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Catholic bookstores maintain ministry in tough economy

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Monday, November 16, 2009

By Mike Dyer

ARCHDIOCESE — Bill Kiefer believes his bookstore has been a vocational calling in life.

Kiefer, who is almost 85, has been the owner of St. Mark Bookshop in the Dayton area for 42 years. The bookstore has downtown Dayton and Centerville locations, and it’s been in the area for 47 years overall.

But Kiefer and other Catholic bookstore owners are not an exception in feeling an economic pinch these days. While a soft economy has greatly impacted several small businesses across the region, the expansion of the internet was a precursor to challenges that have now affected some Catholic bookstores.

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A display of some of the items available at Innervisions greets visitors the bookstore. (CT/E.L. Hubbard)

“(The economy has) affected us, but it’s not KO’ing us,” Kiefer said. “But it is very difficult.”

St. Mark Bookshop sells books, videos, Bibles and Christian gifts. Kiefer has been a familiar face at the shop in helping customers throughout the years. He spent two decades working at a library before working at the store and knows many book titles and authors from memory.

Kiefer said he has noticed many lay people in the stores, but online sales that started seven or eight years ago have affected the number of clergy and religious who shop at his store. He said people often don’t mind paying delivery charges for products that are at their fingertips online.

“I see fewer and fewer people coming in,” Kiefer said.

Kiefer admits the downtown location has been challenged for business, while his Centerville location is “holding its own,” although not doing spectacularly.

“There are dark days, but it is with faith that I do it and get through it,” Kiefer said, adding that despite the difficult financial times, he has loved his profession.

“That we’re still here is a marvel,” Kiefer said. “We think we have a calling.”

It is God’s calling that is certainly evident many miles away on the eastern side of Cincinnati. Suzanne Schneller is the owner of Innervisions Catholic bookstore — a shop that has been in the Beechmont area for 23 years.

Schneller readily admits, “people are counting pennies” these days, and that has had an impact on sales recently.

“We are not an exception” to the impact of the economic downturn, Schneller said. What worries her is the number of bookstores in peril; she has seen as many as five bookstore locations close within the past 18 months or so.

To Schneller, the difficult economic times are part of larger religious theme that has deepened the faith of some of her customers. She has noticed customers saying that God is in charge and, in turn, people have sometimes shown greater faith through larger prayer gatherings and classes in their community.

“There is something to be said for hard times,” Schneller said.

While Catholic bookstores have experienced a significant economic impact lately, Schneller and Kiefer are also aware they are part of a greater ministry to helping Catholics who are seeking inspiration or devotion.

Kiefer has a staff of six people who help him with his store and work out of “pure dedication” and not for financial gain, he said. Some of his staff members have helped him order supplies and books. “They have put their heart and soul into it,” Kiefer said.

Kiefer has also cooperated with Dayton Church Supply, a downtown business across the street from his bookstore. Dayton Church Supply, whose products include candles, Nativity sets and crucifixes, has been around for a century.

What’s unique about the religious store industry is that competitors are very helpful to one another, says Dayton Church Supply owner Karen Klepacz.

“We work together,” Kiefer agreed.

While business owners have to balance the financial sheets, Schneller said nearly everyone she knows, whether volunteering or working part-time at a religious store, does the work because it’s a ministry to their customers.

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Dan Giroux, owner of The Catholic Shop, chats with customer Marlene Henkel. (CT/Eileen Connelly, OSU)

Schneller believes it would be a great loss to Catholics if bricks-and-mortar stores disappeared.

Dan Giroux has been the owner of The Catholic Shop in Madeira since December 1998. His location holds literally hundreds of books, videos, artwork and other Catholic gifts and apparel.

Giroux said he’s noticed customers cutting back on purchases and understands the difficulty on many families during these economic times. But, he said the shop continues with prayer and hard work.

“We certainly do offer many things you can’t find online, like gift items and religious art,” said Giroux, who says he has customers that travel from Memphis and Indianapolis to his store.

Giroux understands many families are coping with a tight grocery budget at home. But, he said the spiritual food budget should also be considered a high priority.

“If you read a lot of the saints, there is a great emphasis on that,” Giroux said.

At Innervisions, customers often come in looking for books about dealing with grief over a loss of a family member or another kind of tragedy. The other spectrum is the celebration of a baby’s birth or first Communion or confirmation.

Sometimes Schneller might sell something as simple as a prayer card, but that ministry, along with convenience and a personal connection to the Catholic faith at the bookstore, is something that can’t be overlooked, she said.

“I can’t imagine very many places not having a Kleenex box close to the cash registry,” Schneller said. “It’s hard to imagine a computer being able to stand in the breach.”

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