Religious Bookstore will close in January
  
By Rozella Hardin
STAR STAFF
rhardin@starhq.com

   It's the battle of David vs. Goliath as more and more small mom and pop businesses are being swallowed by giant chain stores. Such is the case of the Religious Bookstore, which will close in January 2003.
   Since 1948 the Religious Bookstore has been a fixture on Elk Avenue and was initially started as a ministry of the late Minister and Mrs. Fred Smith, who wanted to put Christian materials into the hands of ministers, laypeople and teachers to enable them to do their work more effectively.
   However, for the past five or six years the business has struggled said Mary Smith, who with her minister-husband John Smith have operated the store. "We can no longer compete with the bigger stores and the Internet," she said this week. "We have been here for the people who needed us. However, I know that in this day and time, people are going to go where they can purchase things cheaper," she said.
   The store, located at the east end of the Elk Avenue Bridge, was once a beer store. The building, according to a history by Minister Fred Smith, was built by a Mr. Boling, who spent many months and years lifting river rock from the river to build the building. The store had two rooms downstairs and the upstairs was used for living space by Boling and his family. The western part of the bookstore was a barbershop. The minister recalled in his book that he rented the front room of the building for $35 a month. The minister also bought the 20-foot bar, and turned it into a counter.
   "It may be the same bar, except it's been refurbished," John Smith said this week. The front of the room had shelves attached to the wall. And, there was a couch and a wooden cash register, which completed the store's furnishings. As Minister Smith often said, "the store went from selling beer to selling Bibles."
   The Smiths avoided all temptations to move to a newer building in a better part of town. "All we wanted was a small, healthy business that would not demand a lot of time and oversight of a lot of employees," the minister wrote. And, that it remained.
   The store building became both a place of business and the Smiths' home as they were able to buy the building. The whole bookstore project proved to be a feat of skill and ingenuity. The Smiths lived for a number of years in the upstairs apartment over the store.
   The minister wrote in his book, "We didn't know beans about wholesale book companies, nor did we know how to go about contacting them for results. All we were familiar with was the Standard Publishing Co." However, he later wrote that "Thelma (his wife) became 'Queen of the Watts Line' as publishers called her every week and she was on first name speaking acquaintances with most of them."
   For sometime after the store's opening, the bookstore struggled, with Minister and Mrs. Smith paying most of its expenses out of their pocket. "In the beginning everything was OUTGO," the minister wrote.
   Mary Smith, who has overseen the operation of the store since before her mother-in-law, Thelma Smith, died in 1997, initially began working at the store on Saturday. However, since about 1975 she has worked in the store full time. "We have continued to be a ministry as well as a bookstore," Mary said.
   The store saw its heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s. "We stayed very busy most of the time, especially during Vacation Bible School time in the summer and at Christmas," Mary said.
   In more recent years, the store's best sellers have been Bibles and boxed cards.
   "Many of the churches we served began buying direct, and some of the smaller churches began doing their own VBS studies since the material became so expensive. Some of our customers began buying over the Internet. And, that's a savings since they don't have to pay taxes. There was a blow awaiting us at every turn," she exclaimed.
   Closing the store was a difficult decision for the Smiths. "It's been a very rewarding business, and I've enjoyed meeting and serving the many people who have come into our store. Being a small business, we got to know our customers on a first-name basis," she said.
   "We have also had our fun times as well," she said, noting some of the lighter moments. "We had a customer to come in and ask for the HIV version of the Bible rather than the NIV. We've had people to come in and ask for the King James "Virgin" of the Bible rather than version. One time we had a customer to come in and announce to us he was Jesus Christ," Mary shared with a laugh.
   "Discouraged preachers would often come in and lean over the counter to talk with my mother. She would counsel them and often send them on their way with a good book," John shared.
   "The store has been a good ministry to the community over the years. And, that's what the preacher and Mrs. Smith wanted it to be," said Mary.
   "Everyone thinks big, but big isn't always better. And everytime we spend a dollar out-of-town, we are taking a small piece of our town with it," she said.
   "People have continued to come in and buy little things, but little things won't keep your business going," John said.
   "Change is something we can't stop, and we feel very blessed to have served the community as long as we have," he shared.
   The Religious Bookstore will begin closing out in January. "We plan on keeping the building at least for a while and renting it out," the Smiths said.
   "It's going to be a change for us," John said.