Choice Books' faith-based paperbacks bring readers into the fold

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 10:09 PM

Simon Schrock recalls visiting Dulles International Airport with his daughter many years ago and being shocked to see Playboy magazines sold at one of its newsstands.

"She pointed at Playboy and said, 'Oh, Daddy, look there,'" said Schrock, 74. "I said, 'I'm concerned where this is going. What's it doing to the nation? What's it doing to young people?'"

So Schrock got involved. In 1968, the journeyman carpenter and part-time Anabaptist preacher persuaded a newsstand at National Airport to add 10 Christian titles to its racks. By the 1970s, he was selling 600 books every two weeks, he said.

By the 1980s, he'd helped found Choice Books, a Harrisonburg, Va.-based company that describes itself as a distributor of "inspirational, wholesome and family-oriented reading materials." Today, with eight offices stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf states and Northern Virginia, the company sells about 8,000 books a day, Schrock said - more than 5 million books a year through more than 10,000 kiosks at highway rest stops, drugstores, department stores and airports.

In a struggling book industry, faith-based books are a thriving, billion-dollar business, distributors said.

"Our drive is to offer the choice that will help people through their problems," said Schrock, who quit carpentry around 1975 to sell books full time. "I decided rather than fight against what you don't like, just offer an alternative."

But for folks who come across Choice Books at the New Jersey Turnpike's Woodrow Wilson service area or Wal-Mart - places where they're more likely thinking about gas prices than God - Schrock's alternative surprises. Choice Books is betting that the Bible proves as tempting to roadside shoppers as People magazine.

"Our activity is driven by the impulse purchase," says John Bomberger, chief executive of Choice Books.

Bomberger was attending Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg when he became interested in "blending business with wholesome reading materials." He joined Choice Books in 1993.

"People see a title - a felt need they might be wrestling with," Bomberger said. "It catches their attention. It's not in the level of chewing gum or Life Savers."

The distributor doesn't wade deeply into ecumenical theory or divisive evangelical politics. Some titles aren't even explicitly Christian. At a CVS on Vermont Avenue NW just south of Thomas Circle in the District, a Choice kiosk carries "Becoming Your Spouse's Better Half: Why Differences Make a Marriage Great" and "30 Days to Taming Your Tongue: What You Say (and Don't Say) Will Improve Your Relationships." Choice is less about pointing fingers at philistines than about, well, emulating Dr. Phil.

"These books try to give encouragement," Schrock said.

Although he's the author of eight books himself - including "What Shall the Redeemed Wear?," which holds that "Unisex fashion, garments, or hairstyles are outside the will of God" - and once had a letter to the editor on the importance of prayer in school published in the Washington Times, Schrock generally only weighs in on controversial issues when pressed. Politics aren't a preferred conversation topic. "I see my calling as higher than being a congressman or a senator," he said.

But if Schrock is reluctant to proselytize, plenty of authors aren't - and plenty of people are buying their books. Mark Kuyper, president of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association, said Christian reading material represents about 10 percent of the total book market, worth about $2.5 billion a year. Some Choice titles sell more than 50,000 copies a year at $8 to $14 a book, and obtaining access to big chains has been a boon for the company.

"One of the great challenges Christian publishing has faced over the years is getting rack distribution in a variety of general-market-type outlets," Kuyper said. "Years and years ago, Christian books were almost relegated to Christian stores. Now we have titles that sell a million-plus units. That exposure and availability through grocery stores has been fundamental to that growth."

Schrock, however, isn't interested in quarterly financials. He'd prefer to talk about his recent lymphoma struggles memorialized in his blog (simon.fcf-web.org), or how his Anabaptist ancestors split with other Protestants in 1525 over the baptism of babies. (Anabaptists believe children should not be baptized until they are of age to understand its meaning.) Or his son Ivan, who's a preacher at his church and a Choice Books employee.

Whether anyone buys his books isn't really important. For a Christian, he's quite Zen.

"You are a man who goes into CVS," Schrock said. "You have a choice to buy a lot of stuff. In one little corner, you have good, original books. If you don't want those, walk on."


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