Cokesbury, Redux

UPDATE: Note in the comments there is a link to a Change.org petition, protesting the store closures. Thanks, Lauren!

Usually, I wait a day or two after big news hits to sort out my thoughts before posting on this blog.  This practice helps me to speak with more charity and thoughtfulness.  But yesterday, the news about Cokesbury closing all of its “bricks and mortar” stores – including the seminary stores – hit me so hard that I could not wait.  The result was a post entitled Protesting the Cokesbury Closures.  I imagine I was not the only one who was upset by the news: I haven’t seen this much traffic on a single post in 24 hours since I wrote The Six Essentials for Preaching to Children.

All the same, there are a couple of things that I would have changed about that post.

I wish that I had not slipped in the paranoid insinuation that the news had been withheld until the last possible minute.  There is no evidence whatsoever for that.  I do not know the decision makers involved, and have no basis from which to cast aspersions of that kind on their characters.  Furthermore, if I did have any reason to believe that, I still ought not to type it.  It lacks charitable imagination.

I wish that I had not encouraged Mr. Alexander and the board to pray over the decision, insofar as writing that implied that they had not already done so.  My experience with every person working for a general board or agency of the UMC, from the highest level down to – yes, I’m going there – the clerks at the Cokesbury retail outlets has been that they are people of great faith who act on their convictions that they are in ministry.  Have I encountered individuals with foibles, with different theologies than mine, with outright self-serving behavior? Of course.  ALL have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  But anyone who is working for the church is not likely to need some blogger they don’t know reminding them that they are in ministry.

That said, there are some things that I wish that I had added to that piece.

For instance: when going to a Cokesbury store with my father, we always ran into friends of his.  It would become a reunion of sorts.  He would introduce me, and they would catch up on the past years of ministry, and compare notes.  As I grew older and would go to Cokesbury on my own, I often either made connections with new people or reconnected with old friends. You don’t meet people in an online bookstore, generally.

For instance: I learned about my new favorite prayer method from a book that I picked up when browsing at a Cokesbury store: Praying in Color.  I was in the store looking for something else, but because I had 15 minutes, and because I love book browsing, I worked my way through the aisles.  I don’t think I would have found that book online – because you generally find only what you are looking for and “related items” when searching online.  This is my argument against internet dictionaries as well, incidentally.  They are helpful on a smart phone when reading a book in a cafe and you really need to know the meaning of that book RIGHT NOW, but overall, they are inferior.  I have learned so many new words – and explored new ideas – when browsing through a (made out of paper) dictionary, on my way to finding the word I was originally looking for.

For instance: when I first became a preacher on a two point charge (no office staff, naturally), and a parishioner died in my first couple of weeks on the job, and I discovered that there were no funeral bulletins in the paper cabinet, I was able to drive 50 miles to the Cokesbury store to pick some up.  (I know 50 miles sounds like a lot, but when you live in the country, you are routinely driving that far to visit parishioners in the hospital, or to find a movie theater for that matter.)  Funerals are not exactly planned a week in advance.  Order them?  They wouldn’t have gotten there in time without rush shipping – and I would have been a nervous wreck wondering if they would make it.

I remember, too, buying my first Book of Common Prayer in the seminary Cokesbury bookstore.  It was the end of semester / holiday sale, and there were about 40 of us crammed into a truly tiny space with our arms filled with books by our professors, and commentaries we especially wanted, and books we were speculating might be on the reading lists for the next semester.  I noticed that a number of my United Methodist friends had Books of Common Prayer, and I asked one of them why.  She told me that she was picking hers up for an order of personal daily prayer – and she showed me the daily lectionary.  I didn’t even have to hop out of line – I just reached out to the shelf as I passed it and picked one up.  I was praying with it the next morning.

And then there is an anecdote not about Cokesbury, but about bookstores in general.  I worked as a clerk, and later as a special orders coordinator for a Barnes and Noble in the late 1990s.  Amazon was starting to demonstrate that it was going to become a major player.  All too often, people would come into our store, flip through the books, decide on which one they definitely wanted, and then go back to their home or dorm room to order it on Amazon.  Because Amazon was cheaper.  Here’s the thing, though — they still wanted to get to see the book.  Keeping the lights on and knowledgable employees on staff – and those books on the shelves – cost money.  I remember one of my supervisors shaking his head saying, “One of these days, they are going to come looking for us so that they can see the book, and we won’t be here.  And they will be angry, because seeing the book first matters, and now they won’t be able to.  But it will be their own fault.”

Sure, I shop online sometimes.  I did it more often when my daughter was younger, and her napping schedule made it more difficult for me to run errands.  Now that she is in kindergarten, I save internet shopping for items that I can’t find in a store.  Because I actually care about whether or not I get to see the item.

For that matter, I still rent videos in a video store from a real person, because once my husband went there and said, “My wife is in the hospital, and I want to take her a movie for us to watch together.  So I’d like for it to be uplifting in ways.  But not in a big Hollywood romance kind of way.  We recently watched ____ and ____ and liked them.  Something like that, if you have it.  But not like ____, which we didn’t like very much.”  And Jason directed my husband to The Visitor.  You don’t get that kind of service from a Red Box.  Or Netflix.  Or Hulu.

Maybe that is enough of a reason for news of the Cokesbury closures to strike me as – I believe I said “appalling” in the last post.  But it has not escaped my attention that it is November, between the dual Feasts of All Saints and All Souls (November 1 and 2), and three interlinked days of mourning for me:  Veteran’s day, and my father’s birth and death days  (November 11, 12, and 15.)  Rather inauspicious timing for the announcement that this valued and valuable resource is disappearing.  Cokesbury has been at once a connection to the communion of saints for me, and a connection with my father.  I know that the loss of an icon does not entail the loss of the thing itself.  But it brings fresh grief at an unwelcome time.

So, “like a dog with an old rag,” as I can still hear my father saying, I am still not giving up.  And I am giving you all yet another option for contacting the United Methodist Publishing House about this decision:

Email CokesburyNext@cokesbury.com

Protesting the Cokesbury closures

UPDATE:

There is a petition on Change.org urging Cokesbury not to close all of their stores.

Also, I have written a second post, Cokesbury Redux, on this same issue, offering a more even-handed response to the news, while adding more details about my personal experiences at the Cokesbury stores.

ORIGINAL STORY, as published 5 November:

Today, the United Methodist Publishing House released news to the United Methodist Reporter that it will be closing all of the brick and mortar Cokesbury stores.  By April.  Mr. Neil Alexander and the board sure took their time about telling everyone.  I have to wonder if it is because they knew what an outcry there would be, and they wanted to be able to say that it was too late to change their minds.

I certainly hope that it is not too late.

Right now, my Facebook is lit up with people who are sad about this decision.  Sad is for facing the inevitable. I will not accept that it is too late to save Cokesbury.  This situation calls for outrage.

This is a poor decision.  If anything has proven to be a failure over the past several years, it is the Cokesbury website, which has been bug-ridden and difficult to navigate.  I cannot think of another more consistently bad online shopping experience.  And yet Mr. Alexander claims that he is simply giving the people what they want: online only shopping.  One can only hope that their promise to improve the website will be one they can keep.

In the meantime, hundreds of people are soon to be out of living wage retail jobs.

Not only are they getting rid of the regular Cokesbury stores, but their seminary stores as well.  These stores are not just a guaranteed money maker (selling the books for all of the classes, not to mention many other interesting selections), but a hub of seminary life.  Seminarians and clergy are notorious bookhounds — clergy’s moving expenses are disproportionately attributable to the stacks of boxes that they haul from one parish to another.  Many of these books were bought at their seminary bookstore – often a Cokesbury.

But the biggest blow is a theological one.  Mr. Alexander et al have apparently lost sight of the reality that Cokesbury is not a business, but a ministry.  One of the most essential aspects of that ministry: witnessing to a different way of being Christian than is being sold by Lifeway, Family Christian Bookstores, and the rest of the evangelical booksellers.  By abandoning the brick and mortar bookstore business, Cokesbury is guaranteeing that many books will never see a retail bookshelf, will never be picked up by an idle browser.  Secular stores carry few religious titles, and as for the conservative evangelical stores, one only has to witness the recent kerfuffle over Rachel Held Evans’ recent book (Lifeway refused to carry it) to see how narrow their selection can be.  And just try to find a New Revised Standard Version Bible in there!

As someone who is just starting out as a Christian writer, I had envisioned seeing my books on the shelves of Cokesbury stores.  I had envisioned people picking up my book, thinking that my name sounded familiar to them, and leafing through it — maybe putting it back on the shelf after eyeing their already full basket, or maybe carrying it up to the counter with them — reading it between classes, or at a coffee shop on their day off.

I’m not ready to let go of that dream.  I am not ready to let go of the store that sells books by Matthew Fox and John Shelby Spong alongside books by Tony Campolo and N.T. Wright.  I am not ready to let go of the the store that hands checks to annual conferences every year – checks that fund ministries to retired pastors and that supplements the pay of pastors in developing countries.

Mr. Neil Alexander – was this really the best decision you and the board could make?  Pray hard and think again.

Here’s what you can do:

Go to the United Methodist Reporter article and leave a comment

Call the United Methodist Publishing House:  615-749-6000

Snail mail! Mr. Neil Alexander, The United Methodist Publishing House, P.O. Box 801, Nashville, TN, 37202