I'm not as hard on Christian bookstores as I used to be. It's a tough business to be in, and the products offered (or not offered) on the shelves are just as much a reflection of the evangelical consumer as the bookseller's personal taste, if not more so. The last thing I want to do here is gripe that Christian bookstores aren't perfect. Of course they're not. And with Internet sales taking a chunk out of the pie and big box retailers stocking more and more Christian books, things are not getting easier. Still, there are some things I would love to see change, and this might be a forum for putting them out there.
More than once, I've entered an unfamiliar bookstore only to find that the books I'm looking for -- Bibles -- are tucked away behind the counter, inaccessible without the assistance of a clerk. If the store isn't busy and the clerk is easy-going, this doesn't present too much of an inconvenience, although I can't help feeling some cognitive dissonance. Bibles behind the counter? You need permission to touch? Doesn't seem right somehow.
Unfortunately, stores are sometimes busy and clerks aren't always easy-going. I remember a big store in Houston that stocked hundreds of Bibles, one of the best selections in town, but kept them in a series of tall bookcases cordoned off from the rest of the store by a tall wooden counter. To take one off the shelf, the salesperson had to walk about twenty feet back. The distance was such that there was no way I could make out individual items.
"Which one would you like to see?" they asked.
In frustration, I replied: "All of them!"
This arrangement wasn't an accident of geography, either. The store had relocated from a smaller building, where they'd had precisely the same kind of hands-off layout. I've seen it in a number of places. I believe the thinking is that Bibles are expensive and therefore shouldn't be on a shelf where they're easy to snatch. Maybe there's a Bible heist ring that boosts deluxe editions when nobody's looking. Perhaps wear and tear is also a consideration: by putting the goods behind the counter, you insure that only serious buyers handle them, which reduces the likelihood of someone damaging a $100 edition.
Whatever the rationale, I wish it would stop.
I bumped into the ultimate example one afternoon while driving from store to store in search of a particular like of study Bible. There was a place on the west side of town I'd never visited before. After ten minutes inside, I still hadn't managed to locate the Bible section, so I went to the front counter and asked. This was Saturday and the place was busy, so I actually had to wait in line a bit to reach an employee.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I just can't find where the Bibles are."
She nodded sympathetically, like this had happened before, and then pointed over her shoulder. On a high, shadowy shelf up behind the register, hanging at about the height that a flat-screen TV would in a sports-themed restaurant, I spotted a row of nondescript Bibles. This actually tapped into two of my pet peeves: not offering quality editions as an option, and keeping Scripture carefully screen off from the public. The lady offered to have one of the male clerks get the step-ladder that was apparently needed to take a Bible down for inspection, but I declined.
Out in the parking lot, I stood a moment gazing up at the store sign. A wave a surreality washed over me. the words read "The Such-and-Such Bible Bookstore," and the logo features an open Bible.