By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — Lorraine Valk has seen the changes over time.
As owner of the Parable Christian Store in St. Joseph, she has seen her industry ceding ground to new competitors. However, her store is still running and doing well.
Valk was introduced to the industry when she was 6 years old. Her parents took over the Parable bookstore in 1971 when it was still in downtown Benton Harbor. They would move it to its current St. Joseph location in 1976.
Valk and her husband, who works as an accountant in Kalamazoo, would then buy the business from her parents 10 years ago.
“I have a real passion for it. Ten years ago, I never expected where we’re at now,” Valk said. “The industry has just changed by leaps and bounds in the last decade.”
The changes began with music. Christian music was a large part of their business, but the introduction of iPods and digital downloads soon took over. That was the first hit to the industry.
Valk said the peak of Christian retail was at the turn of the century. Enough so, that a lot of Christian stores had expanded into grocery stores in an attempt to become enormous.
In a town with St. Joseph’s population, Valk said this was not common.
Next came the shift to eBooks and audiobooks, which gave the Christian bookstores another blow.
“The stores that are successful are the ones that are adopting and changing,” Valk said. “Right now we have an awful lot of gifts and a laser engraver. We’ve had people engrave a baby’s name and birth date on a frame.”
Signs of the struggle in Valk’s industry came to the forefront in 2015.
Family Christian Stores, the nation’s largest chain of Christian book and merchandise stores, declared bankruptcy two years ago. In the end, FCS was able to wipe away more than $120 million in debt and bought $20 million in consignment inventory at 70-90 percent off the wholesale costs.
This reorganization allowed FCS to start over with “free” inventory in their stores and without debt. Getting the consignment inventory for cheap left several publishers – which the St. Joseph store works with – empty handed. Many couldn’t absorb the loss and went out of business.
Last week, Family Christian Stores announced they would close all 240 locations in 36 states, liquidating their inventory, and laying off more than 3,000 employees.
It marked as a sad day for Christian retail as FCS’s foreclosure came so soon after its previous bankruptcy reorganization.
The one in Holland closed, and the South Bend and Kalamazoo stores are in the process of liquidating.
Changing with the times
The collapse of a national Christian retailer brought forth the question of whether the business model was structurally broken.
When Valk took over the store 10 years ago, there were about 100 Parable stores. To this day, Valk said they have one of the 17 such stores left.
“I think one of the reasons that I’m still in business is because I am very proactive,” she said. “I’m quick to reordering the things that sell quickly, or returning and marking down the things that don’t sell well.”
The stores still in operation that don’t rely on web sales are going against the grain because of their independence.
“It’s crucial being an independent store,” Valk said. “I can make tiny adjustments every day. Making a change for 250 stores becomes harder to do.”
In addition to the laser engraver, Parable has gone to a digital system for various songs and hymns, which can be burned into a CD for a custom album.
There is a Catholic section in the store, cards for different occasions, church supplies, Sunday school material along with robes for pastors and priests. The store can custom order what they don’t have as well, Valk said.
But the books are the biggest draw.
St. Joseph resident Marylea Mitchell said she’s been shopping at Parable for 20 years.
She said she keeps coming back because there’s that personal touch that comes with the store.
“We always find other things when we’re in here,” Mitchell said. “I just like having a nice Christian store in my hometown. If there is something we are looking for that they don’t have, they help us find it.”
While Valk is thankful for customers like Mitchell, she said it’s on the owners to keep their Christian retail stores thriving.
“We’re hanging tight, but I’m not shy about telling people to shop local,” Valk said. “We need to support the ones that are left.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 5, 2017)