DAVID GREENE, HOST:
LifeWay Christian Stores have long been a familiar presence in shopping malls around the country, selling Bibles and Christian-themed books and music. But no more. The evangelical retailer has announced it's going to close all 172 stores by the end of the year. And this is, of course, disappointing for fans of the store. Here's Chas Sisk from member station WPLN in Nashville.
CHAS SISK, BYLINE: Five years ago, Susan Oaks found herself starting over. Widowed after 41 years of marriage, she'd moved from a dirt lane outside Fredericksburg, Va., to a high-rise in Nashville. Oaks decided she needed to meet people.
SUSAN OAKS: This is where, you know, I've been able to come and hang out and call it, you know, my secret place.
SISK: Oaks says she spends hours at a time at this LifeWay store in the Nashville suburb of Cool Springs. There's a coffee bar run by a Christian nonprofit, a friendly staff that shares her evangelical beliefs and racks of inspirational merchandise. Today she's bought greeting cards, faith-based DVDs and a romance novel set in Amish country.
OAKS: I can pick up a book and sit here and read and then have people come up and talk to me. So it's not as though you're having worship, but here I have, personally, connection because I feel the presence of God.
SISK: But LifeWay plans to close this store by the fall and move all its retailing online. Its entire brick-and-mortar division has been losing money since 2013, and the company says it's tried just about everything to keep the business going, including overhauling stores last summer and adding features like coffee bars. Some of those innovations have increased foot traffic, but, says chief executive Brad Waggoner, nothing increased sales.
BRAD WAGGONER: That's kind of when we knew that we were going to have to make a change.
SISK: LifeWay's history goes back to just after the Civil War, when it started producing Sunday School materials for Baptist churches. Even today, publishing and conferences remain its bread and butter. It got into retail bookselling about three decades ago. That's when box stores, like Barnes and Noble and Borders, were taking off. But those devoted just a few shelves to faith and spirituality. LifeWay opened stores that sold nothing else.
WAGGONER: The brick-and-mortar strategy was there to be salt and light out in those communities and to assist churches in doing what they do.
SISK: LifeWay doesn't only sell things that it publishes, but it does ensure that everything it carries, from the cartoon Bible series "Veggie Tales" to Christian singer TobyMac, all adhere to Southern Baptist stances.
WAGGONER: We ask people to trust that we're going to provide things that are in line with the Bible.
RACHEL HELD EVANS: They carry a disproportionate influence over the entire industry. It has ramifications.
SISK: Rachel Held Evans is a Christian author who grew up in an evangelical household. Today, she writes about her struggles with faith, including Christianity's historic relationships with women and LGBT people. She says the chain's large presence in Christian bookselling has affected authors, even those like her, who aren't published by LifeWay.
HELD EVANS: It was my agents and my editors telling me, if you want to be carried in Lifeway, you'll need to make these changes. Of course, I ultimately said, well, I don't want to be carried in LifeWay then.
SISK: Evans hopes LifeWay's decision to get out of brick-and-mortar retail will loosen up Christian publishing. But, she confesses, a bit of her still hates to see another bookseller close its doors.
For National Public Radio, I'm Chas Sisk.
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