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LDS BOOK MARKET SWELLS INTO A $50 MILLION-A-YEAR BUSINESS

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 1990 12:00 a.m. MDT

When Angela Hastings couldn't coax her class of young Mormon girls to bring their scriptures, she resorted to bribery, stitching them each a frilly carrying case.

Eight years later, her "Totes By Angela" is a cottage industry in Afton, Wyo., employing seven women who produce 5,000 to 6,000 such cases a year. Now she's trying to break into the much larger non-Mormon market.Half the basement in the Bountiful home of Merrill and Jean Gillette is stuffed with back issues of periodicals of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Gillettes' "Back Issues" business doesn't bring in much, but they aren't really in it for the money.

"Two or three times we've wondered if it's worth all the space, but we feel it's a way of recirculating the messages the church wants us to have," says Mrs. Gillette, whose display at the LDS Bookseller Association's ninth annual convention this past week was among the most humble.

Each year, about 20 percent of the 130-odd exhibitors at the convention don't last the year. One such recent hopeful was a vendor of mints that can be opened quietly during church.

Much larger and splashier booths are occupied by the major publishers, wholesalers and vendors exhibiting their wares for the roughly 200 stores nationwide that cater to the Mormon buyer of religious books, tapes, videocassettes, jewelry, T-shirts, sculpture and assorted nicknacks.

They are the mainstays of a $50 million-a-year retail market that, like the 7.5 million-member LDS Church, has more than doubled in size the past 15 years, according to an estimate by Greg Kofford, president of Seagull Book & Tape.

Bestriding the publishing, wholesale and retail ends of the market is church-owned Deseret Book, which publishes 50 to 60 new titles a year, prints and sells tens of thousands of sets of Mormon scriptures, owns 25 stores in key locations, has book and audio clubs and runs a direct-mail operation.

At Seagull's eight discount stores, Deseret Book's products account for 33 percent of sales.

Its combination of church ownership and aggressive marketing has made Deseret Book the bane of many of the independent retailers, 11 of whom last year formed the Independent LDS Booksellers, an organization that has since grown to 90 members.

"We have to compete against our own church every day in the business," said Darlene Jorgensen, a Mormon bookstore owner in Roy and the group's first president. "Everybody feels threatened."

She contends that Deseret Book has access to church membership records and that its ownership gives the company an unfair advantage. "They need to get Deseret out of the retail business. We have the right to survive," she said.

Gary Swapp, a Deseret vice president, said the company doesn't see church membership rolls and is sensitive to charges that it does.

"I'm here to tell you that when you are the big fish, people aren't going to like you," said Swapp, the new president of the LDS Booksellers Association, a group he helped form nine years ago.

"All of the decisions we make are not going to coincide with their wishes," Swapp said of the LDSBA's other retailers, "but we care."

That spirit of reconciliation was echoed by Bill Daniels, a bookseller in Sacramento, Calif., who is taking over as president of the independents. After the LDSBA business meeting, Daniels and Swapp agreed both organizations serve separate but useful purposes.

Daniels, a Mormon stake president, said the church's retention of Deseret Book's retail operation amounts to church policy, "and I support church policy." But, he added, "We're in a competitive business. We've got to find a way to survive in this climate."

One fact of life in the Mormon merchandising climate is that it's changing. Video and audio tape sales are booming, accounting for 30 percent of Seagull's sales.

And a book market once dominated by the writings of church general authorities now features dozens of works of Mormon fiction.

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