Is the End Near for Brick-and-Mortar ABCs?

Is the End Near for Brick-and-Mortar ABCs?

Trudy Eide, a part-time Potomac ABC staff member, shares samples of gluten-free cookies topped with chocolate sauce.

Trudy Eide, a part-time Potomac
ABC staff member, shares samples
of gluten-free cookies topped with
chocolate sauce.

Is the End Near for Brick-and-Mortar ABCs?

by Taashi Rowe

It’s been years since the Mountain View Conference had a physical Adventist Book Center (ABC). It was housed at the conference office in Parkersburg, W.Va., where, in addition to books, locals could pick up vegetarian foods. The store was eventually closed because only one or two persons would shop there each month. However, “We still have some folks, either passing through or living in the community, that stop by the office from time to time, still expecting that we have an ABC operating here,” shares Valerie Morikone, an administrative assistant at the conference office.

When two ABCs in the Columbia Union closed at the end of last year, one in Mount Vernon, Ohio, the other in Hamburg, Pa., some members say they felt the loss keenly. Bob Hoyt, a retired pastor and member of Ohio’s Mount Vernon City church, says, “I spent over 25 years in the publishing work, followed by 25 years in the ministry. I see [a] tragic mistake taking place. … The ABC is a strong evangelistic tool for witnessing to [the community].”

Although his local ABC was not affected, Charles Battles, a member of Allegheny East Conference’s Capitol Hill church in Washington, D.C., suggests, “We should be opening more ABCs, not closing them! Closing them will limit our outreach to [community members].”

A Changing Marketplace

Keeping open a physical outlet for the Seventh-day Adventist message was the main reason the Pacific Press Publishing Association in Nampa, Idaho, eventually took over the management of as many as 26 North American ABCs.

“About 15 years ago, some local conferences were ready to close their stores. The stores were just too expensive to operate, and they were taking precious funds away from the conference’s evangelism programs,” explains Jerry Thomas, a vice president at Pacific Press. “Rather than see that happen, Pacific Press entered into management agreements with these conferences … hoping that time would lead to a way to operate the ABCs efficiently.”

However, the Pacific Press may have only delayed the inevitable. The changing marketplace has not only affected mainstream bookstores but Christian booksellers too. In the 2008 report “Christian Retail Research,” Cathedral Consulting Group, LLC, studied how a market change trifecta impacted members of the Christian Booksellers Association, a group of independent Christian booksellers and publishers. While religious consumers were once limited to finding their favorite music or books at niche Christian bookstores, a changing marketplace gives them options. They can now find goods at a deeper discount at mega bookstore chains, their local “big box” retailer and online.

The writing on the wall started early for Jay Cole, a former manager of the Hamburg ABC and now manager of trade sales at the Review and Herald Publishing Association in Hagerstown, Md., but it was not from lack of effort. Cole noted that while he managed the Pennsylvania ABC, he developed a wholesale food program, took the bookmobile all over the Pennsylvania territory, escalated advertising and, as a result, saw some success. Cole says he never figured out why sales dropped in Hamburg and found the closure to be “especially painful.” He adds, “We put 14 years of blood, sweat and tears into that store.”

Mattias and Carolina De Paoli at Revive ABC

Mattias and Carolina De Paoli at Revive ABC

If Jim Greene, New Jersey Conference’s executive secretary, is any indication of today’s typical consumer, Cole may have his answer. Greene says he shops at the ABC for food and health products, “but not a lot for books. I carry all my new books on the iPad, including various Bible translations and the app that has all of Ellen G. White’s writings. So I’m not buying much in hard copy from anybody.”

Matthew Berry, who manages the ABC at Highland View Academy (HVA) in Hagerstown, Md., can attest to the decline in book sales. Although that ABC is officially a charity with proceeds funding scholarships for students at HVA and the nearby Mount Aetna Elementary School, “Our books don’t sell well,” Berry says. “In general, book sales have been difficult, even when reduced in price.”

Even so, the Association of American Publishers reports that between 2012 and 2013, hardcover book sales jumped by 11.5 percent while ebook sales increased 4.5 percent.

Another issue could be that the stores are not often easily accessible to the public, which several ABC managers admit limits their customer base. Unlike the Potomac ABC, which is nestled among secular stores in a shopping center, most ABCs are located at our conference offices and schools, where the average community member would not happen to walk by and stop in. Greene also believes that since many of our stores only sell books by Adventist authors, that further limits the base.

When the Pacific Press severed their management contracts with

17 ABCs last year, the two Columbia Union conferences impacted were left with a big decision. After reviewing their finances, they realized

they could not afford to return to managing the stores, so they closed last December.

Still, conference leaders are trying to fill the resulting gap. While members can get some items online at adventistbookcenter.com or at camp meeting, some members are fond of walking into a store. Ohio Conference announced this month that they will provide vegetarian products at the old ABC site while the Southern New England ABC is planning to open a smaller store in April at the old Pennsylvania ABC.

Still Reaching the Community

Those managing the remaining ABCs have hope. Mattias and Carolina De Paoli, managers at New Jersey Conference’s two Revive ABC stores in Lawrenceville and Tranquility, are working to revive their client base. “We are doing our best and praying,” De Paoli says. Sometimes people may think the results are not great, but we see it here every day. We have witnessed to pastors from other denominations, and one of our vendors who is not Adventist is now buying vegetarian products. I’ve also shared with him one of our books, so who knows what will happen next.”

When they moved to a shopping plaza in Silver Spring, Md., in April 2000, the Potomac Conference ABC store started out as the world’s largest Christian bookstore. However, a short time later, the store was forced to reduce its size. Lisa Myaing, manager, says some 110 years after the store first opened in Takoma Park, Md., the Potomac ABC remains true to their mission of reaching the community. The staff host health classes and Bible studies, and the store is even a place of worship for one local congregation. Myaing notes that while sales of books and music are down, food is 57 percent of their sales. “Interest in food and health continues to grow, especially with the popularity of The China Study (a book touting the benefits of vegetarianism). People are interested in finding out how to get rid of diabetes and lower their blood pressure,” she says.

The Potomac ABC has active food demonstrations throughout the store on Sundays and Fridays. This year they hope to add a deli into their store. “Our focus is ministry and community outreach and, so, we are realigning our efforts to reach out to our community,” Myaing says.

UPDATE: Since, the article has been published, Ohio Conference leaders announced on March 1 that they will be re-opening their ABC to provide uniquely, Adventist foodstuff to their members. The Pennsylvania Conference is doing something similar. They are working with the Southern New England ABC to re-open a smaller ABC, minus books, in mid-April.

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