I’m just back from the giant Christian book show (formerly the "Christian Booksellers Association," now the "International Christian Retailers Show"). It was light on books this year, and heavy on Christian Crud (from my point of view). It was also light on people and sales, apparently, so they say big changes are due.
A few years ago, the people who run the show decided to stick all the publishers in the same section, so that it was easy to see who the actual book publishers were and what they were selling. That notion is now out the window, as publishers on the convention floor were dispersed so much it sometimes appeared as though I was at a gift show instead of a convention whose main profits are derived from the printed word. You had to hunt to find actual books this year, buried amidst the ties, jewelry, art, choir robes, and footwear (more on that in a moment).
Word is the publishers are sick of this trend, and are planning to stage their own book show next year — which will be interesting, but may not be successful. If you’re running a small Christian gift shop, do you pay to attend two conventions? Probably not, so you have to decide if you’ll go see books, or keep visiting the old standard convention where you’re sure to run into longtime friends as well as be able to actually handle the clothing and art (since it’s harder to see those on a computer screen). You figure the book reps will still come calling, and the catalogs will still show up in the mail. A tough call.
On top of that, CBA has announced the death of their mid-winter show, which was called "CBA Expo" (also known as "The Frozen Wasteland," since it attracted almost no one but made up for it by offering attendees such fun-filled attractions as "The Frigid, Ice-covered Sidewalks of Indianapolis" display each January). The guys in charge say they’re going to have a big gathering next year at that same time, but there will be no displays and no convention floor. I guess they’ll have speakers and selling seminars, maybe try to focus on media with authors. Beats me. I have no idea what a couple hundred religious retailers are going to do for fun in Indy during winter. Maybe host a big, non-alcoholic cocktail party? A hymn sing? A wholesome snowball fight? The organization deserves points for trying something new, but I couldn’t find a single person at this summer’s convention who could figure out what the mid-year show is going to be, or why the organization expects anyone to attend. Should be an interesting discussion in the Colorado headquarters. ("Hey, Mickey — let’s put on a show! A real, old-fashioned magic show with balloons and dancing girls…but we’ll do it in the coldest city on earth, the balloons will all have ‘John 3:16’ printed on them, and the girls will be dressed in modest jumpsuits while handing out tracts that display our new gospel footwear!")
Can’t wait. Lest you think I’m a total cynic, I actually enjoy the ICRS convention. I get to see old friends, spend time with authors I represent, and get face-to-face with editors and publishers with whom I do business. There are fun times with authors, good dinners with book people, and the occasional surprise (I once got stuck in an elevator with Jim Baker — the guy who was married to Tammy Faye and went to prison…I’m not kidding. He was short. I’m not that big, and I towered over him. I wanted to ask him if he would contribute to my TV ministry, but I didn’t know if he had a sense of humor). The highlights this year included seeing some of my authors’ faces on giant billboards (Mair Burney, Ginger Garrett), having several friends get tapped as finalists for major awards (way to go Lisa Samson!), and spending a lovely evening with Tony Collins, the publisher at Monarch and a man who happens to be married to the wonderful British novelist Penelope Wilcock. The whole thing is back to back meetings, talking about books, and if you’re a book guy like me, you just love it. But, at the same time, each year I try to find the worst, most bile-inducing piece of religious crud at the show. There are always some doozies.
Last year it was the famous "Armor of God Pajamas," which say "Righteousness" across the chest and feature a "Helmet of Salvation" nightcap and "Peace" footies. They were fun, cute, and completely stoopid. (I also hold a warm spot in my heart for the Gospel Golf Balls, which are just normal golf balls except they have Bible verses printed on them — that way you don’t have to fret over losing a ball on the course, because in the immortal words of the sales woman, "You just chalk it up to helping spread the Good News.") The year before it was the "genuine ash from Sodom and Gomorrah" display, which is sure to teach you never to invite your gay friends over unless you’ve checked the pressure on your fire extinguisher.
This year had some real weiners — er, I mean "winners." I liked the "New Life Gummie Caterpillars," which teach young children the joys of salvation as well as getting them addicted to sugar. Speaking of sugar, "Scripture Candy" was back, along with their slogan: "Reaching the World…One Piece at a Time." (Nope. I’m not making that up.) For those of a more natural bent, you could just buy holy honey — "Bee-lieve Honey" was there. The woman running the booth was extremely, um, sweet. Oh, and somebody came up with the notion of doing a Christian version of MySpace, only they promised it would be cleaned up ("No Britney Spears," the sales guy told me), and of course they gave it the spiritual name "THY Space." Gag.
But it was footwear department that really captured me this year. First, there was the "Not Of This World Footwear Company," reminding us of that great truth: "If you want to witness to the world, have religious symbols imbedded on your shoes" (from the Book of Formica 3:13). The shoes were actually of a nice design — but do we need inspirational sayings on everything? Can’t we just have clothing that doesn’t say anything? (Answer: "No. You’re obviously an idiot. God expects everything from underwear to shoes to have religious slogans on them. That’s why He invented ‘Praise Panties.’")
Second, there was the company that invented insoles that also have Scripture vereses printed on them. Why? So that we can joke about "walking the way of the Lord?" Of course not! It’s so that we can all be "Standing On the Promises"! (It’s a hymn! One of those insider Christian jokes we all like so well, and that so endear us to those outside the church who sometimes think we’ve lost our collective minds.) Right now YOU could be standing on the promises (For example, the promise that "thou shalt never have bunions" — Hez. 3:13) instead of sitting in the chair like a heathen lout. (You never heard anybody read any verses about "sitting on the statutes" did you? I’ll bet not — praise panties or no.)
But when it comes to cheesy religious footwear, the champ has got to be the In-Souls company. (In-Souls! Get it?) For years I’ve made a joke about the demeaning of CBA. As we’ve moved away from being an industry focused on creating great books, and toward an organization looking to move things like Thomas Kinkade postcards and Jesus soap-on-a-rope, I’ve said, "If you can get past the gospel ties and the John 3:16 socks…", and of course I meant it as a gag. Faithful readers have heard me use that line (to appropriate laughter) for the last decade. But it was a joke! A laugher! Nobody would really create John 3:16 socks, right?
Wrong, oh ye of faithless footwear. For at this convention, some bright boy stole my idea! No kidding. There they were, in all their glory: John 3:16 socks! Footies that have "John 3:16" on the roll and the words on the body of the sock. Glory! I have seen the light, and it is footwear!
"And lo, the salesclerk appeared in a bright light, singing praise to Bally and saying, ‘Espadrille!’, which is Greek for ‘Glory’ or maybe ‘rope-sole-with-canvas-uppers.’ And suddenly, the clerk was surrounded by a great cloud of clerks, all carrying Prada and Bruno Magli, though they had pumps and not the loafers I wanted. And the store did carry Allen Edmonds. And they did have it in my size. And it was good. And he placed the shoehorn in my hand and said, "Take. Wear." And I took. And I wore. And it was comfortable. In fact, they gave me no blisters. A miracle." —The Kiltie Gospel