All Cokesbury stores closing as UM Publishing House focuses on online and phone sales

 The United Methodist Publishing House is closing all its Cokesbury stores, ending a signature brick-and-mortar presence for the denomination, one that has been in place for generations.

A fast-changing landscape in bookselling prompted the publishing house to focus its energy and investments in selling online and through its call center.

By April 30, 2013, all 38 “full-line” stores and 19 seminary stores will close.

“Cokesbury has been serving for more than 200 years, and during that time has continuously adapted to the changing landscape affecting congregations and their leaders,” said UMPH President and Publisher Neil Alexander in a Nov. 5 statement.

He added: “A shift toward all things digital and the convenience of placing orders at any time is the reality of Cokesbury today. It is difficult to see the closure of Cokesbury local stores, but doing so will allow us to make a greater investment in the ways of shopping with Cokesbury that customers increasingly prefer.”

UMPH, a self-supporting part of the United Methodist Church, said it will provide severance, outplacement services and spiritual counseling to employees losing their jobs.

The move affects 185 full-time employees and 100 part-timers, Mr. Alexander said.

“The decision to close all local stores in the Cokesbury chain was most difficult,” said the Rev. R.  Carl Frazier, lead pastor at First UMC, Cary, N.C., and chair of the UMPH board. “The board expressed deep appreciation for the local store staff teams and interest in helping them face the challenge of transition to new employment over the next months.

“Nevertheless, the decision was made with regret but no dissent after careful prayer and study of compelling data about customer preferences and industry trends.”

In announcing the store closings, UMPH also said it is launching CokesburyNext, an expansion of products and services at Cokesbury.com and the Cokesbury Call Center (1-800-672-1789), and through sales representatives.

Brick-and-mortar bookstores, both independents and chains, have been under siege in recent years, with the closing of the Borders chain perhaps the most obvious evidence.

UMPH had reduced the number of Cokesbury stores in recent years, while increasing investment in online and call center operations.

Lynn Garrett, senior religion editor for Publishers Weekly, said she was “not very surprised” to learn that the Cokesbury stores are being closed altogether.

She noted that Amazon.com and other online sellers have cut deeply into traditional bookstores’ sales.

“I don’t think the challenges faced by Christian bookstores are any different than the ones that were faced by general interest, indie bookstores,” she said. “It just came later.”

The news distressed Katie Shockley, who managed a Dallas area Cokesbury store from Nov. 2009 until January of this year, and now serves as associate pastor of First UMC in Sachse, Texas.

“I’m worried about the people who are employed at these stores,” she said. “I will be in prayer for each of them.”

Ms. Shockley said she also fears the personal touch of customer service will go with the stores, as well as the experience of personnel who know customers’ preferences in books, other curriculum material and even robes for pastors.

She said Cokesbury stores have long been gathering and getaway places for clergy, who would stop by for a break, going to or from a hospital visit.

“I can’t tell you the number of times that conversations would get started – pastors would bump into each other and bounce ideas off each right there in our store,” she said.

Wendy Lynne Efird, a Methodist “preacher’s kid” and active layperson at Pulaski Heights UMC in Little Rock, Ark., was another who lamented the news that Cokesbury stores would close.

“I am profoundly saddened,” she said. “I grew up going to Cokesbury with my parents. My (pastor) dad loves it. We are losing the human touch to our peril.”

The Rev. Lani Rousseau, pastor of First UMC in Sealy, Texas, said the Cokesbury website “has a long way to go to be user friendly,” and added that she expects to be buying more from Amazon.com.

She too lamented the stores’ passing.

“I have many stories I could tell about the way that Cokesbury in Houston helped nuture my ministries, especially as a Christian educator before my appointment,” she said.

Missy Buchanan, an author (and Reporter columnist) who focuses on senior adults and the church, said she considered Cokesbury “synonomous with all things Methodist,” but also realizes the bookselling world has changed.

“Busy people prefer the click of a mouse instead of perusing the shelves,” she said. “Though the closing of the Cokesbury retail stores is difficult, we should remember that the power of the written word has not gone away. I will not mourn the end of Cokesbury’s retail stores. I will celebrate their long life!”    

 UMPH is a book publisher as well as bookseller, with Abingdon Press a part of its operations.

Mr. Alexander said UMPH remains in the black, with sales for fiscal year 2012 at $86.1 million – an increase of $1.8 million over the previous year.

But he said the revenue coming from local stores, as a percentage of total revenue, has dropped by 50 percent in 10 years, and that the cost of operating the local stores division now exceeds the combined sales from stores.

In announcing the news, UMPH issued “frequently asked questions” statements for customers, vendors and authors.

These noted, among other things, that Cokesbury will still be a presence at annual conference gatherings. The timing of store closings will depend on local circumstances, including lease agreements, the publishing house said.

 

“Cokesbury” combines the names of Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, early Methodist leaders in America.

“Cokesbury Press” was the publishing house trade name in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and “Abingdon Press” was the name for the Methodist Episcopal Church’s equivalent.

When those two groups merged in 1939, the trade names were merged into “Abingdon-Cokesbury Press,” and eventually “Cokesbury” became the name for all official Methodist bookstores.

Staff writer Mary Jacobs and associate editor Bill Fentum contributed.

Sam Hodges, Former Managing Editor, UMR

Sam Hodges

Sam Hodges was the managing editor of The United Methodist Reporter from 2011-2013. A formee reporter for the Dallas Morning News and the Charlotte Observer, Sam is a respected voice in United Methodist journalism.

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Join the conversation....

  1. What a shame. The presence of many stores throughout America represents not only the United Methodist Church but, often, are the only Christian book store in the area. To not support seminarians and the boks that are required or sought after also seems like a big mistake.

  2. pastor ken says:

    In this day and time I realize that on-line and/or call center shopping is a popular and efficent way of doing business. However, the church should be different! Losing our brick and motar eliminates a lot of opportunity for christian fellowship and witness in our communities. A computer does not replace interaction with people (the personal touch and recommendation of material helps pastors and leaders of our churches). Although I understand the business rationale behind this decision, I feel we are losing something that cannot be replaced. Cokesbury stores has served as a meeting place and a place to share ideas and review new materials together between pastors and lay people for years. I feel this impersonal approach is detrimental to the mission of our denomination. As for myself, this is a great loss!
    Rev. Kenneth Lytton
    Boones Creek United Methodist Church
    Gray, TN

  3. pauldanielseay says:

    Thank you , Ken, for your comment. UMPH, please listen to the comments and reconsider.

  4. I live too far from a Cokesbury store to shop in person any more on a regular basis, but when I was in seminary I had access to a small store on campus and to a regional store a few miles away. I loved being able to just drop in to the regional store to pick up the items needed by the churches I then served. The friendly, helpful staff became "family" over those 4-1/2 years. While I understand that times change and merchandising must keep up, I still find this move very sad. When I'm buying gifts like Nativity sets or jewelry I want to be able to look at those items close up – not in an on-line photo. Does this also mean there will be no Cokesbury presence at Annual Conferences and clergy meetings anymore? Those spur-of-the-moment purchases will cease to bring money into the publishing house coffers, too.

  5. pastor_bob says:

    As a current seminarian and Student Pastor I must agree that this not only a great loss to the denomination but to the seminary as well . Since I earned a Business Administration undergrad degree and have been in the business world for many years I understand why this could be the proper business decision. With this decision they must understand that seminarians will now be searching online for books and Cokesbury has not been cheaper with any required books. As a pastor I have also seen that items I need to purchase for the church or myself are also cheaper elsewhere. Even though I knew I could find books and other items cheaper online I still supported our store located at seminary and would purchase everything I needed there. Now that I will be forced to search for items online I will make the better business decision, and be a better steward of my resources, for my family and church by purchasing things for the cheaper price. Hey, it's just business now.

    There is also the jobs/employee side of this decision. How about the 285 people that will now have to find work in this terrible economy. Even if the business is only breaking even to keep these people employed then that seems like the Christian decision to be made. Of course, if Cokesbury is in business only for the money then Cokesbury is just another secular business and I hope they realize that their prices need to be checked to the secular business prices. Hey, it's just business now.

  6. bettyboopwynne says:

    As a non-Methodist who seeks a viable entity from which to shop, this is heart-breaking news. I want to put my hands on the books I buy professionally – sermon helps, retreat items, curriculum, to name a few. There is too much hassle to buy these things online and then see that they are not particularly good and have to return them. We get engraved Bibles to give out a baptisms and are always able to get them quickly thanks to our wonderful Cokesbury staff. They are always on hand to help me when I need some guidance about literature, etc. Honestly, this is terrible, terrible news. You cannot find the caliber of professional sources at any of the other bookstores like Family Christian nor Lifeway. You are really leaving ministers in the lurch here.
    Just to let you know, I never bought me professional items online, but always at your brick and mortar store.
    This really really stinks, board members. It really stinks. I hope everyone lets you know how they feel!
    Bad move. Bad bad move!

  7. bettyboopwynne says:

    My husband and I were just talking about this terrible situation again and it has been on my mind through the night. Our church is cooperative Baptist , and there are few stores where we can get material that is not just fluff. We send our members to the store to check out material for the serious Bible Study groups. We call and get advice. The staff knows our church, are on the lookout for us, have an outstanding knowledge of everything in the store and much of what is on-line (which btw is the worst site for shopping). Do you really, honestly think we can get this kind of service from a call to someone at the service center? It compares to a call for computer help that it more than likely in another country.
    You have really jet your business because now we will get it cheaper elsewhere, including an effort for no shipping costs, especially if we have to take time to peruse it and send it back.
    Short-sighted move, for certain.

  8. Although I do not shop the local Cokesbury store often (it's almost an hour from me), I have enjoyed my times there. I often buy books from another on-line retailer, but prefer shopping in stores because I can SEE things. The last time I stopped in the Cokesbury store it was to buy my 2013 planning calendar and just peruse. I left after spending over $50 and pre-ordering my copy of the 2012 Book of Discipline.
    Being an accountant, I understand having to look at the bottom line, and as much as we don't want to admit it, Cokesbury is a business and must be run that way.
    The website really is not very user-friendly. I have become frustrated with it many times. Also, I am not able to get my Lay Speaker discount on-line – only in the store.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 

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