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2/26/2004

David vs. Goliath

By Pam Mellskog
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — When Valdean Peppler opened her tiny Christian bookstore on Main Street in 1980, she did not know it would be ten years before she took home a paycheck.

“It’s a service of the heart,” said Peppler, 74, via telephone from Arizona, where she now winters.

Still, The Lordswalk Center — sold in 1994 to her granddaughters, sisters Leissa Pickering and Lori Herman — has kept lights on and grown from 300 to 4,200 square feet today.

It is Boulder County’s only remaining Christian book store and a survivor story given today’s David-and-Goliath marketplace.

Herman, 33, acknowledged steep competition from the Internet, in-church bookstores and so-called big box stores such as Wal-Mart.

“At Sam’s, they’re selling at less than what we can purchase it from the publisher,” Herman said.

Deep price cuts and the one-stop shop convenience offered by these players contributed to the fall of Colorado Christian Bookstore in Lafayette in 1998, For Heaven’s Sake in Longmont in 2000 and Logos Books in Boulder in 2001.

But instead of fearing the domino effect, these sisters have vowed to keep walking in their grandmother’s footsteps, they said.

That means doing business in another stratosphere of customer service, said Pickering, 35.

“We have customers who will call and ask us to help them spell a word,” she said.

Another customer, an Asian woman who speaks broken English, every year taps them to help her pick a birthday card for her grandson, Pickering said.

The store is more than a selling floor, according to the twosome. It’s a safe place where latch-key kids stop by and homeless men drop in for a sandwich, knowing the women — like their grandmother — keep fixings on hand in the company fridge.

Opening the door to non-customers might not directly contribute to the bottom line, they said. But because the store’s mission goes beyond earthly business, they turned down a woman hoping to buy Lordswalk as an investment two years ago.

“She said, ‘What would it take? Could you just quote me a number?’” Herman recalled. “We weren’t interested.”

Statistics reported by the Colorado Springs-based Christian Booksellers Association for Christian retailers show a leap of faith might be required.

Though CBA membership generated $4.2 billion in 2002 sales, early results of a 2003 industry-wide retail study show half reporting losses, 6 percent holding steady and 38 percent increasing sales.

“Survival is an an important question,” said Everett O’Bryan, vice president of trade sales, Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, Ill.

From the publisher’s point of view, he said, fiscal fitness in the past six or seven years has come from crossing over into mainstream venues and meeting demand there.

Yet, Tyndale has “leveled the playing field” on expected hot sellers such as “The Passion” coffee table book, he said. The $24.99 suggested retail priced book combines Gospel excerpts with images from the Mel Gibson film.

Tyndale shipped the same limited-quantity, first run to retailers big and small, he said.

Despite that measure, the Lordswalk co-owners stock less trendy items as well, never sell above the suggested retail price and cover shipping costs for special orders, they said.

“Most of the people who get into the CBA are ministry-minded,” O’Bryan said. “They’re not in it just to make money, and that has been a good thing and a bad thing because when times get tough, there’s not much margin for adjustments.”

Like her granddaughters, Peppler ran the store on skinny margins, too. But somehow, after the first 10 years of just breaking even, the business began turning a profit.

That brand of service remains the backbone of the store’s success, Pickering said. But the company’s viability also stems from carrying a wider range of higher quality items — from the black, leather-bound King James Bible to a gallery of prints by Thomas Kinkade, a Christian painter popular in the mainstream for his use of light.

“It used to be just books, some music and decoupage heads of Christ,” Pickering said. “Now, we’ve got high quality art and music. We have different things that what they have at the malls all over. What we have has meaning.”

Pam Mellskog can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 224, or by e-mail at pmellskog@times-call.com.