This past year saw the ap­par­ent fail­ure of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Chris­tian Book­sell­ers.

“The CBA board brought in some­one they hoped had the key to de­vel­op­ing greater busi­ness for Chris­tian re­tail­ers,” wrote Chris­tine John­son, a manag­ing ed­i­tor at Charisma Me­dia, in an email. “Un­for­tu­nately, it didn’t work out that way.”

A new group, the Chris­tian Re­tail As­so­ci­a­tion, formed last year, hopes to fill the void left by the CBA, ac­cord­ing to in­dus­try vet­eran Bob Munce, the head of the Munce Group.

“We have two do­mes­tic trade shows a year and are the only other in­dus­try shows,” he said in an email. “One of our shows will now be the in­ter­na­tional show. I believe we have the back­ing of the in­dus­try to ful­fill this need. We also plan to of­fer a set of ser­vices to the Chris­tian book in­dus­try through CRA.”

Even given all the changes in an in­dus­try in flux, the pic­ture for in­de­pen­dent book­stores as a group is pos­i­tive, ac­cord­ing to Ju­dith Rosen, a con­tribut­ing ed­i­tor at Pub­lish­ers Weekly.

A re­cent re­port by the Amer­i­can Book­sell­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, the in­de­pen­dent book­store trade group, found that as mid-De­cem­ber, sales were up by around 5 per­cent over the pre­vi­ous year.

“Many stores are see­ing an uptick in on­line sales,” said Rosen. “What they are find­ing, and what the ABA is stress­ing, is that pre-orders are re­ally suc­cess­ful.”

A per­sonal con­nec­tion and the con­vic­tion that they are sup­port­ing a lo­cal busi­ness also ap­peal to buy­ers, Rosen said.

“A lot of in­de­pen­dents have made the case to their read­ers — they need to sup­port them,” she said. “Many in­de­pen­dents are thriv­ing — they find a way.” Wen­ner agrees. “Peo­ple go to Chris­tian re­tail stores and buy books to keep them in busi­ness,” Wen­ner said. “There is a great deal of cus­tomer loy­alty to the book­stores them­selves.”

That’s cer­tainly true at Hearts & Minds, which has a loyal fan base both among book buy­ers and the au­thors who have de­vel­oped per­sonal con­nec­tions with the Borg­ers.

“There are very few self­de­fined Chris­tian book­stores like Hearts & Minds,” said Mes­siah Col­lege his­to­rian John Fea, au­thor of “Believe Me: The Evan­gel­i­cal Road to Don­ald Trump.”

When Fea gave a book talk there last sum­mer, “the place was packed,” he said, es­ti­mat­ing a crowd of roughly 200 peo­ple came.

Fea ap­pre­ci­ates that Hearts & Minds’ shelves are filled with books, rather than a vast ar­ray of “kitschy” Chris­tian prod­ucts like fig­urines, di­aries and framed Bi­ble verses.

“It’s ac­tu­ally a book­store be­cause By­ron’s the­o­log­i­cal con­vic­tion is that you can wor­ship God with your mind,” he said.

Lib­erty Uni­ver­sity English pro­fes­sor Karen Swal­low Prior said she first learned of Hearts & Minds when the Borg­ers agreed to stock her first book back in 2012.

“I’ve been a fan of theirs ever since,” she said. “They are rare in so many ways, a lo­cal store with a na­tional pres­ence.”

While serv­ing Chris­tian read­ers, their per­spec­tive is not con­fined to a nar­row slice of that au­di­ence, she said.

“I would just en­cour­age peo­ple to be more in­ten­tional about buy­ing more books from brickand-mor­tar stores,” said Prior.

By­ron Borger still has a bucket list for the store. He’d love to share the cou­ple’s love for Chris­tian books with other in­de­pen­dent book­sell­ers.

For now, the Borg­ers, who are both 64, plan to keep the store go­ing. What else can they do, said Beth Borger.

“We can’t re­tire,” she said. Her hus­band agreed. “We’ve got no money, so we don’t know what to do with our­selves,” he said.

And they still love the work. Be­ing “small-town is part of our charm,” he added. So are the email con­ver­sa­tions they have with on­line book buy­ers.

That one-on-one in­ter­ac­tion is time-con­sum­ing but re­ward­ing, said By­ron Borger. And it fits the store’s per­son­al­ity.

“Is there a way of be­ing on­line and still be­ing small-scale, in­ef­fi­cient al­most on pur­pose?”

‘‘ I’M NOT EM­BAR­RASSED TO SAY THAT WE HAVE NOT BEEN DO­ING WELL. WE HAVE NOT BEEN SELF-SUS­TAIN­ING.

By­ron Borger

EL­IZ­A­BETH EISENSTADT EVANS Re­li­gion News Ser­vice

By­ron and Beth Borger have run their store, Hearts & Minds book­store, since the 1980s in Dallastown, Pa.

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