Are Christian Bookstores Going Extinct?

Family Christian Store
Family Christian Store (Wikipedia)

In case you missed it, last week the Family Christian Store chain declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This is newsworthy because Family Christian Store (FCS) is the largest Christian store chain in the country (when counting number of locations, not necessarily sales revenue), with 266 stores in 36 states.

In 2014, the chain did $230 million dollars in sales ... down from $305 million in 2008.

The Details

A common misunderstanding is that this means they are going out of business. That is not the case here. This isn't a repeat of the demise of the Borders chain in 2011. Instead the corporation is reorganizing using a Section 363 Sale process. What this means is that a new entity has been created by the owners of FCS to buy their assets and restructure their debt. This same Section 363 Sale process was used by Chrysler and GM during the financial crisis of 2009.

A newly formed subsidiary of Family Christian Ministries will be buying the assets of Family Christian Stores for $73,773,000 and assuming the property leases and other accrued operating liabilities. According to their press release they will not be closing stores nor will they be laying off staff. In other words, they will try to maintain and do "business as usual." The sales of these assets is supposed to happen within 60 days, which is very fast. (There is an excellent interview online with two Chadbourne bankruptcy lawyers about the unique nature of a Section 363 Sale process here if you want to more details.)

The entire 150+ page Chapter 11 filing can be found online in a PDF (Family Christian Store Bankruptcy Filing link) from which I have been quoting much of the above details. (A list of the top 20 unsecured creditors has also been circulating.)

In the list of top creditors there are some big numbers owed to publishers. FCS owes $7 million to Harper Collins Christian Publishing (which includes Zondervan and Thomas Nelson), $1.7 million to Tyndale and around a half a million each to Baker, B&H, Crossway, Barbour, Harvest House, Send the Light Distributors, Waterbrook (Penguin Random House), Ingram/Spring Arbor Distributors and FaithWords (Hachette). These 11 publishing-related companies are owed a total of $14,000,000. Remember that at least four of these companies publish Bibles as well as books. And most Christian stores do a healthy percentage of their "book" sales in Bibles.

This $14 million is not "chump change," but compare that to the top creditors during the demise of Borders in 2011. Borders owed Penguin $41 million, Hachette $36 million, Simon & Schuster $33 million, Random House $33 million and HarperCollins $25 million. Granted, there were around 1,000 Borders locations which primarily carried book inventory.

What I found interesting on the list were the non-book companies who are owed substantial money by FCS. These include gift, greeting card, and music companies. There are nine listed in the top twenty...and are owed a total of $13,000,000. In other words almost the same amount due the top 11 book/bible-related companies.

This reveals that the product mix within FCS has evolved over a number of years. They were shifting their inventory to more of a boutique format and thus book selection suffered in the breadth of titles and the depth of copies carried in-store. This is not a surprise when books, Bibles and music can be purchased online or at competitors who carry larger inventories. But the gifts, cards and jewelry are products that are not as easy to purchase online. And thus the shift.

Before anyone comments on how this is "terrible" and "they shouldn't be selling that junk," be aware this has been part of the product mix for a long time. I ran Christian bookstores in the '80s and early '90s. Our sales mix back then was 25 percent books, 15 percent Bibles, 25 percent music, 20 percent gift products and 15 percent other (like church supplies and Sunday school curriculum).

In the case of Family Christian, the inventory weight trended toward the non-book items over these past few years.

The Creditors

The biggest unknown in this process is whether or not the money owed to the various creditors will be paid. According to the filing there are over 2,200 total creditors (including the local municipalities in each store's location, presumably for sales taxes owed).

There is a considerable sum (upwards of $50 million) in secured debt with two banks, which will be first in line to get paid. Nearly half is from a revolving credit line which is part of a normal business operation. The balance is a term loan that financed the purchase of FCS in 2012.

What about all that money owed to publishers and other vendors? Their debt is classified as unsecured, which means it could be in jeopardy of being paid. This is an area in which I can only speculate, so it is best that I not try to do so. Instead we will watch carefully. While you might assume that larger publishers can absorb a financial hit, what about the little publishers and other vendors? For them, losing $50,000 might be the difference in keeping their doors open. It is all a matter of scale. Absorbing a $500,000 loss can be significant for any company.

Implications for Authors

What may be a dark cloud, despite my looking for a silver lining, is if publishers are not paid, authors won't be paid either. If a debt is unpaid, like the FCS debt, the sale is counted as if it never happened ... or as if the book was returned for credit. This means a negative sale on the ledger for that author.

If your contract has not earned out you may not "feel" the impact and will only take a little longer to earn out. If your contract has earned out and you see a regular check, you may see a slight dip in revenue.

But ...

Remember that FCS did not carry either breadth or depth in their book inventory. So it may be that your books were not being carried in their inventory and will not be affected. If however, you are a top-level best-selling author, you may see some negative activity.

But if you are a top-level best-selling author it is unlikely that FCS' sales were more than a small percentage of the total books sold. Or, as is the case with one of our clients, last Fall FCS placed a very large special order print run for one book (100,000 copies) and the publisher sold it to them at a very low price so they could offer it to their customers at a high discount. The concern is that the bill for this sale will not be paid because it is one of those unsecured debts and thus our client will not be paid.

Final Thoughts

Family Christian Stores may well come out of this difficult time in great shape. It is a tough time to be a retailer. We should hope and pray for a positive resolution. There are so many people involved in this process. Way beyond the 3,000 employees in this chain who are wondering if they will still have their jobs next year.

It is never good news to hear of a business in trouble. Let us try our best to keep our eyes where they belong in all this.

Steve Laube, president of The Steve Laube Agency, a full service literary agency based in Phoenix, Arizona, provided this material from his agency's daily blog post, stevelaube.com/blog.

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