By Lee Karl Palo
© 2012 Lee Karl Palo
Disclaimer: The following represents the opinion of Lee Karl Palo, and does not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Cokesbury or the United Methodist Publishing House.
The End of the Bookstore
Cokesbury has been a huge part of my life over the last twelve-plus years, so I thought I’d write about my time with them, since the decision was made to eliminate the bookstore chain. Cokesbury, for those who may not be familiar, is the retail arm of the United Methodist Publishing House (UMPH). There are currently three retail channels: a chain of bookstores, a call-center in Nashville, and Cokesbury.com. As of May 1, 2013, only the call-center and website will be available. My store, the “Seattle” Cokesbury Bookstore, will close on February 16, 2013.
My Discovery of Cokesbury
I first encountered Cokesbury while I was attending Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. I was living in an apartment complex off of 87th street with my friend Eldon Asher, a fellow student. At that time, there was also a Cokesbury bookstore on 87th street. I was curious, driving by there every day to go to school or work, so I thought I’d check it out. To my astonishment and delight, I discovered that Cokesbury carried books my seminary professors were recommending. I further learned that Cokesbury offered a discount to Seminary students. I was hooked! Previously, my only experience with Christian bookstores was that they had a theologically narrow (conservative evangelical) range of materials, and what they had generally didn’t have that much depth.
It was out Christmas shopping with my dad in December 1999 that I discovered the Cokesbury bookstore in Kirkland, Washington. I moved back home to WashingtonState after completing my coursework at Seminary the following Spring. I applied for a job at Cokesbury, thinking that it would be a great place to work while I finished my master’s thesis. I was initially hired as a part-time sales associate.
Working at Cokesbury
Cokesbury proved to be a wonderful place to work. UMPH is a ministry providing resources that support the work of local churches. The purpose of Cokesbury “is to provide quality resources and services that help people know God through Jesus Christ, love God, and choose to serve God and neighbor.” The United Methodist Publishing House is a non-profit, self-funded agency of the United Methodist Church (UMC). The UMPH is the official supplier for mainline denominations like the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and more recently, The Episcopal Church USA. This means Cokesbury has a very diverse clientele, though primarily among the aforementioned mainline denominations and others like the EvangelicalLutheranChurch in America (ELCA) and the United Church of Christ (UCC). I love the diversity!
I got to meet many wonderful people that we serve. Cokesbury’s clientele (at least at the Seattle store) is largely made up of clergy, church staff, and Christian educators. Most of them are well-educated, often seminary graduates. Since we have this in common, it makes for some great conversations. Between the resources we sell at the store, and stimulating conversations with our clientele, it has been like a continuing education experience. I also loved working in a store I knew was helping to equip and empower Christian pastors, mentors, leaders, and disciples. The books, curriculum, music, and even the gifts I sold were helping enrich the spiritual lives of people throughout the Pacific Northwest. The job I got in order to meet my own literary addictions quickly turned into a ministry for me.
In 2004, I was promoted to the full-time store supervisor position. When the manager, Lynne Kersten, left the company to pursue a new direction, I applied for the job and got the position in June 2007.I have been blessed with a wonderful staff. Nancy Apple, Sue Peebles, Darlene Pollard, Jeff Wakeley, Dorothy Taylor, and Frances Raabe have been great to work with. I believe strongly in the ministry that Cokesbury does, and my staff does as well. Being “in ministry” together has made us much more of a supportive, caring family than anything I had experienced in previous jobs. They’ve challenged me to grow professionally and spirituality, been patient through my “growing pains,” and encouraged me in many ways.
It is also nice to work under regional managers like Jane Roul and Paul Morales, who have provided me with guidance and support. During my time as the store manager, my staff and I have been able to exceed the “Market Sales” goals that were set for us in four out of six years, despite some challenging economic times. It is certainly a team effort! Each of us has our strengths, and when combined with a shared vision of the ministry of Cokesbury, we have done very well.
Working with Authors
When you are a store manager, you get all kinds of requests from local authors interested in having you stock the book they have just written. Often they are self-published authors who have to do their own publicity. In many cases you quickly discern why a book had not been chosen by an editor for mainstream publication. Some books would be worth stocking, but they were the exception. I also got to work with various authors to do book signings, at events and at the store itself. My first experience was with John Indermark, author of many books on Christian spirituality. John has a combination of brilliance and humility that makes him fun to talk with. Besides John, there have been many other authors I have enjoyed working with like Donald Schmidt and Michael Slaughter. I have also had the occasion to meet other wonderful authors like Marcus Borg, Adam Hamilton, Robert Stephen Reid, James Rubart and others through my work at Cokesbury. Not all successful authors are quite so approachable, as I would later discover, but the “book nerd” in me has thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to meet the men and women behind the works I admire.
Being the store manager afforded me the opportunity to travel to the UMPH headquarters in Nashville. I’ve been delighted to get to know many of the people there at the Publishing House itself. I find many aspects of publishing to be fascinating; for instance, Cokesbury published a catalog called Good Books. After putting in a couple of inquiries about taking part in the book selection process as a member of the Good Books committee, I was thrilled to be selected. It was a lot of fun working with other managers like Yvonne Armstrong, Chett Pritchett, and Su Friedman, as well as Renee Jenkins (who put the catalog together) and merchandising director Dick Malone from the Publishing House. We searched through book catalogs together, choosing the best books we found, and we were also given presentations from some publishers like Westminster/John Knox Press (WJK) and Abingdon Press (the publishing division of the UMPH) on current and upcoming works. Not only did I get a preview of exciting things to come, I got to use my experience to help recommend material for the entire Cokesbury chain. It felt great to have my opinions respected and used for something that makes a difference, but it was also very humbling to be part of something so important and widespread.
Cokesbury has been my ministry for the last twelve-plus years. It is a great feeling when you find the right book or resource for someone and knew it will help foster someone’s spiritual growth. Bibles especially are an important part of the work we do. I love listening to customers tell me what they would like in a Bible, and then finding the Bible that best fits his or her needs. Imprinting a person’s name in a Bible is also a special thing—you know the Bible will be an important part of that person’s spiritual life. It is a privilege and a responsibility to have been able to help people along on their own spiritual journeys of faith.
I have also been ministered to by many of the pastors and others that come to my store. I have established many relationships that have, and will continue to be a part of my life beyond Cokesbury. When my wife and I were married in 2008, Rev. Cecilia Clemons, who I met through my work at Cokesbury, was our wedding singer! We also joked that, if anything happened to the pastor performing the marriage ceremony, we had many other pastors to step in. I know, even after the store closes, these will still be some of my most treasured friendships.
Working for Cokesbury has been a blessing to me. I have enjoyed interacting with our customers and my co-workers around the company. I feel like I have been part of something great. I will certainly miss my fantastic staff, the longtime customer relationships, and knowing I was getting paid to do what I love: helping people find the resources they need to grow in their faith. I am not sure what the future will bring after the store closes. Whatever the case, I do plan to continue writing. As many people know, I love books, so I will shop with Cokesbury in the future. Why are the stores are closing, you may be asking? I’ll suggest checking out cokesburynext.com for the specifics. Suffice it to say that, while I am not happy about it, there are some good reasons. When February 2013 arrives, it will be hard to say goodbye to Cokesbury; it hurts to lose a job you love and a ministry that feeds your soul as much as it does others. God has got another path for us from here, I just hope it will involve discounts on books…
© 2012 Lee Karl Palo