Two Cokesbury bookstores located in Holston Conference closed on the same day, leaving vacant space in two churches and eliminating a convenience for old-fashioned shoppers.
Shutting their doors on April 20, the Knoxville and Johnson City stores were among the last of the 57 total United Methodist-related stores to close between January and April. The closing of 38 full-line stores and 19 seminary bookstores began Jan. 12 and concluded April 27.
Cokesbury is the retail division of the United Methodist Publishing House, a publisher of books, Bibles, and other Christian merchandise. In November 2012, UMPH announced that it would focus on online and telephone sales, eliminating less profitable brick-and-mortar stores.
In Johnson City, two full-time and two part-time staff prepared for the closing date for weeks, answering questions for disappointed customers while selling merchandise down to the fixtures, said Manager Jan Butler.
“Definitely our long-time customers are going to miss coming in, touching and feeling before they buy,” Butler said. “The majority of our customers are sad … but a lot of them understand why changes are coming, with bookstore sales going down and e-books coming.”
Butler said she had been experiencing “stages of grief” since informed of the decision to close all Cokesbury stores. She opened the Johnson City store in the Cherokee United Methodist Church building in November 2004.
“This has been my baby because I started it and grew it from the beginning,” Butler said.
With 15 years of experience as a Cokesbury Bookstore employee, Butler said she will begin a new role as a curriculum advisor on Curric-U-Phone. She will remain in Johnson City with her husband, the Rev. Steve Butler, associate pastor for Johnson City Parish.
The Rev. Andrew Amodei, Cherokee senior pastor, said the loss of the store is a “body blow” to the church.
“Cherokee doesn’t depend on the bookstore but it’s an $18,000 annual hit to the budget," he said. In November, Cherokee projected a $460,000 annual budget for 2013.
“At the moment we do not know what we'll do with the space,” Amodei said. “The more pressing issue is the future of the entire facility. Cherokee has held a debt burden that has to be solved in the near future.”
Clarinda Bowman, long-time manager of the Knoxville bookstore, declined to be interviewed.
Mel Stripling, director of operations at Cokesbury United Methodist Church, said that no “definite decisions” have been made about filling the vacant space left by the store closing.
“We will try to meet our greatest needs at the moment which include children’s ministry, nursery, some office space and classroom space,” Stripling said. “This will probably incorporate repurposing some existing space along with renovations to the roughly 6,000 square feet that the bookstore is vacating. We will feel some financial impact but plan to make that up with growth.”
To assist customers, Cokesbury has hired 50 “community resource consultants” to serve regions previously served by brick-and-mortar stores. The consultants will make personal visits to clergy, staff, and volunteers in their offices or churches and assist with curriculum and orders, Cokesbury officials said.
The community resource consultant for the Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol area is Ken Fowler at (423) 262-6433 or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Knoxville consultant is Carlesia Manning at (865) 242-6317 or email@example.com.
For more information about Cokesbury's future, visit CokesburyNext.com.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.