Chip MacGregor

June 15, 2015

What happens if Family Christian Stores goes away?


An earthquake hit CBA this past week. You may not have noticed it, since the news was buried on the back pages, but if you’re an author who sells into the Christian market, it’s going to affect you — possibly in a huge way.

If you haven’t heard, Family Christian Stores (FCS), the largest Christian bookstore chain and easily the largest seller of religious books and merchandise, is in trouble and has filed for Chapter 11 to reorganize their debt. They have 266 stores, did $230-million in business last year, and are facing a real crisis. They are in debt $127-million, much of that in store leases and rents. They owe publishers about $14-million, nearly that much to card-and-gift vendors, and even more to consignment companies. So the owner, Richard Jackson and his team, made a bid to creditors to keep the company in business. (If you don’t know about any of this, you can read about it in an earlier blog post that I wrote here.)

Jackson is a difficult guy to root for among authors, since he and his partners own FCS, but they also loaned money to the company and have been trying to repurchase the company for a lower price, paying themselves back but cutting out many of the publishers and vendors who are owed huge sums. Another group submitted a higher bid, but  that group, Gordon Brothers and Hilco Merchant Services, exist only to take over the locations, liquidate all the assets, and close up the stores. All the employees would lose their jobs, all the stores would eventually shutter, and, most significantly for authors, all the books would be sold without any money making its way back to authors. The books and other products would be considered surplus inventory to be sold as quickly as possible, with the money used to pay off the largest lenders (Credit Suisse holds $34-million of secured debt, and is pushing this idea). Even worse, all that shelf space that has focused on Christian novelists and nonfiction writers would simply disappear.

Those with a memory of Borders Bookstores, Coldwater Creek women’s clothing stores, the Bombay Company furniture stores, The Sharper Image, Circuit City, Wolf’s Camera Stores, or dElia’s Clothing will know the Gordon Brothers and Hilco names — they are the people that stepped in after the crash of 2008, pushed the inventory out the doors, and closed all the locations of those stores. And that’s what is very likely to happen to all the FCS stores.

Book publishers and other vendors would like to see FCS remain open, both in order to receive some of what is owed to them, and because of the loss of bookstore selling space that would happen if FCS completely shut down. If you’re writing books to a CBA audience, you know there aren’t a lot of retail outlets for Christian books, so the closing of all the FCS stores would be a huge blow to Christian authors. There are the independent stores, which are great and have seen a bit of a resurgence of late, but indies aren’t everywhere, are hard-pressed by Amazon, and tend to focus on blockbuster titles. Barnes & Noble, while a wonderful retailer, tends to stick religious books onto some shelves hidden away in one corner. With the closing of Cokesbury stores and other small chains, it would mean LifeWay would be the largest remaining Christian bookstore chain. And while nobody wants to say it, that’s problematical. LifeWay stores are run by the Southern Baptist Convention, meaning most charismatics, Catholics, Anglicans, novels that offer much beyond historical romances, and anyone not holding to the far-right-wing branch of conservative evangelicalism are basically not welcome. (I’m not anti-baptist, by the way — but I’ve watched all sorts of troubles occur when publishers go to LifeWay with books that were thoughtful or challenging. There are some hilarious stories of novels being turned down because certain words were used, and frustrating stories of nonfiction books being rejected because the writer dared to question some dogma.) Frankly, the news is bleak for authors.

The court decided to give FCS more time — until October 9 to reorganize and get creditors to agree to the new plan. It also pushed out the mediation talks with vendors over consignment inventory, linking those results to the overall bankruptcy. But all of that is being challenged by companies intent on swooping in and shutting everything down completely. The story isn’t done yet, but it isn’t looking good. And that’s a shame for publishers who are owed money, small mom-and-pop vendors who were cheated out of consignment products, and for CBA authors, who are about to see even fewer places to sell their books.


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  • P. Kelly says:

    I’m Buddhist, but this is a tragedy in and of itself. I see all religion as being under assault from corporatocracy, without malice yes, but seeking only the bottom line of pennies-pinched leaves spiritual seekers devoid of material resources. I feel it’s unjust to so thoroughly scrub our environment of bookstores, as we have all witnessed. Authors don’t receive the copyright protections that they need to survive against the likes of Amazon. Until our policymakers understand that a thriving creative society is a major underpinning of democracy, I fear more writers will be left high and dry.

  • Joy Elizabeth Teets says:

    It’s really sad that anything about our living God, our Lord and Savior, Jesus, gets pushed aside. We need more Christian stores. We need more Jesus in our lives.

  • Allen says:

    Postponed today, what is next, more money?

  • Karyn says:

    Perhaps Mark Burnett and Roma Downey would want to expand their holdings.

  • MarcieBridges says:

    The reason I stopped shopping at FCS is because of 2 things. First, their books are always in disarray and illogical order. I can never find what I’m looking for in there. Second, going to the counter to pay for something got on my last nerve as they asked a zillion times if I wanted to add such and such to my bill, and show me all of the $5 things available to me as a member and oh! Don’t even get them started on their 10 minute discourse on iDisciple. I just want to pay for my purchase and go. Not to mention that now we have to spend an extra sum of money for our membership cards? I don’t want them going out of business either. But if they do stay in business, they need to overhaul these problem areas. Just my own 2 cents worth.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Yeah, in my view the stores went downhill as soon as Jim Reimann (God rest his soul) got pushed out. No argument at all, MarcieBridges. I’d prefer to see them survive this debacle, but with a different style and method. (And no, I don’t expect that’s going to happen.)

  • LSH says:

    Thank you, Chip. It has been interesting to read your thoughts and to see the comments below. Instead of Christian authors, artists, publishers, and independents coming together, there seems to be a lot of finger pointing and criticism. How can we use this unfortunate situation as an opportunity to come together, support one another and use it as a platform to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      A fair question, LSH. I’d love to see more creative thinking on that topic. People keep pointing to online stores — but the shopping experience online has always been weak (and by its very nature it stops community). I’m waiting to see what sort of solutions those authors and artists come up with.

  • Cynthia Davis says:

    The impact of them going away will only be temporary. Just like any remodeling project, something better will come of it. As for the authors who think local bookstores are overpriced, have you ever heard anyone say the royalties authors are making off their books are too high? No. I never have either. If a book is worth it, it’s worth paying the “Suggested Retail Price”. It is offensive to say the charging SRP is the same as overcharging for a book. No. That’s the established price. The publisher put a lot of time and thought into how to price a book. If even the publisher can’t stand behind the price, we have just destroyed the integrity of the structure.

    If FCS can’t pay its debts, it needs to close. If it won’t honor commitments, how important is this “ministry”? Can you honor God while cheating your neighbor?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I”ve never seen FCS as a “ministry,” Cynthia. I’ve long thought it was a Christian K-Mart. But I disagree on the notion this is a temporary issue. A huge loss for authors and publishers, frankly. For those who shut down or go out of business, that’s not a temporary loss.

  • Cameron Bane says:

    Back when my Joe Box series was first launched, I had a stormy relationship with my local FCS (although the Berean store couldn’t have been more helpful). That said, it’s sad to see such a debacle for FCS and its customers. Not to mention, of course, the many good writers who are caught in the pincers.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, John. I’m not a defender of FCS, so I”m with you. But a shame to see so much shelf space lost to authors.

  • Jenntleh says:

    Christian book store are ridiculously price anyway. I find mine online at christian book distributors or gasp Amazon….

    • You obviously have not been in an independent Christian retail store lately….with $5.00 and $5.99 books, $5.00 and $7.97 Cd’s, buy 3 get 1 free specials and such….many retailers can compete with amazon and cbd on price. Even at that, the personal relationships made at a locally owned Christian retailer and the ministry that goes on every day in our store surpasses all.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for saying something, Bruce.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think you’re painting with a bit too broad of a brush. All the online competition forced indies to become more nimble — and that included better pricing and special discounts. And, to be fair to independent stores, the biggest hurdle they faced was that they couldn’t buy books from wholesalers or publishers at the same big discounts as the superstores that could buy in bulk. But the real benefit of a local indie store (whether a Christian store or not) is that there were people who knew books, could steer readers in the right direction, and help authors by hand-selling.

  • Steve Myers says:

    I posted this back on June 1 Chip on another agent’s blog. I still feel the same way.

    “Brick and Mortar Stores for too long lost their way with their local market.
    What were once locally owned Mom and Pop stores in the 1970s and 1980s that met the needs of a community were eventually bought out and placed under the umbrella of a lost chain. Books that were the original draw along with music was
    replaced by ‘Jesus Junk,’ (A term used at the 2012 ACFW Conference by a
    well respected CEO/Publisher). And space has continued to shrink even
    in the chains that are more solvent than others (like FCS).

    Online companies have made their mark and frankly perform a better
    service than those B&M companies who were lost from the start and
    never really provided even adequate customer service.

    Ethically the law may allow this reorganization but frankly its just
    theft from vendors and product suppliers. Its contrary to the original
    agreements and leaves a very bad taste in my mouth of companies who
    peddle Christian content but have no spiritual accountability while
    getting rich at the expense of consumers, employees, publishers and suppliers. Its
    certainly not a fragrant aroma rising to please God.

    If I were owed payment for services (and I’ve been in that situation
    from mega churches) I’ve watched the attorneys and owners walk away with
    the wealth. While legal it was unethical in my book. Immoral to
    state the least. From what I’ve read from several summaries, that will surely be
    the case for another owner and series of attorneys.

    Amazon is the #1 retailer. Until someone comes along as a competitor
    or provides the service in a better way it will continue to be my
    choice for reading material. What I don’t purchase from them in printed
    text I purchase in e-books as Kindle files. Kindle won my business
    being cross platform on all devices I personally own contrasted to
    iBooks that is or was on one device only. CBD is the other service I
    will purchase from when it makes sense.

    I should also say I worked for Lifeway in a return to college in the
    1990s and for FCS and Mardel’s on holidays seasons in the early 2000s.
    Lifeway was the most grace filled and merciful. The others were eye
    opening experiences of how differently others operate. Let’s just leave
    it at that.

    We lost FCS years ago in this city and frankly they are not missed.
    They always looked like they were going out of business, could not keep
    up the most basic of appearances in the stores, that were dirty and with so
    many rotating temp employees that few had any knowledge or credible
    information to guide a shopper to the desired product. Dark stores, lights
    off or bulbs not replaced, sometimes little to no AC or heat in the winter, music section equipment out of order for years (with handwritten signs) – frankly other than bargain book bins or tubs it was easy to see why shoppers thinned and eventually did not come back.

    I will shop Mardel’s and Lifeway from time to time but what makes the
    most sense (and in price for me) is an quick order online and UPS at my door
    anywhere from 2-4 days later. If I were a vendor to FCS its probably better write off
    100% of it and try not to make the same mistake again with any other B&M group (and especially with FC) when they repeat the madness. And they will. Too many do so. It stinks. I know many published authors who feel cheated and will not shop those stores again. Frankly its also a bad witness to both the public and Christian public as a whole. Perhaps its better left to those who are ethical and are committed to a higher standard of Christianity than those who are not. And pray the public has a short attention span to this mess in progress.

    At some point publishers should sell direct to consumers. Sorry, FC leaves a really nasty taste in my mouth and odor to my nose. Why would I give them any more rope to continue listing in the water is my interpretation of this mess. And its an ugly mess.”

    • Pat Walter says:

      Though I agree with your assessment of FCS, you have judged an entire industry based on a few experiences and that is unfortunate. Your spirit regarding your current shopping habits also says you are far more concerned with Personal Economics than you are Kingdom Economics. Also unfair. What you have missed is the amazing community, ministry, counselling, prayer, church, love, kindness, coffee, comfort, service, and support so many independents and smaller chains offer in the $1.50 you saved so someone in Seattle could go get a beer on Friday night. I know this because I managed a store for ten years and prayed over and loved on people wrestling with abortion, suicide, death, divorce and many other situations. For whatever reason, stores are alternative safe places for people who may not be strong in a church and our outreach is a solid alternative. I also know because I worked at CBA and have met many Godly people with huge hearts and a missionary mind toward providing resources and ministry in their communities, a living wage be damned. Stores have much to learn still about adapting to the new retail environment, but it is not for lack of a desire to partner with authors and suppliers nor a concern for their community. It is also on suppliers and publishers to understand that the CBA channel could go away, at least as we know it, and then how much leverage will they have in the secular market. One final thought, that Jesus junk. It sells. It pays for the stores to be able to offer books and music and the staff to bless the community. It took me a while to get there, but I eventually saw how wonderful a tool many of those items became in being the outreach link, or item of comfort for our customers. Yes, there is some amazing junk out there, but much of it is a blessing to its eventual owner. Lets just continue to pray that God is glorified in this whole fiasco!

    • Steve Myers says:

      ““They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
      F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.

      There’s so much more I’d like to say to you Pat, the CBA, so called Christian Media, Publishing and Business. I’ll leave it however to Fitzgerald and Jesus to somehow heal my broken spirit and heart.

    • Pat Walter says:

      Steve, I am so, so sorry for your broken heart in this matter. Truly. You must know that behind all of these businesses and corporations that have lost your trust, there are literally thousands of hearts that love Jesus and committed to the bigger calling of this industry. Some decisions/behaviors within these entities don’t line with scripture the way we like, but we are all sinners, right? If you need to vent, have at it or friend me on facebook and go from there. As someone who has peeked behind the curtain, I probably lean more to your view than not, believe it or not.

      To stay on track with Chip’s purpose of the post, I just want to point out my heart is also broken. The greatest concern in this situation is the shrinking platform for supported Christian thought, and losing 266 stores filled with the message and people of Christ will have a crushing effect. I hope there flows out of this some courageous independents with a new business model that embraces the new retail landscape. There will be opportunity for those creatives looking to heal the broken and proclaim His name.

      Again, if you only hear one thing, hear I am sorry for what you have gone through and I hurt for you. Referencing your quote, I am currently a janitor:)

  • Susan Kampenga says:

    Thank you, Chip, for shedding light on this troubling and very messy situation. As the manager of a small church bookstore I’ve often dealt with customers who have chosen a Family Christian Store over our store because of their great deals and/or coupons. While we can’t possibly compete with a large chain, I’m confident that the Lord has a purpose for our little ministry and others like it – and it’s a different purpose than that of any other store. Even though they can be viewed as “the competition” and I might not be a fan of their stores, I would hate to see all Family Christian Stores close because of the impact that would likely be real for Christian authors everywhere. Praying that the Lord’s will would be done in this situation. His ways are always higher than our ways. In the mean time, I want to encourage everyone to keep on ministering to those who The Lord brings across your path and may you continue to bring glory to His holy name wherever you are.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Independent bookstores have long held a significant place in the life of a community. Appreciate you being part of that, Susan — and for commenting on the situation.

  • Laura Droege says:

    I’m sorry to hear about this. I’m not writing for a CBA audience and I don’t read Christian fiction very often, but I feel bad for those who are Christian fiction writers. It’s hard enough to do the whole writing/publishing/marketing thing without having a major outlet for those books disappear and be consumed by vultures. My sympathies.

  • David Marshall says:

    It was a horrible chain anyway. I seldom if ever saw a book in their local store that even looked interesting. They certainly woudn’t carry my books. It was mostly trinkets and junk. No loss.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      No, it’s actually a huge loss to authors and CBA publishers. 266 stores is a lot of shelf space to lose. Whether you liked the chain or not, for many cities FCS was the only Christian bookstore available to readers. And a bookstore can offer much more than an online experience. I think this is a profound loss for Christian publishing.

    • Breckmin says:

      Sorry to ask you here, but were you banned from DC (John Loftus’ site)? I sometimes get banned from atheist sites and youtube channels for answering questions… (no tolerance for some answers)… and constructive criticism is always solicited. sorry, chip, if this is out of line.

  • LindaB says:

    Actually I’m not really surprised. Their markup was always soo high, I wondered who was raking in all that profit. My husband always said Christian stores were more highpriced than secular, and that just shouldn’t be.

    • Lorraine Valk says:

      As an owner of a small independent Christian bookstore- I invite you to consider that there are factors that aren’t immediately apparent. We entered the market 9 years ago—and since then 75% of independent stores like ours have gone out of business.

      The big boxes get discounts and return privileges that we can not get- oftentimes selling items at a lower price than we can purchase them for. Online “stores” do not have the costs of purchasing the inventory to stock their shelves, of terrific employees (aka your next door neighbor) and rent/lights/heat/snow removal, nor the taxes that run your schools and police departments. They also don’t have the heart that breaks with the mother looking for books to encourage her suicidal daughter, or the opportunity to kneel in prayer with the young man who will not set his foot inside a church, or help a child select their first Bible.

      As for raking in the profit–that’s not happening (ask my CPA husband) I pay myself minimum wage…and we pray that at the end of the year we hit black not red. I challenge you to consider supporting you local store-because it might be worth a few extra bucks to keep it there- to make a positive impact on someone you don’t even know…and if you are ever in my neck of the woods- borrow an apron and volunteer a day at my store- I guarantee it will change your life! 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for jumping into the conversation, Lorraine. I’ve blogged before about the importance of good bookstores in a community. People who know books can steer readers in the right direction — and that’s where the next breakout hit comes from. And yes, market factors such as volume pricing have played a significant factor, though in the case of FCS, they had that benefit and still screwed it up. So all of us are appreciative of you and the hundreds of others who press on to create good, helpful independent bookstores in communities, making a difference in the lives of others. Appreciate you sharing.

  • edhird says:

    Thanks Chip for this insightful analysis of a tragic situation. I pray that this pruning time will somehow produce a lasting literary harvest in ways that we cannot currently imagine. May doors continue to open for writers who are Christians to connect with people wanting to purchase their books. You have often said, Chip, that more than ever, we writers need to be in charge of our marketing, that we need to find our tribe and have a conversation with them. I ask in Jesus’ name that God will take this painful situation and bring a breakthrough for his Kingdom purposes.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Books will still get published, Ed. It’s just a huge shift in the way Christian titles will be sold and distributed, and it’s going to have a significant impact on author, agent, and publisher earnings. But yes — this is why I’ve long argued the author needs to be in charge of his or her own marketing!

  • Ellen Gee says:

    How does this affect MacGregor Lit? Are you guys at risk?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      We’re not at risk in terms of shutting down, since we do a big chunk of our business in the general market. But overall this is a crushing blow to authors who write Christian books, small and mid-size Christian publishers who sell a lot of books through CBA stores, and to agents and others who work predominantly with Christian titles, Ellen.

  • Les Mcc says:

    I guess opening on Sundays didn’t help much?

  • Sharlene MacLaren says:

    Very interesting article, Chip. I’m working on published novel #17, and when asked anymore by my fans how to get my books – because they can’t find them on any store shelves like they used to be able to (grrrrr) – I simply direct them to all the online venues. No point in saying, “Go to Barnes & Noble” – “Go to Family Christian” – “Go to your local Christian bookstore.” They’re just not on shelves. B&N’s Christian fiction department is slim pickings unless you’re among the top 7-10 bestselling authors. There is always electronic, and I’m VERY THANKFUL all my books are available in e-format, but there are still so many readers, myself included, who prefer paper books. And I’m not just talking about the older crowd either.

    What is the answer? I sure don’t know it. Why have so many bookstores fallen off the train? I don’t get it. Is it because of the huge influx of indie authors? Is it because there are so many more reading choices? Is it because – dare I say it? – less people enjoy reading as a pastime?

    I think a lot plays into this whole equation. I do know this: As an author it’s very frustrating. I sometimes ask myself why I keep at it, but then I know God called me, and so for now I keep chugging along…hoping “I’m” not the next one to fall off.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Actually, the overall number of books sold is bigger than ever, Sharlene, so the problem isn’t in the fact that people aren’t reading. But I hear you — harder than it used to be to find your readership through a bookstore.

  • Daisy Rain Martin says:

    My first book was never in Family stores, and I’ve largely sold them myself when I get speaking gigs. LifeWay would certainly have never picked up Juxtaposed, and I’m sure they wouldn’t want my next book, (Hope Givers) either. But for an itty bitty little author like me who works hard by herself to sell the bulk of her books anyway, does this affect me?

  • Heather Frey Blanton says:

    Well, unfair as it maybe, there is no panic in heaven. I suggest we all pray. God can turn this around.

  • Jodie Bailey says:

    Glad you laid this out. This whole mess is confusing and unfair on so many levels. Still boggled that the people who created this mess can buy it from themselves.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      At a discount. And there isn’t anyone else bidding against him at this point, except the liquidators. An ugly situation.

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