July 23, 2013

Atheist Bookstores

Business (Photo credits: www.roadtrafficsigns.com)

I was listening to NPR on the way to work (or maybe it was the way home) the other day, and I heard a story about how Christian bookstores are doing very well across the U.S. What made this noteworthy was that bookstores as a whole are not doing well at all. While sales at bookstores are in decline, sales at Christian bookstores are on the rise. If I remember the number correctly, they saw something like a 9% increase in sales over the last year.

The point of the story was that Christian bookstores have done two things to set themselves apart from other bookstores. First they have done a much better and more deliberate job of diversifying the products they carry. Walk into a Christian bookstore today, and you will see that books often make up a small portion of what they sell. They typically offer a wide selection of Christian greeting cards, films, and gifts for every occasion. This diversification has served them well. Second, they have reached out to their local communities in such a way that has made them more appealing destinations. They hold bible study meetings and coordinate activities with local churches. By providing a meeting place for many groups, they benefit from increased customer traffic.

Could an Atheist Bookstore Work in Your Town?

I bet there are some communities where an atheist/skeptic/humanist bookstore might thrive. Imagine a store that not only stocked an impressive collection of books and films aimed at a secular/atheist/skeptic/humanist audience but also had the stickers, mugs, t-shirts, and other products one might find at EvolveFish.com. I would certainly support such a business.

Now allow yourself to get creative and think about what such a bookstore could do for the local community. It could be the place where the local atheist/skeptic/humanist/freethought groups met. It could hold brief classes and workshops for teaching children about critical thinking, get them interested in science, etc. Such a bookstore could end up serving many of the functions of a secular community resource center. It would be great for their business by providing them with a steady flow of customers, and it would be wonderful for the community.

Of course, there are many obstacles the owner of such a bookstore would be expected to face. I'll mention two of them here. First, the local Christians would be unhappy and would likely attempt to interfere with business through protests, threats, petty vandalism, and the like. This would be a hassle, but I suspect it might not be too big of a deal outside the bible belt. Second and most important would be the question of whether such a venture could actually be profitable due to the relatively small number of people to whom it might appeal. This would require skillful marketing, persistence, and a real willingness to work with community groups. I would guess that such a business could develop a fiercely loyal clientele rather quickly but real growth would depend on whether the current "rise of the nones" is a trend that continues.