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.