Christians seek gifts at church bookstore

December 20, 1993|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Staff Writer

Julie and Mark Raper, Christians who live in Ellicott City, want to give what they consider meaningful presents this Christmas. And they don't expect to find them at the usual retailers. Instead, they'll look in their church's basement.

At the rear of Harvester Baptist Church on Old Annapolis Road is Harvester Bookstore, with more than 2,200 Christian books, religious and family-oriented videos, T-shirts, audio tapes and Christmas cards.

On one set of shelves in the 400-square-foot bookstore are videocassettes of such classics as "Ben Hur" and "Lady and the Tramp." Others feature such books as Frank S. Mead's "12,000 Religious Quotations."

This is a peak season for Harvester and other Christian bookstores, which offer an outlet for patrons seeking gifts with a spiritual, rather than material, focus.

In the past, the Rapers have purchased Bibles for gifts, along with Christmas cards. This year, they've ordered a children's Bible study book, a religious novel and a reference study book.

"It's pretty convenient," said Mrs. Raper, 31. "Everything we want and need is there. They give discounts to members and to nonmembers."

Begun as a table-top operation 16 years ago, the store has annual sales of $12,000 to $16,000, and does about $4,000 of that during the Christmas season, said the Rev. Edward E. Simpson, minister for the 400-member church.

Bibles, some leather-bound and ranging from $40 to $60, are popular gift items, the pastor said. Bible cases and children's storybooks also are big sellers at Christmas.

And he sees that as a refreshing contrast to a season he believes has lost its biblical roots.

"It's all about Santa Claus," today, said Mr. Simpson, whose bookstore draws 60 percent to 70 percent of its business from church members.

Pamela Mitchell, 43, a program assistant from Harper's Choice and church member, stored the books in her home during the operation's early years and now takes friends to the store.

"It's a ministry that other churches don't have," she said.

Mrs. Raper said she likes Harvester Bookstore because Mr. Simpson orders hard-to-find materials.

When placing orders, Mr. Simpson carefully screens materials and selects those he considers truly Christian.

"Just calling something a bird doesn't make it a bird," he said.

Harvester Bookstore is one of at least three Christian bookstores in the county, which typically have done well at Christmas.

At His Way Christian Bookstore on Baltimore National Pike, which opened 16 years ago, 300 customers visit the store during the holiday season, said Chris Long, manager.

"This is a pretty busy time for us," he said. "We don't do 50 percent [of annual sales] at Christmas like the other retailers, but we do a lot."

He said Bibles, books and music tapes are popular items at the 4,000-square-foot store.

Sales have been slower this year at Chesapeake Adventist Christian Center, which opened in Columbia in 1967 in the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Martin Road.

Howard Bankes, manager for the Adventist bookstore, said this year's Christmas sales have dipped because of competition from its parent store in Takoma Park.

Mr. Simpson and others said Christian bookstores provide a service to the community.

At one time, Christian bookstores were hard to find, he said. But he quoted a Christian retailing trade magazine estimating that Christian literature now is a $41 million industry, at minimum.

"Now the market has expanded so much," Mr. Simpson said. "You can't believe all the stuff coming out."

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