The Church Bookstore Incongruity

Many churches have bookstores. They believe that they are serving the congregation by providing books “at cost”. However, there are several serious problems with this business model.

Selling “at cost” in reality is selling at a loss. There are a number of expenses involved in selling books (or anything else for that matter) beyond the price of the book itself. For instance, someone has to defray the cost of the inventory until it is sold. Even at only simple interest, that investment represents lost income. This loss is somewhat unquantifiable because it is generally born by the congregation as opposed to a single investor; but it is a real loss all the same. Another unremunerated expense of a not-for-profit bookstore is the labor cost. The books must be sought, purchased, inventoried, secured, and distributed. All that takes time, and even though it is done by volunteers, time is still money.

Further evidence that books are sold for a loss is the fact that the total proceeds from the current inventory will not be sufficient to replace it. The church collects an offering to seed the bookstore, buys 100 books, sells them “for cost” and then only has enough to buy 90 books–this is called inflation. After a series of buy and sell cycles, the bookstore is out of business, unless the church continues to seed it with capital. That is the very definition of a loss.

Which leads us to another issue: Because it is a loss, it is also a subsidy. Churches reason that bookstores charge too much for books and that they can provide them cheaper. But once the total cost is figured, I doubt there is much total difference between them. The real difference is that the bookstore consolidates the total cost in one purchase price, whereas the church subsidizes a portion of the cost to give the illusion of low cost. Best case scenario is that people give offerings to fund the bookstore so that they can then buy the books that their offerings bought. This is inane. What advantage is there to buying a book at 40% discount, if you have to buy it twice. That means you pay 120% the bookstore price. However, the most likely scenario is that those that finance the bookstore are not the ones who buy the lion’s share of the books. I think that subsidization is bad policy, both politically and ecclesiastically. If you want to give books to those that can’t afford it, then give them books, don’t demean them with subsidies.

This in turn leads us to a third issue, that of supplanting real bookstores. It is ludicrous for Christians to bemoan the decline of good Christian bookstores and their conversion into trinket markets when they have played a part in their demise. It is also absurd for conservative Christians to criticize socialism in society when Christian bookstores are a rejection of capitalism. Every business makes a profit, that is the purpose of business, that is the reward for investment and risk. Why is it wrong for Christian bookstores to turn a profit. Many Christians object to the level of profit a bookstore makes on the books (40% markup is standard), but they invest a lot of money to run that bookstore, and they don’t make a profit on all those books; namely the books that sit on the shelf for years, and then are sold at half price. If nothing else, if a church believes it their ministry to support a bookstore, then support your local bookstore; consider the 40% markup an… offering?!

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