Even as online shopping becomes more convenient and pervasive, there is no replacing the experience of walking into a store and interacting with a knowledgeable and helpful proprietor. This is particularly true of Catholic bookstores, which can provide not only solid catechetical materials and spiritual reading, but also a place where those seeking to learn more about the Faith and the sacraments can find assistance and a sympathetic ear.
“I don’t look at my store as a business; it is a ministry,” says Tinsley Ducote of Alexandria, Louisiana. She has run Mary’s Heart Catholic Bookstore for the last 10 years, working in the store six days a week, mostly on her own.
“I’m here to evangelize and save souls,” says Ducote, a convert to Catholicism. “I don’t even draw a check because I want every dime I make to go back into my store. My mission is to save souls.”
In an effort to help Catholic stores keep a foothold in a competitive retail environment increasingly dominated by online sellers, this July, Ignatius Press (which publishes Catholic World Report) is marking its third annual Catholic Store Month. More than 500 stores have registered to participate in the event, which will include in-store promotions and giveaways, as well as discounts on Ignatius Press products.
“When Ignatius Press planned the first Catholic Store Month, our staff hoped to remind the buying public that while Catholic stores have contributed to a vibrant faith for many decades, their survival is certainly not guaranteed,” Anthony Ryan, director of marketing and sales for Ignatius Press, said in a press release. “It is our job to help them advance the Catholic faith, and to help keep their doors open.”
The Catholic bookstore has long been a mainstay in the American Church, often serving as a hub for Catholic community as well as a source of solid information and spiritual guidance, particularly in small towns.
In Opelousas, Louisiana, the Cursillo movement has a strong presence in the form of a retreat center and bookstore. Begun in Spain to re-evangelize the people following the Spanish Civil War, the Cursillo movement was brought to the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana by Franciscan friar Father Fedelis Albright for the same purpose. The center in Opelousas was founded in 1964, and its bookstore opened in 1982.
Andrée Daugereaux has worked at the store for 10 years. She describes the store’s mission in this way: “To evangelize the poorly- and un-educated in the Faith by providing them with good and solid Catholic books, movies, and talks to assist them in building and nourishing their spiritual lives. That will help them with service in their communities and church parishes.” The bookstore is open primarily for the Cursillo weekends as well as weekends when formation classes take place.
One challenge faced by bookstores of all kinds today—including Catholic bookstores—is the decline in reading as a hobby or intellectual pursuit, Daugereaux says. To engage those who “just aren’t big readers,” as she puts it, the Cursillo Bookstore also has a wide variety of talks on CD. These are popular among those in the area with long commutes.
But changing technology is the principal challenge for brick-and-mortar bookstores. “People want everything instantly delivered to them,” Daugereaux said. Catholic Store Month will help her customers get better deals on books, she says, and encourage them to remember the store the next time they’re looking for Catholic materials, “so we are not losing customers to Amazon and other online bookstores.”
There is something that sets local Catholic bookstores apart from online retailers, Daugereaux believes.
“Online stores have their use, but they aren’t evangelization oriented,” she said. “This is where I am hoping the Catholic Store Month will help support our mission to our Catholic family, so everyone will be able to nourish their spiritual lives and be the good news of Christ to the world.”
Inge Ossoinig and her husband moved to Iowa City, Iowa, from their home in Austria in 1971. In 1993, Inge and some friends opened a Catholic bookstore on a shoestring budget. Now, almost 25 years later, the Mustard Seed is going strong.
“In a university town with 30,000 students and 40,000 other people at the most, there was no place to go to find really good Catholic gifts,” Ossoinig said. “Baptismal gifts, something with the Hail Mary on it, nothing.” There was one Protestant store, she said, but they didn’t have anything specifically Catholic.
“If you wanted to learn anything about the Faith, you had to walk up to a priest and ask him—and good luck! They’re too busy, naturally,” said Ossoinig. She and some friends wanted to set up a small nonprofit organization to sell books, crucifixes, devotional images, and other Catholic items.
The work is not without its challenges, and its blessings. “Sometimes I come home and cry because it was so wonderful; other times I come home and cry because it was so maddening,” said Ossoinig.
For Ossoinig, one of the critical things the Mustard Seed does is serve parents. “It’s very important to me to help parents,” she said. “I want to help them find a place where everything they might pick is solid. My motto is, ‘If the Holy Father were to come in here, he would like every book!’”
Stephanie McIntyre and her husband run St. Benedict’s Catholic Store in Greer, South Carolina. To survive in an environment dominated by online sellers, McIntyre says their store defies preconceived notions. “We don’t follow rules,” she says.
As Catholic stores across the country were closing in droves, “How insane were we to say ‘yes’ to the Holy Spirit despite these frightful odds?” McIntyre said in a blog post describing the store’s founding. “Just insane and obedient enough.”
As a young person, McIntyre was sexually abused by a priest for many years. By age 22, she had left the Church, feeling hurt and abandoned.
“But I came back,” she said. “By the mercy of God, I was not only able to fully come back home, I was able to forgive my abuser.”
While she was away from the Church, McIntyre and her then-husband (they were not married in the Church) helped create one of the largest pornography chains on the East Coast. It was only through fervent prayer, contrition, and a return to the Church that she was able to escape that world and “pray her way back,” she says. She also found “her Catholic soul-mate, along with the Latin Mass.” They opened St. Benedict’s in 2012.
“We’re still here because we’re not your grandma’s Catholic store,” she said. “We’re still here because we break all of the rules by following the lead of the Holy Spirit instead of the secular business model.”
“We feel that our duty as a Catholic store is to provide quality Catholic books and resources to our lay community, to help evangelize and build the Catholic faith.”
“Today’s contemporary Catholics are craving something much more solid” than what has been on offer to them in the past, McIntyre said. And St. Benedict’s strives to meet that need.
“The days of casual Catholicism are over,” she said. “Ordinary Catholics need an extraordinary Catholic store. We opened St. Benedict’s at the prompting of the Holy Spirit and have continued to listen only to the Holy Spirit.”
Nikki White is the general manager of Sacred Heart Books & Gifts in Dallas, Texas. The store recently expanded for the third time since its opening on the Feast of the Annunciation in 1979. Over the years the store has grown into a corporation focused on Catholic education and overseen by a board of directors intent on furthering the mission of evangelization and support of the Church.
White has worked at Sacred Heart for almost 18 years. She worked there on Saturdays starting at the age of 16, then moved to full-time. She became general manager in 2014.
Work at Sacred Heart is centered around prayer, White says. “Every work day begins with the employees gathering together to pray,” she explained. “We open with a special store dedication prayer, follow with a few prayers to Mary, and finish with invocations to the saint of the day and to our patrons, the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Saint Joseph.”
In a diocese covering more than 7,500 square miles and including about one million Catholics, Sacred Heart is one of only a handful of Catholic stores serving that community.
“Because of the scarcity of Catholic bookstores in the north Texas region, we also serve customers well beyond our diocesan borders,” White said. “Several customers and priests drive an hour or more to shop here!”
Sacred Heart’s expansions have allowed them to broaden their offerings, and they now carry baptism and First Communion dresses (and even have a dressing room); they also have a Resource Center that houses a free lending library, a children’s play area, whiteboard, smart TV, and DVD player.
From its opening, the store’s guiding principle has been, “Serving the needs of the catechist,” and they consider Catholic education their highest priority. Catholic Store Month helps Sacred Heart fulfill its mission by enhancing the sense of community, White says.
“Many Catholics feel like they are fighting a battle alone against the world,” she explained. “Being able to connect with one’s fellow Catholics offers solace to the weary, strength to the faltering, and a tangible encounter with the Body of Christ manifest in his Church.”
“And that is an even greater blessing than free shipping!”