Harvest Christian Bookstore deflects internet with customer service

Harvest Christian Bookstore has been serving the community since 1988, but moved to its current location in 2010. (Richard Foster-Shelton/MEDILL)

By Richard Foster-Shelton
Medill Reports

“In these times of online stores and books that can be delivered immediately to your favorite device, one independent bookstore on the South Side of Chicago has weathered the storm by turning to a very specific demographic: Christians.

Harvest Christian Bookstore, at 10600 S. Western Ave., specializes in Christian products. The business, which was founded in 1988 by Pastor Dorothy Jacobs of Consuming Fire Ministries, has gained a loyal following by prioritizing customer service over all.

“There were other bookstores when we opened and they didn’t have very good reputations,” Jacobs said. “The one thing that we were most concerned about was treating our customers well by serving them and ordering what they needed if we didn’t have it. We found our niche to serve the community the way they want to be served. Almost every Christian on the south side of Chicago knows about us.”

The customer service is well appreciated. James Henson, 54, of Chicago, lauds Harvest for its comfortability. “Harvest is my first home,” Henson exclaimed. “I can come in and walk around for hours. The environment allows me to listen to music while I look through the books and Bibles.”

Though it may be Henson’s first home, this is actually the bookstore’s second location. From 1988 to 2010 the store rented a 4,500-square foot space at 103rd and Western Avenue, three blocks from the current location. When the store had an opportunity to purchase the current location in 2009, Jacobs jumped at the chance.

“In the early 2000s, we began to look for another location where we could buy the building instead of renting,” Jacobs said. “We looked often but were unsuccessful until 2009. There was a store that was three blocks down the street from us that the bank had taken over. The store was about 6,000 square feet plus it had a 2,000-square foot basement. It was $400,000, so we used a lot of our savings for a down payment and then borrowed an additional $200,000 to renovate the store, which was gutted. We moved down the street in 2010 and have what most of our customers consider to be a nice store. It’s also an asset as opposed to renting.”

Harvest currently has six employees and is open Monday through Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. In its 2016 fiscal year it registered $1.25 million in revenue, which is a 1 percent decrease from $1.26 million in the prior year. The store has yet to compile an earnings statement for the 2017 fiscal year. “From 1995 on we were doing over $1,000,000 in gross sales and we continue to do that,” Jacobs said. “However, the internet became much more active starting in the late 2000s. We don’t blame the internet because a lot of the other Christian bookstores closed and we take advantage of the technology but it has definitely harmed our business.”

While Harvest continues to record gross receipts over $1,000,000, Jacobs feels the store could be doing better if not for the internet. “We believe we would be thriving more, constantly increasing business if not for the internet, but we believe that we’re going to be able to stay in business by taking advantage of the internet ourselves,” Jacobs expressed. “We’re in the process of building a website right now.”

While many chain bookstores such as Borders disappeared with internet dominance, Harvest has been able to stay afloat with a church-specific inventory. Jacobs indicated the heart of the business is Bibles but also pointed to regular orders from churches as a key component of sales.

“There are companies that produce quarterly materials for Sunday School and we sell a lot of that,” Jacobs said. “We have over 300 churches that have standing orders with us that we fill. Also as churches generally serve communion on the first Sunday of every month, we sell a lot of communion supplies as well. These scheduled purchases are very advantageous to us.”

It remains to be seen if Harvest will survive the technological age with its business intact. One unavoidable negative Jacobs pointed to is the age of the store’s devotees. “The proportion of age of our customers tends to be on the higher side because the younger people are much more tech-savvy,” Jacobs said. “Who wouldn’t get the same item by sitting on their couch using their phone, they can get it cheaper and get it delivered the next day? There are people who are loyal and want to make sure we stay in business but we have to sway some of the younger people.”

Photo at top: Harvest Christian Bookstore has been serving the community since 1988, and moved to its current, larger location, 10600 S. Western Ave., in 2010. (Richard Foster-Shelton/MEDILL)