Chris­tian book­store own­ers keep­ing the faith

The Beaufort Gazette - - Lowcountry Life - BY EL­IZ­ABETH EISEN­STADT EVANS

- 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, con­sol­i­da­tion in the Chris­tian pub­lish­ing in­dus­try and the con­tin­ued dom­i­nance of on­line sell­ers such as Ama­zon, the fu- ture of this idio­syn­cratic ven­ture is un­cer­tain.

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

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

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 pointof-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 love-hate 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.”

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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