Running Christian bookstores, with God's help

Owners of His Way stores have found strong market, prompting more locations

Ellicott City

September 09, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Ask Richard and Patricia Kohr how they turned their tiny bookstore into a chain spanning three counties, and they'll tell you in words that put a twist on an old Frank Sinatra song: They did it His Way.

The owners of His Way Christian Bookstore, who are celebrating the company's 25th anniversary this month, say they've seen miracles and blessings in their years in business, which have translated into growing revenues and more stores.

Two and a half decades after opening their first store at 850 square feet in 1977, the couple owns thriving retail outlets in Ellicott City, Glen Burnie and Eldersburg, which last year doubled in size. Richard Kohr said revenue is up at the stores, and the couple is considering opening a fourth location.

But Patricia Kohr said that while the stores have grown, so has the company's mission.

"Everybody who works here knows why they get out of bed and come here each day, and that's to keep the name of Jesus before the public," she said. "I wouldn't get out of bed every morning and work this hard for money."

His Way is part of a $4 billion industry, according to the Christian Booksellers Association, a trade association of suppliers and retailers. According to CBA, the Christian bookstore industry is not expanding - acquisitions and new store openings have decreased recently as the economy has slowed - but sales volume per store is rising.

But two key challenges still face independent bookstore owners such as the Kohrs, according to the group: marketing so that people find the stores and competition from Christian bookstore chains.

According to the CBA Web site, there are about 30 Christian bookstores in Maryland, most of them clustered between Baltimore and Washington, but only two in Howard County. At least three of the major national chains have locations in Maryland, and there are also other small chains such as His Way.

Richard Kohr said he tackles marketing and competitive issues with an aggressive advertising campaign on Christian radio stations.

According to Nancy Guthrie, a spokeswoman for CBA, there's room in the state for more Christian bookstores to thrive because the area is "very sparsely populated in terms of Christian retail stores."

"We really feel in general most areas of the country are underserved," Guthrie said. "When a very strong Christian store opens in a market and another comes in, we see they both succeed and in fact increase. It's obvious there is interest in our product. The more excellent stores we have provides more opportunity for growth."

The Kohrs have certainly seen their sales deepen and broaden. Richard Kohr said increases in the company's revenue have averaged 15 percent to 18 percent in the past three years. He also said profit has grown, but he would not say by how much.

The Kohrs entered the business on a whim. A relative asked Richard Kohr, a financial adviser, to look over the books of a struggling Christian bookstore in Glen Burnie to see whether he could help it. Kohr did, and in the process, he said he was taken by the idea of a Christian bookstore. Seeing none in Howard County, he says God pressed him to look for a space to open one near his home.

Patricia, who had managed their household their entire marriage and was an active volunteer, said she was against the idea but was willing to help. But she did not expect the responsibility that was placed on her shoulders a few days after the 850-square-foot store opened.

"We opened on a Monday. Thursday [Richard] just went back to work and said, `Here are the keys. Call me if you need me,'" Patricia Kohr said.

Patricia Kohr has been running the store ever since, managing stock and employees and purchasing inventory, and Richard Kohr handles the accounting.

Business at the cozy store started slowly, but ministry was always a focus, Patricia Kohr said. She would hold women's Bible studies at the store in the morning before opening, and counsel customers in the evening after closing.

Patricia Kohr said she was satisfied with her boutique store, and the hands-on touch she was able to provide to customers, but sales kept growing. In five years, they moved to a larger facility, and eventually moved two more times to expand. The flagship store is in a 9,000-square-foot space in the Normandy Shopping Center in Ellicott City.

"It's reached a point now where I don't know where it's going to grow," Patricia Kohr said.

In 1995, the couple acquired a store in Glen Burnie - the same store Richard Kohr had helped so many years before - when its owners retired. Four years ago, they opened a third store in Eldersburg. The company employs six full-time workers, and 27 part-timers.

Although they're thinking about opening another store, they say they're ambivalent and are awaiting direction from God.

The Kohrs said that even from the beginning, they've never devised long-term plans to expand the company or replicate stores throughout the state. "I never thought about expanding, I just thought it'd be great to have it open," Richard Kohr said. "I know that's not the world's way, but I guess it's the Lord's way."

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