The end of church supply stores

I have a day off today and wanted to visit a church supply store, like I used to do. If I could only find one. There are a couple left in the inner metro D.C. area: dusty, shabby affairs featuring dubious Bible translations and sateen choir robes. That’s worse than nothing.

I thought about what’s been lost. Whittemore’s up near Boston — the grand go-to shop used by Unitarian and Universalists — has been closed for years. So too the home of a mix of practical goods (like clericals) and tcotchkes catering to Catholics up in suburban Wheaton. At some point, Ikon and Book Service, a great supplier of Eastern Christian goods near Catholic University vanished, taking my source of icons, candles, incense, even my butterlamb mold.

Not that I bought so much at any of these. But I did shop at Cokesbury at Wesley and Virginia Theological Seminary — until Cokesbury closed all of their retail stores. That hurt. And then, recently visiting the Episcopal cathedral’s once-fine bookshop (not even a supply store, per se) to discover it was little more than a souvenir stall… that was too much. There was, literally, more fudge for sale than prayer books. Make of that what you will.

This contraction predates the rise of internet bookselling — indeed, Washington, D.C. doesn’t have a single remaining mass-market bookstore left, either — and that can’t help, but I’m sure the lessening influence of churches are a problem, too. (There is the Potter House for Christian books, if not church supplies in D.C., I’ll try that tomorrow.)

So, what’s the solution? More exhibit and sales halls at church meetings? Discussion about repurposing or making church goods out of “secular” wares? Candid, independent reviews of online retailers? Asking vendors, who supply other religions’ needs, to expand their lines? (I’ve seen this in a Vietnamese shop.)

Perhaps all of these. But there’s something lost when you don’t have easy access to the material culture with which you “do” religion. Perhaps the focus on selling to the “pros” is an issue; after all, yarn and bead stores stay open, even it high-rent D.C., and those are hardly less niche.

2 Replies to “The end of church supply stores”

  1. What you say about “selling to the pros” seems right on. In NH I used Parable Bible Bookstore in Concord (it was sometimes one of my shopping stops on my monthly trip to the “Big City”). They were full of Christian novels, devotional literature, angel tchotchkes–and a room in the back with a good candle assortment, lamp oil, guest books, baptismal records, etc. The front is for everyone and the back is for the pros–and an online presence for ordering special order of service covers, etc.

  2. The church store situation you’re experiencing may just reflect living in a more secular community.

    Looking at Google Maps for “church supply store” near Washington DC gives some results but nearly all of them are in the suburbs outside the District.

    There is probably an entrepreneurial opportunity here for an online mail-order church supply business for church leaders in urban areas.

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