NORTH WILDWOOD — Joseph Olwell knew he was going to be a businessman like his father when he was in second grade, and offered a nun at his Catholic school the benefit of his budding entrepreneurship.
“I told her, ‘I’m a businessman. If you need any financial advice, you can let me know,’” he recalled.
Olwell, 75, of North Wildwood, has owned businesses on the island most of his life. Since 1974, he has sold Bibles, greeting cards and jewelry at the Lamb Bookstore, a Christian retail shop on New Jersey Avenue.
The store was the answer to the question he had posed to himself for years: What was I meant to do?
Olwell graduated from Villanova University and attended Seton Hall Law School for more than a year before changing his mind about a career in law.
He worked for the Delaware River and Bay Authority and then for an advertising firm. He ran a custard shop and miniature-golf course in North Wildwood that his mother had purchased. His parents were proven entrepreneurs, first running an electrical shop on the island until they lost everything in the Great Depression. Afterward, they bought and ran the Hotel Cromwell on 26th Avenue and later a doughnut shop on the Boardwalk.
“Most young men look to their fathers as a role model,” Olwell said. “I certainly did, too. He was a very successful businessman.”
Growing up, Olwell worked as a Wildwood lifeguard during the day and for the family businesses at night, first as a bellhop at the hotel and later as a short-order cook at the doughnut shop, which served steak and eggs and other foods.
After graduating from college, Olwell worked in real estate. He said he drifted from occupation to occupation.
“I was bouncing around from one job to the other. I was like a ship without a rudder. I didn’t know where I fit in,” he said. “The last job I got I came home after three weeks and realized I wasn’t happy.”
While running the family custard stand, he bought Bibles and other Christian literature for his church’s prayer group. He said he was hungry for this inspirational literature and quickly realized that other parishioners were as well.
He tore out the custard stand and renovated the space into a Christian bookstore in 1974.
“The first year I had some problems. But by the second year I solved 95 percent of them and my sales were up 70 percent,” he said.
In 1983, when he got married to Marylou, the couple moved the store to its current location on New Jersey Avenue. The store sells all manner of Christian-themed gifts, including best-selling books, jewelry, stationery, cards, artwork, T-shirts and statuary.
“It’s been successful. I’ve had 39 happy years,” he said.
Christian bookstores are facing the same challenges as traditional bookstores — competition from Internet retailers, Olwell said.
“I’m more careful with my inventory lately because my sales have dropped,” he said. “My key sales remain with Bibles. I do a lot of business for Baptism gifts.”
The Christian retail industry generates nearly $5 billion per year in sales of books, Bibles, music, videos and gifts, according to Curtis Riskey, director of the Christian Retail Association, a trade group.
Sales in 2011 were flat compared with 2010, he said in an email. The group represents about 2,200 Christian retailers nationwide.
“Like all of retail, Internet sales are impacting Christian stores,” Riskey said.
But more Christian retailers are taking advantage of technology to keep pace, he said.
Olwell said a personal touch makes the difference in his business. He sometimes prays with customers who are facing a crisis. And he is a fan of publications that break down the Bible into daily readings that are easier to digest than reading an entire book at a time.
His store caters to two audiences: local residents in the winter and tourists in the summer. He credits his success to his enjoyment for his job.
“If you have a passion for something, it’s not work. I don’t come to work. It’s not work to me. I love what I’m doing,” he said.
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