CASCADE TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Family Christian Stores announced Thursday that it is closing, meaning the nation’s largest retailer of Bible-related books and music will soon be no more.
The more than 80-year-old store has roots in West Michigan. It started as Zondervan’s, a family-owned company that evolved into a publicly-traded juggernaut in the Christian retail industry and publishing. While the family would become less and less in control of the business, which was acquired by HarperCollins, the Zondervan name would remain until 1997 when it was changed to Family Christian Stores.
The chain eventually grew to include 240 stores in 36 states, employing more than 3,000 people. West Michigan alone has seven stores while Lansing has two stores.
The company began in 1931 when brothers Pat and Bernard Zondervan began selling Bibles and public-domain religious materials out of a long-gone farmhouse along Prairie Street SW and Ivanrest Avenue Grandville.
The Zondervan family was prolific, so there are numerous family members around West Michigan, including Scott Zondervan, who lives in Kalamazoo. The nephew of Pat and Bernard Zondervan’s nephew, he said having the two famous uncles made him semi-famous as well.
“When I was younger, growing up, the fact that you were named Zondervan, it was a little bit of pressure because you better not misbehave,” he said.
He said he is grateful for the store’s 80-year legacy.
“Part of what my uncle always said when they wanted to start retail, they wanted to do it to further Christ’s work,” he said.
That legacy is coming to a close after a decade of struggling against online retailers. Tactics to keep the chain alive failed — including becoming a nonprofit and a controversial 2015 bankruptcy restructuring during which numerous publishers forgave more than $127 million in debt.
Court documents show that sales of $305 million in 2008 were down to $216 million in projected 2015 sales.
While Family Christian says it improved product variety and the in-store experience after the bankruptcy, sales continued to slide. Vendors didn’t provide price breaks the company had hoped for. In the end, changing customer behavior and continued sales declines led to the decision to close.
“We have prayerfully looked at all possible options, trusting God’s plan for our organization, and the difficult decision to liquidate is our only recourse,” said Family Christian President Chuck Bengochea in a Thursday news release.
“From a family aspect, that downhome retail family side of it, once the books stores are gone, it’s all over,” Zondervan said.
While the company’s woes have been known for a while, Thursday’s announcement was still a sad one for customers and employees alike.
“I’ve had some trials and really hard times in my life,” said Karen King-Gilchrist, who was shopping at the Family Christian store on Rivertown Parkway in Grandville Thursday. “And even today, I needed to be in the atmosphere. … It’s refuge, to come and to pray and to have the inspiration of the Lord touch you.”
King-Gichrist and her mother Barbara King are longtime customers. While there are other sources for Christian merchandise, like the internet, customers like them say it’s just not the same.
“I don’t want to talk to my keyboard,” King-Gilchrist said. “I want someone to say, ‘If you come over here, this is a real inspirational book when you’re feeling down, when you’re feeling alone.’”
The company has not answered questions about a timetable for the closing, but it is likely to be done by the summer.