LDS Bookstores: What is your role?

I believe most true readers have had, at least at some point in their lives, a love affair with either a bookstore or a library. I still love getting lost among bookshelves, happening on some gem of a work that I never knew existed, or glancing into a book I’ve heard of only to emerge, disoriented, hours later, sometimes after extreme journeys in time and space.

But I can count on one hand the LDS Bookstores in which I’ve had that experience. Its not that LDS Bookstores are small (I’ve had this kind of experience in small bookstores), nor is it that they are mostly chain stores (I’ve had the kind of experience I’m talking about in several Barnes & Nobels, as well as in a few Borders stores). Nor is it the quality of the help — I almost never talk to the help or seek their advice (I only talk to staff when I know they know their stuff — or when I’m trying to make sales contacts).

It could simply be that I’m the wrong kind of customer for most LDS bookstores — that there aren’t enough readers like me. But if that’s the case, can someone please explain what the role of LDS Bookstores is or should be?

I’m not trying to suggest that my view of what a bookstore should be is the only view. But I do suspect that most LDS stores have lost focus a bit in what is a changing marketplace. Here are some observations that may give some insight into what I mean:

  • We are bombarded with stories of rapid LDS Church growth, even in Utah. But despite that growth the number of LDS stores has actually decreased in the past decade.
  • Despite the clear importance of selling books on the Internet, most LDS bookstores outside the two largest chains don’t have an Internet presence.
  • Purchasers of LDS books are thought to be as much as 80% women.
  • Aside from Deseret Book’s stores in Salt Lake City and Utah county and a couple of independents, LDS bookstores rarely or never hold store events such as readings and author appearances.

I’m not sure what needs to be done, if anything. I’ve heard a variety of reasons for why people think the number of LDS stores are declining, and I’ve even got a few theories of my own — but nothing that I think completely and easily fits the evidence.

So, I’d love to hear from you. Am I right that LDS stores have a problem that threaten’s their existence? If I am, what are the problems, in your opinion?

Do you think that the situation can be turnded around, or is likely to be turned around?

I look forward to your comments!!

30 thoughts on “LDS Bookstores: What is your role?”

  1. Glurge. Too many LDS books are glurgy. Though there are lots of good ones out there, I don’t have the faintest clue which ones are good. Besides, I read my scriptures and the Ensign for edification. I read other books for entertainment.

    Also, they cater to only one genre. How many “mystery” or “sci-fi/fantasy” book stores do you see out there?

    Plus, whenever I go into one of the two biggest chains, I either feel surrounded by false discounts or confused by glurge.

  2. I think the problem might be that the two large stores (which are really one huge store since the merge) have a monopoly. Not good for free enterprise.

    SilverRain–the recent Whitney Awards for the best LDS authors (whether writing LDS books or not) brought to light plenty of good non-glurgy books.

  3. Here in Atlanta, we have only a single LDS bookstore. I don’t think they carry more than a couple hundred titles. Given that, you could probably guess most of what they carry, and virtually none of it interests me. Moreover, these books usually come at full price. Given my online options, I would never even consider trying to pick up a book I was looking for at the store. In essence, this bookstore functions as little more than the Atlanta temple’s gift shop (located just a block away).

    I don’t know whether Atlanta could support a more vibrant and interesting LDS bookstore. Perhaps not.

  4. Now when I visit Utah, I am fully and completely satisfied with Benchmark Books and Sam Wellers. (I suppose that says a little about what interests me.) Between those two stores, it’s everything I could ask for and more — great selection, great people, great atmosphere, great book signings and other events, etc. Would it be nice to have more stores like these? I suppose so, and maybe there already are and I just don’t know about them (if so, please share!). But I wonder whether even ground-zero for Mormonism could support more stores like them.

    One final thought: Every year or so I convince myself that I ought to go into Deseret Book just to see what they got. And every year, I come out only minutes later remembering why I hate that store.

  5. I know that many LDS bookstores outside of Utah serve as a catch-all for LDS merchandise of all types, not just books. (DB does this to a certain extent as well.) When I lived in MN, I went to the LDS bookstore near the temple to buy a temple dress and to get bookmarks for Primary kids and whatnot. Most of my book purchases were of a strictly utilitarian sort–I was a very harried Primary president when I caved and bought a few cheesy sharing time idea books as well as some “mini talks for kids” books for the days when our “mini talkers” were AWOL, etc.

    The only time I ever bought a book for pleasure was when I saw Eric Samuelsen’s novel _Singled Out_ stuffed upside down and backwards on a shelf. (The novel is based on his play _The Way We’re Wired_ and I found it thoroughly enjoyable.) I was so excited to see it and wanted to save it from it’s unceremonious placement on the shelf, so I bought it.

    LDS bookstores on the whole, though, aren’t really about selling books. They’re about selling LDS paraphernalia, don’t you think?

  6. Because of the small niche LDS market, the LDS bookstore has an extremely small profit margin. LDS books are printed in smaller quantities than national books, therefore, they don’t offer the stores a very big discount (usually 40%). The reason they sell all the knick-knacks is because there’s a higher margin there and that’s what the customers want.

    As to why they don’t do more events, that’s beyond me. When I was publishing, I tried and tried to schedule events. Even when I offered to pay for everything, I was turned down. If I owned a bookstore, I’d have an event every week!

  7. For me the problem can be summed up in my last visit to Deseret Book a few weeks ago in Portland: I couldn’t find Coke Newell’s “˜On the Road to Heaven’, but I could find Glenn Beck’s “˜An Inconvenient Book’.

  8. the Internet is a way better way to get the kind of LDS book I like, frex I recently bought Benson Parkinson’s MTC novel. But, if my mostly-tchotchke LDS Bookstore in San Jose didn’t happen to have the novel _Dinner Party_ on the sale table, I might never have known of its existence. And it is one funky little book–Mormon truck driver’s wife becomes a famous stripper.

  9. I do not live in Utah. We have an independent store in the area and I go whenever I can. When I’m in Utah, I love to go to Deseret Book. I get lost in there for hours. I’d love to have one nearby. I also love Seagull. I much prefer an LDS bookstore over other bookstores because I’m much more likely to buy something from an LDS bookstore than a national chain. I do buy books from Amazon, but will buy from an LDS store whenever possible.

  10. I haven’t been in an LDS bookstore in years. Stopped in at Seagull some years back to get my mother a gift certificate because she likes to go there but went straight to the counter and felt the urge to avert my eyes from the church kitsch the whole time. I feel ill at ease among all the sentimentality paraphernalia. The “The reason they sell all the knick-knacks is because there’s a higher margin there and that’s what the customers want” explanation gets under my skin too because many unfortunate products and services are trafficked on that principle.

    To be fair, I know that I’m not the kind of customer Seagull/Deseret Book targets. I can live with that, especially while the mighty Amazon continues to flow. I’m glad these bookstores are there for the people who use them. Will that customer base be enough to boost the survival rate for LDS bookstores? It’s kind of tough going, the market is in such flux, but the church and church-goers appear to invest a lot of time, money, and energy into outlets they deem valuable.

  11. Johnna:

    Who is the author of _Dinner Part_?

    ————
    I think the Internet presence is interesting, Kent. It may be that LDS bookstores figure that there’s no point in developing much of a Web presence because of Deseret Book, Amazon, etc. But I think that is the wrong approach. LDS bookstores outside of the Wasatch Front (especially independent ones — but even the chains) should be marketing themselves as *the* center for LDS culture in the area.

    It’s hard to have a steady stream of author signings/readings if you are in, say, Oakdale Minnesota, and LDS authors just aren’t going to have the money go on book tours.

    So I think in response to that you do two things.

    1. Get the word out that any author, actor, director, game designer who is going to be in your area should contact you about doing an event — even if their product is a few years old. Mormons are always traveling for weddings, family reunions, graduations, etc. (and also business). Often when they travel, they will add in an extra day to go to the temple. Many LDS bookstores are near temples. It seems to me like there could be a decent amount of events if either an individual bookstore got the word out (to LDStorymakers, etc.) or if a group of bookstores banded together and created a master list of bookstores you should contact if you are an author and going to be in the area.

    2. When you do attract authors etc., realize that there may not be much of a turn out (oftentimes there aren’t even at non-LDS bookstore events) and set expectations accordingly, but — video or audio record the reading or if no one shows up, have an employee do a Q&A. And then post that on your Web site (and have an RSS feed an e-mail newsletter to let people know about new content). And also have a few copies of whatever work is being shilled autographed and let your customers know they are available.

    Maybe some LDS bookstores already do this, but the ones I’m familiar with don’t.

  12. Hey, William, I keep forgetting you’re in my old stomping grounds. Good ol’ Best Books and Gifts by the gas station. I personally contacted the owner to try and get him to stock Bound on Earth, but don’t know if it’s panned out. You’ll have to stalk the shelves for me if you ever pop in there.

  13. I grew up in Detroit, and so every chance we had to go out to the Rocky Mountain region (Idaho, Utah, parts of Arizona) Deseret Book was almost a day trip where my parents would spend a ton of money stocking up for the next 3-5 years (or whenever we could get out there next).

    Now that I live in the Rocky Mountain region, Deseret just doesn’t do it for me. Perhaps its because I’m a poor college student and only browse the discount rack, but even when I do get money, I don’t see that many books that catch my eye.

    Seagull is good for the discounts, but everything I buy is off Amazon and Ebay.

    William (#12) – I totally agree with you. With the explosion of the bloggernacle, news of an artist, author, musician being in a certian area at a certain time would travel quickly. What struggling author doesn’t want the free pub?

    And I think the concept of recording it and putting it on the internet would also drum up the interest, even if the employees were the only ones asking the questions.

    And I agree that Deseret and Seagull have become LDS Culture trinket stations instead of all the other possibilities that are out there.

  14. Why thank you William – it’s great to be here.

    What other options are out there other than Deseret and Seagull?

  15. I’ve mostly resisted commenting, waiting to see what people add to this discussion.

    However, I do ant to suggest that the idea that the Internet solves the problem doesn’t work in my view. The principal problem is that the Internet works if you know that the book you are looking for exists and you look for that book. If you don’t know about the book, or you want an LDS perspective to help you figure out whether or not the book is for you, you are basically out-of-luck on the Internet.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the Internet resources are generally good, but they are generally NOT Mormon resources. [I’ve blogged about this problem before, see http://www.motleyvision.org/?p=294 .

    And to be brutally honest, I’m not sure that we should be all that supportive of Amazon these days, given its recent move (see http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6545772.html?nid=2286&source=title&rid=632422858 )

  16. I agree, Kent. My point is that the Internet should be used more as a marketing tool by bricks and mortar stores than as book selling tool — as a way to create community of customers. They should be the ones helping us know about the book and whether or not is for you.

    ——

    Interesting article about Amazon. That’s quite unfortunate. The problem is that, for all the talk about the wild Web, once someone becomes a leader in a particular category (esp. a mature category like online bookselling), it’s very difficult to dislodge them.

  17. Well, William, I wasn’t too worried about you. Other commentors were less nuanced, however.

    Its an important point that I think needs to be made repeatedly — that the Internet is only an advantage if we make it into one. In this case, if we produce or gather the pieces that make it a tool for Mormon literature and culture.

  18. I grew up in Utah, but have lived away from there for over thiry years. That long ago (and pre-Sherry Dew), Deseret Book was a general bookstore, not just LDS. It was a great place to browse, and they actually hired people who knew books. Is there an independent bookstore in Utah that sells the LDS books along with other books too? I used to love the old Frost’s books at Foothill Village, because it was like that, but I have lost touch with the books scene in Salt Lake.

  19. Catherine, it is my impression that DB stores in Salt Lake City and perhaps elsewhere in Utah are still general book stores, while elsewhere they tend to be more oriented towards LDS products only. Like most general-interest bookstores in the US, price pressures have made it increasingly less likely that the people behind the counter know anything about books.

    The chief independent bookstore that carries both LDS books and other books also is probably Sam Weller’s (although I’m not always happy with their selection of LDS books, and they definitely avoid the LDS knick-knacks and paraphenalia. Sam Weller’s is also a great place to browse and has a fabulous used and rare LDS book section. I feel like I can browse there while I don’t at most DB stores.

  20. Book signings are ineffective unless you’re a NY Times bestseller or a master marketer/salesman (which most authors are not, seeing as how they’re introverts which is why they became writers in the first place). This is not confined solely to the LDS market – it happens in the national market as well. Publishers simply won’t pay money for a newer or midlist author to do signings or travel. The only reason an author does a signing these days is to establish relationships with the staff in each store. Getting to meet someone who will be handselling your books is more important than the handful of books you might sell to the few non-relatives who show up to your signing.

    I would bet though with the Seagull/Deseret consolidation you’ll be seeing even fewer bookstores as they’re no longer in competition with one another.

  21. I think that the high prices at Phariseegull Books make it a little too expensive to be a Mormon for most of us. I’m too busy tryng to maintain the fundamentals, I don’t have the dollars to waste on a three-hundred dollar painting so that I can scream out to the world that I’m Mormon. I’ll let the pile of kids do that.

  22. Sariah:

    I’m not sure that you are correct about Book signings. I’ve heard of plenty of successful authors who use book signings to promote their works. Yahoogroups has a list for Booksigners that discusses techniques for Book Signers.

    It is true that the largest publishers have largely abandoned Booksignings as a promotion technique. But I think this is principally true because of the model for booksigning that they use — the assumption that the author will travel all over the country, that large quantities of books need to be shipped to the stores involved, etc.

    However, just because its not working for the large scale publisher, doesn’t mean that it can’t work in other circumstances.

    Part of the problem is that bookstores are less and less filling their ideal role — that of community center, a place where people can go to be associated with books and experience culture as a whole. Booksignings are important as cultural events, and bookstores need to promote them and everything other event that helps spread culture.

    Authors and publishers simply need to re-discover and reinvent how booksignings should work.

  23. Absolutely.

    Which gets back to using podcasts, videos, etc. so that they can create events that transcend time and place and hopefully create excitement and a sense of commitment that will lead to more people participating in person.

  24. Trossa:

    I’m not sure why you think the prices at Seagull Books (of all places) are too expensive. Seagull is generally a discount store, so I would expect that prices are lower there than Deseret Book. And, from my New York City-based perspective, $300 paintings don’t seem unreasonable (although I generally don’t care for the kind of art that Seagull and Deseret Book sell).

    BUT, I agree that it is a waste to spend a lot of money just to show off your affiliation.

    I would hope that the reason for purchasing LDS books, music, film and other cultural goods isn’t just to advertise our Mormonism.

  25. I stumbled across your discussion on LDS bookstores and found it interesting enough to read all the comments. I have my own ideas about what bookstores should be. I remember when I was in college many years ago at the University of Texas, my favorite bookstore was a place on the main drag that shelved books according to categories and then in alphabetical order. There were no special displays promoting any one book over any other, no signs in the windows, no discount tables, no “events”, as you call them. Once a book was priced, the price never changed until it was sold, and I found several treasures for under $2.00 that had probably been on the shelf for 10 or more years. It was more like a library that sold books instead of loaning them. It was a great place. Like a library, there were places one could sit down comfortably and read (or sleep). But those days are gone. When I was a kid, I used to love to spend hours in Deseret Book in Salt Lake. I remember it being much like my bookstore in Texas. But those days are gone, too. Those kinds of bookstores still exist in other countries. Spain and Chile still have them (I know because I’ve discovered many there). I think I can give some insight as to why DB has changed so much. Deseret Book carried two of my titles in a dozen or more of their stores for almost a year until a little over a year ago. During that year, they sold out of the 100+ copies of each title they ordered from my distributor, after which they decided to no longer carry those titles. When I was finally able to find someone to answer my inquiry as to why, I was told that it was a business decision: there was only so much room on their store shelves and that putting my titles there meant someone else’s would have to be removed. I suspect there are other authors who have lost their place in DB to the knick-knacks and paraphernalia that have taken over their stores. I walked into the Logan DB just yesterday, and discovered so much there that it no longer has the feel of being a bookstore, certainly not the DB of my memory. I sat there for a good half hour and made some mental notes. Yes, more than 80% of the patrons who came in were female, and most of those spent very little time if any perusing the bookshelves. The clear majority were either at the display tables or in the knick-knack area. I think DB has made a decision to market to those types of customers and let the internet have guys like me. As to your discussion point about the internet not being a place where one can go and read the first few chapters of a book before deciding to purchase it, I have a suggestion for all those authors like me who rely mostly on their author websites to market their LDS books. Do as I do and make the first 100 pages available on your site. Make your site more like a bookstore–the old fashioned kind we all miss.

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