When Choice Books added contact information to its books, sold on small stands in stores across the country, letters began pouring in.
Simon Schrock, executive director of the largest distributor of Choice Books, located in Manassas, Va., said each letter that comes into his office is saved, and staff try to respond to all of them. There are 27 boxes full.
One man wrote that a Choice Books title changed his life — and also that he was sorry he’d shoplifted it. He sent four times the cover price, $4.99, quoting Zacchaeus in Luke 19:8: “And if I have extorted anything from anyone, I’ll pay back four times as much.”
Schrock determined the store where the man stole the book and gave it the money.
A retired Beachy Amish bishop for Faith Christian Fellowship in Catlett, Va., Schrock is full of stories of mostly thankful letters for the Christian book-selling ministry, which he says in the early days they called “bookrack evangelism.”
The stories and letters indicate the success the unusual business has had since it began in 1962 — including reaching a milestone in January of selling 100 million books.
John Bomberger, CEO of Choice Books, came aboard in 1993, when the ministry was part of Mennonite Board of Missions, now Mennonite Mission Network. It reorganized as a limited liability company in 1998.
He said the endeavor was getting big for the mission board to manage along with their other initiatives. The LLC model allows cross-denominational involvement. Sales and expansion have made it largely self-sufficient.
Support comes from people in various churches — Mennonite Church USA, Church of the Brethren, Conservative Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and more.
“Without the church I don’t think we could do what we do,” said Bomberger, who works out of the central office in Harrisonburg, Va.
Congregations and conferences supply people to work at the seven distributor offices and 40 district warehouses around the country, which employ around 250. There are 11,350 Choice Books displays in the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Churches also provide donations, volunteers and access to networks for expansion.
Bomberger attributes reaching the 100 million milestone largely to the committed, sacrificial people engaged with Choice Books.
These are people like Schrock, 78, who is slowly transitioning out of responsibilities but will be involved as long as he is able.
One thing Schrock keeps on his to-do list is visiting the rack he helped established in the Pentagon in 1978. That year a colonel connected him with men at the Pentagon interested in getting a rack in the shopping area.
“It’s just a great privilege to be able to put Christian books in the military complex of the United States,” Schrock said.
Choice Books also has racks in Army & Air Force Exchange Service stores and a casino.
Bomberger said they work to find locations for book stands where people will run into them in their everyday lives.
“It’s an impulse purchase, so you can kind of catch people with a cover, with a title,” Bomberger said. “The displays are sized in a way that they can be put in almost anywhere.”
Choice Books purchases books from more than 80 publishers who want to get their books into a market they wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach, Bomberger said. They have people on staff or volunteers to review potential books along detailed guidelines, including how closely they align with Anabaptist theology.
Bomberger said many folks who live around Amish or Mennonite tourist areas assume Choice Books sells only cookbooks and Amish fiction.
In reality, most of their sales are in chain supermarkets, drug stores, hospitals, retirement homes and mass merchandisers. These displays are tailored to a more general audience.
“We try to find books that speak to encouragement,” he said. “We also try to have different price points on our books so that it’s affordable to anybody.”
Devotional books make up almost a quarter of the sales. Comfort for Troubled Christians is a consistently big seller.
Catchy titles often work well. People Can’t Drive You Crazy If You Don’t Give Them the Keys was a top seller for a while.
Once in a while they get negative feedback from people surprised to find the books are Christian, when the title and cover didn’t indicate as much. This happens more than it once did.
“Being Christian in this country is different than it was,” Bomberger said.
Schrock remembered complaints too, about Bibles on racks or theology they disagree with. But he said that’s maybe one out of a couple of hundred letters.
The business continues to grow, selling at least 5 million books a year.
“We know it’s making an impact, and we know that people are often moved by what they find in the books they buy,” Bomberger said.
Schrock said it’s the stories of people finding Jesus that stick with him, and that he believes the success is God-led.
“The spirit of God can prompt people to reach for a book whenever they’re in trouble,” he said.