Independent bookstores face many challenges in a world increasingly dominated by technology. Whether it is online shopping for books at all hours of the day or downloading electronic versions of bestsellers onto an e-reader, consumers have choices that don’t necessarily involve a trip to the local bookstore.
Although this might seem to pose an insurmountable challenge to Catholic bookstores, it is not always the case due to the specialized nature of the titles they carry.
“There is no doubt that we are a niche,” said Sharon Balk, who owns St. George Catholic Books and Gifts in Blaine with her husband, Bob.
The Catholic Spirit contacted a few local Catholic bookstores to see how owners and employees are meeting the challenge of today’s market.
Some common denominators include publishing online catalogs specifically for their stores, taking special orders, giving quantity discounts and offering a wide variety of items such as crucifixes, rosaries, music and DVDs and gifts to mark sacramental celebrations like baptism and first Communion — often the busiest times of the year for these retailers.
Kathy Ertl, owner of Holy Cross Books and Gifts in Lakeville, would love to see churches encourage parishioners not to think of Catholic bookstores only when they have specific sacramental needs.
“Churches want us to be ready when people want to buy for these celebrations, but we really need those customers all year long,” she said. “The more churches can support Catholic bookstores, the better.”
St. George Catholic Books and Gifts, Blaine
When Bob and Sharon Balk opened their Catholic book store seven years ago, the motivation was a simple one.
“We feel so strongly about our faith,” said Sharon. “We have such a passion for it and want to share it with others. In this business, we get to walk with Jesus every day.”
The couple, parishioners at St. Paul in Ham Lake, opened St. George after Bob had a shift in his career.
“We knew starting a bookstore wouldn’t be easy, but because we feel the Lord is always calling us to carry strong, solid Catholic material, we knew there would be customers,” Sharon said.
Both Bob and Sharon select the books for their store with a little help from their pastor, Father Jon Vander Ploeg.
“He is so well-respected and so well-read. We often run books by him to see what he thinks, and we’ll carry them if he says yes,” said Sharon, adding that the store has a special section devoted to Father Vander Ploeg’s favorite reads.
St. George also carries an extensive line of homeschooling curriculum and has online customers for this department from around the country.
Although the advent of e-books hasn’t made a huge impact on their store so far, Sharon said she knows the future of the book business is online and electronic, although she personally finds the concept hard to embrace.
» Popular titles at St. George: books on the lives of the saints, books on apologetics, “Consoling the Heart of Jesus” by Michael E. Gaitley; “Time for God” and “Interior Freedom” by Father Jacques Philippe.
Saint Patrick’s Guild, St. Paul
The family owned and operated Saint Patrick’s Guild has firmly established itself on the Catholic book/gift store landscape, but that doesn’t mean the growing presence of online retailers hasn’t made an impact.
“We are a niche market with a niche product,” said Tim Doran, president of Saint Patrick’s Guild. “At the same time, I do ask myself how I can compete with Amazon or Barnes and Noble. And unless smaller bookstores get into selling e-versions of books, it also makes me wonder if independent stores like ours will be around in five or 10 years.”
Doran does believe there is a resurgence among customers about the importance of “shopping local,” adding that Saint Patrick’s Guild has “an extremely loyal customer base.”
The store is also well known for the support it offers area authors such as Father John Forliti (author of the recently released “Ten Anchors”) Paul Bernabei and Tom Cody (“Top 20 Teens”) and Mary Treacy O’Keefe, author of the perennially popular “Thin Places: Where Faith is Affirmed and Hope Dwells.”
The Internet does offer a little boost because Doran believes many of his customers research books online before making a purchase.
“We’ll get calls asking for our hours and directions to our store. I think people realize they can just run over here and see the book or product for themselves before buying it. That actually happens a lot,” he said.
Underlying uncertainty about the future of small Catholic bookstores may be rooted in another cause, too, according to Doran.
“Kids today don’t read the way we did when we were growing up,” he said. “Now the younger generation is on their computers and their phones and they don’t read.”
Doran thinks there are still 20-something readers torn between e-books and hard copies, but it is the 12-year-olds, already technologically savvy, who will likely be the ones determining the future of small bookstores.
» Popular books at Saint Patrick’s Guild: books by and about inspirational people, “Jesus of Nazareth” by Pope Benedict XVI; “God Never Blinks: 50 Lessons for Life’s Little Detours” by Regina Brett; “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time” by Robert Ellsberg.
Store locations and information
» St. George Catholic Books and Gifts
10904 Baltimore St. N.E.
Blaine, MN 55449
» Saint Patrick’s Guild
1554 Randolph Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55105
» Holy Cross Books and Gifts
7608 160th St. West
Lakeville, MN 55044
» Apostle Books & Gifts
4781 County Road 101 S.
Minnetonka, MN 55345
» Leaflet Missal Company
976 West Minnehaha
St. Paul, MN 55104
Holy Cross Books and Gifts, Lakeville
Like the Balks from St. George Bookstore, Erv and Kathy Ertl, owners of Holy Cross Books and Gifts, also took a leap of faith when they opened their Lakeville store five years ago.
The couple had a background in retail and were prepared for the long hours and financial challenges involved in running a bookstore. Today, Kathy works full time at Holy Cross and Erv, who has another job, works at the store part time.
According to Kathy, they are very strict when it comes to the types of books and DVDs they carry at Holy Cross.
“We don’t support anything not in line with Catholic or Christian teaching,” she said. “Our customers are always very happy to find a store in the area that carries good Catholic literature.”
Like the other booksellers, Kathy acknowledges the impact online retailers have had on business, which is why she believes it is so important for individual customers, as well as churches and school programs, to work with stores like Holy Cross rather than going directly to the publisher.
“Larger orders are really the meat and potatoes of our operation,” she said. “I think it is just so vital for churches to support local Catholic bookstores.”
Store employees are happy to offer recommendations to customers — sometimes Kathy’s employees even provide suggestions to her about what new material she should carry.
“One of our youngest employees read “YOUCAT”, which is a new and very popular Catholic catechism for young people,” Kathy said. “She raved about it, so we’ve just ordered it for the store.”
» Popular books at Holy Cross: “A Biblical Walk Through the Mass” by Edward Sri; “Walking with God: A Journey Through the Bible” by Tim Gray and Jeff Cavins; the new RSV Catholic Study Bible; “The Vatican” by Michael Collins.
Apostle Books & Gifts, Minnetonka
For a small shop like Apostle Books, online retailers can truly seem like giants, but sales associate Sharon Spinharney said the number of loyal customers who continue to support the 14-year-old store is “very gratifying.”
“We’ve actually had to make Amazon a friend to some extent. It is a way for us to help customers track down a title if we don’t carry it,” said Spinharney, who works part time in the store owned by Judy Meier.
Having the opportunity to spend time with customers has been a huge boost, she said.
“Judy has gotten to know so many of our customers so well. She keeps their names on a list and prays for them during her adoration hour at St. John the Baptist in Excelsior,” Spinharney said.
Large groups, like book clubs or Scripture study groups, are frequent patrons of Apostle Books. A Scripture study called “The Better Part” is so popular, the staff has a hard time keeping it on the shelves.
» Popular books at Apostle Books: “The Teen Timeline” by Jeff Cavins; anything on Pope John Paul II; audio books; “God Calling” by A.J. Russell; “Jesus Calling” by Sarah Young; several titles by Father Walter Ciszek (stories of spiritual growth and inspiration).
Leaflet Missal, St. Paul
This family-owned and operated Catholic book and gift store has been serving St. Paul Catholics for more than 80 years. Sales associate Martha Brown said the majority of Leaflet Missal’s customers prefer to shop in the store or order items through the store’s catalog.
» Popular books at Leaflet Missal: books about the Mass and the new Roman Missal; New American Bible, Revised Edition; books on the lives of the saints or inspirational people; YOUCAT, the youth Catechism of the Catholic Church. Leaflet Missal also carries several titles in Spanish, including the “Diary of St. Faustina.”
Summer reading list
If you are looking for a great vacation book or simply something to enjoy during a quiet summer afternoon, here’s a sampling of some popular current reads mentioned by the Catholic booksellers in this story.
» “Unplanned” by Abby Johnson
The story of a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who made the decision to leave her job to join the Coalition for Life.
» “Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back” by Todd Burpo
During emergency surgery, Burpo’s son Colton, then 4 years old, claimed to have visited heaven and, following his recovery, told his parents about the experience in surprising detail. A New York Times bestseller.
» “Breakfast with the Pope” by Susan Vigilante
A memoir about Vigilante’s trip to Italy, her visit to the ancient village of Castel Gandolfo and the rare opportunity she had to meet and talk with Pope John Paul II.
» “A Coach and A Miracle: Life Lessons from a Man Who Believed in an Autistic Boy” by Jim Johnson with Mike Latona
Written by the coach of the Greece Athena High School boys basketball team, about young Jason McElwain, who made an incredible impact during the last three minutes of a basketball game at his Rochester, N.Y., high school, but had a greater impact on his coach, team and community.