Closing time – Cokesbury staff, patrons facing stores’ final days

DALLAS—Julie Chapman doesn’t really have time for sentimentality these days, given that she’s following a six-page email on how to close the Cokesbury store here.

The going-out-of-business sale is underway, and Ms. Chapman, as store manager, is charged with selling just about everything, including bookshelves, before the doors lock for good on April 20.

Deeply-discounted books and other merchandise, as well as empty bookshelves, greeted customers on March 2, the last day of operations for the Kansas City area Cokesbury store, in Overland Park, Kan. PHOTO BY NANCY HULL RIGDON

Still, as she deals with familiar customers, many distraught at the store’s fate, her own emotions kick in.

“It really is like grieving a death, because the Cokesbury stores have been around forever,” Ms. Chapman said.

Across the Methodist connection, a long goodbye is underway for all 57 Cokesbury stores. Though generations of Methodists and others have depended on them for books and church supplies, the United Methodist Publishing House announced in November that it could no longer afford to operate the stores, given the shift to online shopping.

Since January, Cokesbury stores have been closing in small groups, by schedule, leading to a ripple of farewell events that will continue until the last close on April 27.

The Rev. Harriet Akins-Banman organized a March 1 worship service at the Little Rock, Ark., Cokesbury to recognize the end of its ministry. A dozen faithful gathered for hymns, communion and testimonials amid nearly-bare shelves.

“I can remember calling more than once in an 11th-hour panic” for a worship supply or curriculum item, Ms. Atkins-Banman said.

Retired Bishop Kenneth Hicks added, “Whether we were looking for something to cheer us up, or to stir our souls, we knew we could come here and find it.”

At stores where the days are still dwindling down, customer moods range from wistful to angry.

“Actually, I hate it,” said the Rev. Denise Peckham, pastor of Button Memorial UMC in Little Elm, Texas, when asked about the closing decision as she shopped in the Dallas store on Feb. 22.

Longtime Dallas Cokesbury employees Sam Rubin and Frances Long say they will be looking for work. The store closes on April 20. UMR PHOTO BY MARY JACOBS

She’s on a first-name basis with employees there, who have steered her to good books and other products. And while she orders books online, she likes to look at them first.

“I understand the digital age and the need to save money,” Ms. Peckham said, “but I don’t think you’re serving the church well by closing the local stores.”

‘Right time’

Neil Alexander, president and publisher of the United Methodist Publishing House, acknowledges hearing from many like Ms. Peckham.

“We’ve worked hard to make the stores as welcoming and effective as possible to serve thousands of people in scores of local areas for decades, and the fact that they will be missed by many is entirely expected,” he said by email.

But Mr. Alexander argues that realism led to the unanimous decision by the publishing house’s board to close the stores. Though some operate in the black, and overall sales for UMPH rose last year, the stores’ staffing and other expenses as a group now outpace their sales by $2 million, Mr. Alexander said.

The percentage of UMPH’s revenues coming from the stores has shrunk, and surveys show an increasing number of store customers also shop online.

Mr. Alexander notes UMPH is required by the denomination to stay afloat without getting general church funds. Given that reality, and sales trends, it made sense to shutter the stores and focus instead on online and call-center sales, while also placing more sales representatives in the field.

“There is absolutely no doubt at all that this is the right time to step into the future for our retail ministry,” he said.

The Rev. Dennis Magnuson (l) opened the Seattle area Cokesbury store and returned to help the last manager, Lee Karl Palo (r) close it down for good. Once all furnishings had pulled out, Mr. Palo and his staff had a farewell picnic on the bare floor. PHOTO COURTESY LEE KARL PALO

The closings will reduce UMPH’s full-time work force from 620 to 475, and 75 part-time workers also are losing jobs. Severance pay ranges from four weeks for recently-hired employees to five months for long-timers, with a bonus for all who stay through their store’s closing.

“It’s a nice severance,” said Lee Karl Palo, who managed the Seattle area Cokesbury store through its Feb. 16 closing. “My entire staff, when they saw the package, said, ‘Yes, we’ll stay to the end.’”

If the layoffs have been cushioned, the closings themselves have proceeded with military precision. Audrey Kidd, UMPH’s executive vice president for revenue & operations, said the process has more than 120 steps, dealing with everything from employee issues to forwarding phone calls and mail.

The end phase brings “store closing” banners and discounts escalating to 90 percent the final week. The goal is to sell or donate everything but store computers, which return to UMPH headquarters in Nashville.

Sign removal is done by specialty firms, and they work fast.

“This removal is done on the Monday following the last day of business on Saturday,” Ms. Kidd said. “No Cokesbury signs remain on closed locations.”

Looking elsewhere

The consequences of the store closings have already been felt, not least by 19 seminaries that have depended on their campus Cokesbury to provide books for students and faculty.

Iliff School of Theology in Denver plans to link to through the school website, but Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., is finalizing a contract with another bookstore company.

Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., will be directing students to online bookseller, since many already were using it, said registrar Eleanor Gease. Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in Evanston, Ill., has established a partnership with the Barnes & Noble bookstore at nearby Northwestern University.

The March 1 closing of the Little Rock, Ark., Cokesbury saw a worship service organized by the Rev. Harriett Akins-Banman, celebrating the store’s long ministry. She and retired Bishop Kenneth Hicks served communion to store employee Jean Baker and manager Yvonne Armstrong. PHOTO BY AMY FORBUS

Critics of the decision to close Cokesbury stores have warned that it will sever the relationship with clergy that forms in seminary days; but Mr. Alexander is not particularly troubled that some seminaries are going with other firms.

“Students at all of the schools we’ve served in the last decade have already had multiple avenues for obtaining textbooks,” he said.

The most obvious immediate impact of the store closings is on employees. Of the Dallas store’s five-person staff, only Ms. Chapman will be kept on. She’ll be a Cokesbury “community resource consultant,” based in the Norfolk, Va., area (where she’s lived before) and assigned to visit churches and annual conferences.

Ms. Chapman, based on meetings in Nashville, believes the new strategy has great promise, allowing for a focus on meeting churches’ specific ministry needs.

But she worries about her about-to-be-laid-off staff—and about her store customers.

Cokesbury stores have been a gathering place for clergy and committed laity, she said.

“You’ll have somebody ask, ‘Do you have something good for a new men’s group?’ And all of a sudden a voice from across the store says, ‘I’ve got something you guys should look at.’”

The un-resigned

UMPH has encouraged any farewell observances store employees or others want to have, and is offering to sponsor a dinner or luncheon for employees.

Iliff had a March 1 reception for employees of its campus store, as well as the Denver store.

At the Kansas City area store, employees spent the last day, March 2, greeting loyal customers, including the Rev. Diane Cutler of Stover, Mo., who made her final 200-mile round-trip there. That night employees consoled themselves at a popular steakhouse.

The Rev. Denise Peckham had an impromptu gathering with friends the Rev. Hugene Purdy (c) and the Rev. Joe Stobaugh, at the Dallas Cokesbury store on Feb. 22. Asked about the decision to close all 57 Cokesbury stores, Ms. Peckham said: “Actually, I hate it.” UMR PHOTO BY SAM HODGES

Employees at the Seattle area Cokesbury also had a farewell restaurant meal. But they gathered yet another time, once the store was emptied of furnishings.

“We had a picnic on the floor,” said Mr. Palo.

Mr. Palo is sad about the closings, and not just because he’s out of work. As a seminary student, he joyfully discovered in Cokesbury a rare Christian bookstore that carried a range of theological works, many quite challenging.

He also loved working at Cokesbury, and recalls that his touts of The Alto Wore Tweed, a wry church-based novel by Mark Schweizer, helped it outsell best-seller The Shack in the Seattle area store.

But Mr. Palo is philosophical, noting the trend away from bookstore sales.

“They’re not stupid at the Publishing House,” he said. “They have to make a decision early enough to have money to reinvest in new strategies.”

Others are not resigned. Among them is Bonnie Oplinger, a student at Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, Pa., where the Cokesbury store will close on April 13.

Ms. Oplinger said the manager, Lance Mullins, “brought customer service to an art form.” She’s sure her life, not to mention her scholarship, will be poorer without a Cokesbury nearby.

“It’s all part of this life of progress, which frankly has its sinkholes,” Ms. Oplinger said. “This is one of them.”

Amy Forbus in Little Rock, Ark., and Nancy Hull Rigdon in Kansas City, Mo., 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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