By JOHN FORTMEYER
EUGENE — A steady drop in the number of Christian bookstores in the Northwest in recent years is accelerating soon with the suddenly announced demise of the nine-store Tree of Life Christian Outlet chain in Oregon, Washington and northern Callifornia.
The stores will close around July 3.
The end of the Eugene-based chain, which started with one store in 1987 and grew to as many as as 11 locations at one point, is painful for owner Mark Schoepke.
“The decision to close our business has been heart-wrenching, as it has provided so many ministry opportunities,” Schoepke wrote in a prepared statement about the closing. “Many of our employees have partnered with us for over 10 years, a few over 20 years. They are an extension of our family.”
Schoepke has more than 40 years experience in retail management and ownership, and has served on several Christian bookseller advisory boards. But changing times in retailing make it impossible for the chain to continue, he said.
“My wife and I have prayed and sought advice from leaders in our industry,” he said. “”Unfortunately, our sales have dropped considerably and our operating costs continue to rise.”
He said the “increase of books, CDs and DVDs that are digitally sold has dramatically affected our business,” and more people are buying directly through the Internet.
The problem isn’t limited to just regional chains. America’s largest Christian bookstore chain, Famiily Christian Stores, in recent weeks indicated it would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection but backtracked on that because of objections from creditors. However, that company said it does not expect to close any of its more than 250 stores nationally – including one Oregon store in Bend – nor lay off any of its approximately 4,000 employees.
In the case of Tree of Life, however, there also is personal factor involved for Schoepke; he is battlling Parkinson’s disease and says that might be the biggest factor in the decision to close.
The closing stores are in Eugene, Troutdale, Lincoln City and Seaside in Oregon; Centralia, Auburn, Tulalip and Burlington in Washington; and near Redding, Calif. The chain earlier shut down a Springfield location and sold a Corvallis store that is now Willamette Valley Christian Supply.
The shutdown of Tree of Life is the largest such action among Christian bookstores in this region since Robert Pamplin Jr. closed his Christian Supply stores throughout the Willamette Valley in 2009. That chain at its peak operated 20 stores, but had dwindled to five before closing completely.
An annual project of Tree of Life stores has been a Bible drive, and the company has sent tens of thousands of Bible to Africa over the years.
Schoepke said he also has a multitude of stories about “divine appointments” over the years with customers and friends who have been blessed by the ministry focus of the stores, and who have in turn, blessed the store staff.
“We really are heartbroken to give those up,” said Schoepke.
He said the closures will mean layoffs for the more than 65 staff, including part-timers, in the chain. But he said he and they are keeping in mind Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”