Amy Choate-Nielsen: Religious books: Coming in from the fringe

Published: Saturday, Nov. 26 2011 5:00 a.m. MST

SAN FRANCISCO — There's one thing that keeps Margaret Lee going when times at the Harvest Christian Bookstore get tough: The look in her customers' eyes when they buy their first Bible.

It's an intimate moment when they find just the right one — for a loved one, maybe, or someone looking for God — and they hold it in their hands. After nearly 30 years, it still gives her chills. It gives her the will to keep business as usual as the only full-service Christian book shop in San Francisco.

"Almost never a day goes by that a person doesn't say, 'Please stay, please stay,' " Lee says about her shop on Noriega Street. "I say I'm doing my darnedest, but it's hard. It's a hard industry."

The religious book industry — 98 percent of which is made of Christian titles, according to the Association for Christian Retail — has seen a transformation over the past decade from large obscurity to mainstream prevalence. Christian books once available only at independent-niche Christian bookshops like Lee's are now sold online and in mainstream stores everywhere. As recognition of the popularity of Christian books has grown, with some titles holding a steady spot on the nation's best-seller lists, Christian publishing companies and their audience have grown, too, expanding globally and into the electronic marketplace. Now the formerly fringe products have a home in mainstream popularity and at stores like Lee's.

Sure, Lee knows that means she's got more competition, but in the end, it's the big picture that matters to her.

"Ultimately, I always say, as long as people are reading their Bible, and reading good Christian material … I couldn't really care where they got it, in a way," Lee says. "I don't wish ill for people who don't shop here, but if you see a validity to this ministry … please, come and support us."

Rise of the religious book

Years ago, the best place to find a Christian book was at a church or nonprofit organization. Then in 1950, Christian booksellers from 219 charter stores organized the Christian Booksellers Association in Illinois with a plan to network and strengthen each other. Today the organization includes 1,700 stores and is recognized by leading Christian publishers as one reason Christian books have been slowly integrated into mainstream culture.

"Authors and publishers alike want to find readers wherever they are," says Don Gates, vice president of marketing for trade books for Zondervan, the world's leading Bible publisher. "You've seen, over the last 15 years, an expansion of the Christian bookselling section of a mainstream bookstore. It's not just the chains, but the independent booksellers have expanded their section for Christian book titles because more and more demand has been out there. They might have once said they wouldn't sell it. Now they will, responding to consumer purchases."

Christian books sell well because they teach people how to live their beliefs on a day-to-day basis, says Beverly Rykerd, publicity manager for Random House Inc. Christian publishing company WaterBrook Multnomah.

"There's a tremendous interest in topics of faith and belief," Rykerd says. "It's the hunger of the consumer who really has some very big and deep questions they are wanting to explore about the issues of faith."

A 2005 Baylor University study shows 11 percent of Americans spend $50 or more a month on religious products, including non-book items. And the popularity of Christian books like "The Purpose Driven Life," a book published by Zondervan that has sold more than 30 million copies since 2002, has helped open the door to mainstream booksellers.

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