James Borrero envisioned his Christian bookstore in Vineland long before actually owning it — so much so that he bought the furniture nearly six years before opening in 2002.
“Thinking about it one morning, I woke up and it was deep in my heart. I felt like my heart was saying, ‘You do it,’” said Borrero, 53, of Vineland, who owns Cornerstone Christian Bookstore. “That’s how it started, and I started praying about it.”
For Christian bookstore owners such as Borrero, the deep-seeded desire to embrace and share their faith merges with the struggles of being a retail bookseller in an age of intense Internet and chain-store competition.
Retail in general has changed so much that one major aspect of Borrero’s initial approach no longer exists.
His store was once called Christian Video Plus, with the plus representing a cross. The focus was on renting religious videos since Blockbuster had very small selections.
Of course, in the past decade, digital movies, Netflix and Redbox have eliminated nearly all video rental companies in the region, and Borrero now sells DVDs but no longer rents them.
And the Internet rose as a fierce competitor, putting even large chains such as Borders out of business and straining brick-and-mortar shops that sell all categories of books, music and movies.
Despite these major shifts, Borrero said, what drew him to a 1,500-square foot Christian store is what helps it survive in this changing landscape.
“It has become not only a bookstore but a place of refuge, a meeting place,” said Borrero, who also owns a cleaning business.
“It’s a huge change, and there’s very big competition out there. I feel I’m open because it’s more of a calling, more of a ministry,” he said. “We have the Internet out there, other companies like Wal-Mart that buy in bulk. That’s why you see bookstores closing. It’s very difficult to compete.”
The CBA, a Colorado-based trade association for about 1,700 Christian stores, says the Internet, new technology and the prolonged economic downturn have been tough on Christian stores just as they have for many small businesses. Local Christian booksellers have felt the pinch, too.
In Northfield, the CLC Bookcenter on Tilton Road will close in June after more than 30 years in the area, manager Phil Westhuis said.
The center is part of a nonprofit, with other locations in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that are not closing, and it also has an ongoing online presence. The Northfield store has four employees and many volunteers, said Westhuis, of Somers Point.
The economy and the Internet both played a role in the Northfield store closing.
“We probably see 20 percent less customers, maybe more, than we did three years ago,” he said.
The CBA says the declines are not just in books.
For example, overall music sales at Christian stores dropped about 28 percent from 2005 to 2009 amid a shift to digital downloaded music, the association reported.
However, the tough times of the past few years have been leveling off, CBA President Curtis Riskey said.
“The rate of closures of Christian stores has declined overall, though,” he said.
Riskey said many Christian stores are born from the premise of service to local communities and churches. Stores have been focusing on human issues by hosting book and study groups.
That has long been a focus of Cornerstone Christian Bookstore as well.
Borrero is expanding that focus by inviting local bands or authors with a CD or book to come to a signing and speak.
“We constantly have to be thinking of different things to do to keep the flow going,” he said.
In North Wildwood, resident Joseph Olwell has owned the Lamb Bookstore since 1974.
Olwell said he has kept a close eye on inventory as business dropped to avoid overstocking on items.
“I’m staying here until God tells me to close because he told me to open in 1974,” he said. “He’s put me in a position where I don’t have a mortgage and I’m on Social Security so I’m able to handle it.”
The shop carries Easter items — including special marker coloring books for children — and is awaiting pictures of the new pope.
On a recent weekday, a woman asked about a Bible for her nephew’s Holy Communion.
Bibles are always popular, including new translations and Bibles geared toward children and teenagers, Borrero said.
Music is also popular.
“People love to read, people love to give. Before I ever thought that I’d be working in a Bible store, when I first came to the Lord I was so happy I wanted everyone to, and I would buy books by the case and give them out,” Borrero said.
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