CROSSROADS: The imminent closure of a number of key LifeWay Christian Stores is having n impact on the world of music. In recent months, the venerable chain has released albums of new material on its own label by prominent Christian artists, including Beautiful Name, the acclaimed 2018 collection by long time Blitz Magazine favorites, Point Of Grace. Editor/Publisher Michael McDowell takes a look at the short term nd long range impact below. (Click on above image to enlarge).

By Michael McDowell

The timing is somewhat ironic.

Just days prior to the annual Record Store Day holiday (which falls on the thirteenth of April this year), the venerable LifeWay Christian Stores has announced that it will cease operations at an unspecified number of its brick and mortar outlets across the nation. 

LifeWay has been a fixture in the Christian book and (eventually) the Christian music industry since its founding in Nashville, Tennessee in 1891. With the closure of the Family Christian Bookstores chain in May 2017, LifeWay became the de facto industry leader across the United States.

The move comes just as major music outlets across the nation have reported modest to impressive sales gains in recent months. While the majority of LifeWay's focus has been on books, music CDs also accounted for a significant percentage of its trade. 

But such promising developments were apparently not enough to fend off what the company regards as an inevitability.

"We....continue to see an erosion in the brick-and-mortar channel", said LifeWay President Thom Rainer in an e-mail memo to employees.

In recent years, various independent churches across the North American continent have endeavored to sustain the momentum by hosting bookstores on their own campuses. The results have varied.

To wit, NorthRidge Church in Plymouth, Michigan opted to close its modest bookstore in 2018, when the church began a massive remodeling of its campus facilities. Conversely, Windsor Christian Fellowship in Windsor, Ontario has continued to enjoy brisk trade with its on site book, music and gift outlet. 

Most notable among the success stories is the thriving book store on the campus of Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California. Its sustainability is due in no small part to a significant portion of their inventory being comprised of the staggeringly prolific output of their beloved long time Senior Pastor, John MacArthur. 

So do these developments infer a victory for the online contingent?

"It does to a degree", said one LifeWay staffer.

"But there are other factors behind it".

Current plans call for the cessation of operations at key locations in the coming months. To that effect, LifeWay's outlet in Clearwater, Florida is facing what one long time customer referred to as, "immediate closing". In turn, LifeWay's heretofore successful outlet in Toledo, Ohio will remain open until late June, with other select outlets persevering until year's end.

In the wake of this announcement, related retailers have taken decisive steps to pick up the slack. To that effect, one burgeoning thrift store in the so-called Amish Country of central Ohio has done their part by offering a fascinating selection of rare early Gospel vinyl releases, which the facility touts as, "The best from back in the day". And as always, the quick to react Ollie's Bargain Outlet chain (which specializes in merchandise overstocks and close outs) has also done its part by devoting a significant percentage of its sizeable book department to Bibles and related Christian literature. 

But for the music enthusiast, LifeWay's downsizing means a setback of sorts. Lifeway has in recent years released a number of collections of new material by prominent artists on its own label, including Beautiful Name, the acclaimed 2018 release by long time Blitz Magazine favorites, Point Of Grace.

Presumed practicalities notwithstanding, LifeWay's announcement has met with no small amount of concern from staff and consumers alike. The employees of the aforementioned outlet on Talmadge Road in Toledo, Ohio took the extraordinary step of posting an oversized sympathy card on the store's bulletin board, encouraging patrons to sign the card with professions of solidarity with the staff, as well as expressing their concerns to corporate management. The response has been encouraging.

Meanwhile, for those musicologists and record collectors who include Gospel among your genres of choice, instead of waiting for the arrival of Record Store Day, stop by a LifeWay facility and offer a bit of tangible support to the artists you love, as well as to a retailer that has gone to great lengths over the years to ensure their ongoing accessibility.