By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 30, 2013
Laura Genone walked into Two Hearts Gifts & Books to buy a gift for friends leaving on a long airplane trip.
She didn’t know what she was looking for but thought there might be something in this Woodstock Road bookstore where Gregorian chant fills the air.
Thanks to insights shared by store staff, she left with two medals of Our Lady of Loreto, the patron saint of aviators, and a decorative gift bag.
“I have my built-in Google right here,” said Genone, of Marietta, talking about the staff at the four-year-old store.
Owner Charlotte Johnson prides herself on knowing her clients and scouring the Internet for them to find unique items. She’ll search for goods that will appeal to her Catholic customers, even those not marketed to a religious shopper.
“I want nothing from that company but one thing. They make a Noah’s ark rosary,” she said about one firm.
Hanging near a window are old slate roof tiles refurbished with scenes from famous paintings of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Any garden would look nice with them, but they would have a special meaning to the faithful.
“I try to offer the best of everything,” she said.
Online retailers are competition for these small bookstores with their ease of purchase and next-day home delivery. Another new challenge is the growth of e-readers as people download books with the push of the button. The Catholic Retail Association director, Chris Weickert, called it a very challenging time for storeowners. Indeed, one longtime bookstore, Notre Dame in Atlanta, closed after serving generations of Catholics in the community when there were far fewer members of the church here.
Even as online retailers and e-readers are a popular choice, metro Atlanta Catholic bookstore owners say they offer what an Internet search cannot: a warm atmosphere and careful collection of books with local recommendations, along with hard to find crucifixes and other religious items.
“You don’t get that experience of walking into the store and smelling incense. It’s not the same,” Johnson said about online shopping.
Two Hearts sits in a strip mall, around the corner from St. Peter Chanel Church. The storefront was once a dry cleaner. She has two employees, besides herself and her husband. Her plan to open the store four years ago came after a serious injury. During her recovery, Charlotte and her husband rediscovered their faith.
Johnson said she worked in retail for 20 years and the lessons learned there she brings to the store’s outgoing customer service, her choice of products and store layout.
The store opened in 2008 just as the recession started to bite. The store held on. Unlike other retailers, Catholics have a busy church calendar that she said encourages people to mark celebrations with gifts.
“Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Communion, confirmation, baptism, all the sacraments happen regardless of the economic times,” she said.
Customer Margaret O’Grady, of Roswell, came to the Two Hearts to browse.
“I know anything Charlotte has in here represents the faith and shares our faith. I can depend on her,” she said.
She’ll shop online too, but O’Grady said it is important for the Catholic community to support the store.
“I think it is really a blessing to have someone so knowledgeable in the faith,” she said.
Catherine Fuss, of Sandy Springs, shops at many of the different Catholic stores.
“If I already know a specific faith-based title and just want it quick, I will go to a large retailer. But when it comes to browsing for something to inspire my spirituality or if I am searching for a gift for someone special, the local Catholic bookstore cannot be beat,” said Fuss.
And each store has its own atmosphere. Some inspire quiet reflection and others, a place to meet other Catholics, she said.
Free Wi-Fi And A Chapel
Christian pop music streams over a Pandora Internet radio station in the Mission District bookstore. Light streams through big windows. The back wall has T-shirts with colorful contemporary designs. Shelves carry authors from the classic C.S. Lewis to Father Robert Barron’s popular “Catholicism” series and daily reflections of Pope Benedict XVI.
But there are also public conference rooms, free Internet access and coffee for 25 cents.
There’s a chapel made from reused materials that were once in Holy Spirit Church’s St. Mary’s Chapel.
A large patio with comfortable seats doubles as a music venue during the summer. Art from local artists decorates the walls.
“People do know we are more than a bookstore—although we do have books—we are an experience,” said the manager, Stephanie Lange, who last year served as a missionary at colleges in Kansas. The store opened in early 2012. The bookstore is part of the larger Life Teen office, located just off of Roswell Road, in Sandy Springs.
Betsy Orr said the goal for the store from the start was to be youth focused, but also attract others.
“It should be more than a bookstore. It should be missionary in nature,” said Orr, a volunteer and parishioner at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
Since opening earlier this year, the bookstore has set itself up as a place to go and spend time. Zach Raus said the store connects with youth ministers throughout the archdiocese so they can tap into its resources. For Raus, the store should not just be about someone buying something and leaving but staying around and deepening relationships with other Catholics.
Sales of religious book are a bright light in the publishing industry, but a shift in selling is squeezing independent bookstores.
The Catholic Retail Association, with 40 members nationwide, has seen more bookstores close in recent years, said director Weickert. For eight years he has run Vineyards Books and Gifts in Rockford, Ill.
“Each year it’s a net loss of Catholic independent book stores,” he said.
Publishers are now selling directly to customers and schools, skipping the bookstores altogether, he said. A store’s Internet presence can be vital to keep it thriving, he said. But what should separate a Catholic bookstore from any other store is the owner’s knowledge of the faith, he said. “People who can help you sort things out,” he said.
Thirst For Spiritual Books
Meanwhile, readers are clamoring for books with spiritual messages. Books in the religion category are very strong, according to the Association of American Publishers. In the past 18 months, it’s shown year-to-year growth, according to Andi Sporkin, the vice president of communications.
“It’s clearly a popular category for book readers and book buyers and an area in publishing that’s been expanding actively in digital formats over the past few years. One area where we’ve seen major growth is in eBooks in the religious category,” Sporkin said in an email. There is no specific breakout for Catholic books.
In BookStats 2012, the annual survey of the U.S. publishing industry, books in the religion category earned nearly $1.5 billion. American Publishers Association and the Book Industry Study Group conduct the survey.
At Johnson’s store, she helps customers find the right books. In fact, there are shelves dedicated to “priestly preferences,” books suggested by some priests in the archdiocese.
Mission District also prides itself on offering books that are “authentically Catholic.” Orr is part of a team that reviews books to ensure they don’t contradict church teaching. If there is a doubt, the books are returned, she said.
Trinity Bookstore, at the Ignatius Retreat House, Sandy Springs, serves a wider audience with its books and other items.
Storeowner Lisa Randolph said she selects books and products that appeal to everyone who visits the retreat center, Catholic or otherwise.
“We are probably the most contemporary store, even leaning toward ecumenical. We are open to everyone here. That is what works for our market here,” said Randolph.
The store is in a new red brick and glass building with peaceful music on the sound system.
Randolph has worked at the bookstore for nearly 25 years and took it over from her mother-in-law.
She’s seen two large changes over the years. The first is to carry a broad selection of primarily Catholic authors but also showcase other faith traditions. It’s important that people who are not Catholic at the retreat center can walk out with a book.
“They want a book. They want a touch-and-feel-it book,” she said.
The other change is the importance of the other products in addition to books. Randolph said books are not her main source of income; instead she relies on sacred art and photography created by local artists, along with jewelry and other items to put dollars in the register.
“I wouldn’t have been able to survive selling only books,” she said.