Article: 20 Pieces of Advice for Establishing a Church Bookstall
by Justin Sok (original source D.C., we’ve served as deacons of our church’s bookstall for several years. As a result, we’ve learned a lot about what to do—and not do—when it comes to maintaining a bookstall. We hope these reflections are helpful to every church that wants to instill sound doctrine in their members through books that are both affordable and faithful.
But before we say anything else, let’s be clear. The goal of a church bookstall isn’t actually to sell books. It’s a discipleship tool. Your goal is not to include every Christian book you can, or even every good Christian book you can. The goal is to highlight the particular books you really want your congregation to read.
For that reason, our church treats book selection as a pastoral responsibility. Every book on the book stall has been added by a pastor. You can buy any book in the world on the internet. But a bookstall is where a church gets to hear from its pastors about what’s worth reading.
1) Budgeting To Start A Bookstall
You’ll need some money on-hand to start. How much? It depends on how big you want your inventory to be. If we estimate that each book could be purchased by the church for $10, you could buy 400 books for $4,000. If you have 5 copies of each title, that means you could carry 80 different titles. You can scale that estimate up or down depending on the size and needs of your congregation.
You’ll also need to set aside some money for shelving and a system to accept payments. You could find a cheap cash box for under $25 if you wanted to accept only cash and checks. If you want to use an electronic point-of-sale system like Square Register, the estimates would jump to around $700, including $100 for a cash drawer, $400 for a tablet to run the app, $50 for a credit card reader, and $30 for a barcode scanner. Some of those items can be found here. Since each church’s shelving may vary widely, we don’t have an estimate for how much shelving would cost.
It’s important to determine in advance how accessible the books will be to the congregation. At our church, we leave all books out at all times. The advantage to this is that the books are on hand when pastors or church members want to give them away for discipleship or evangelism. The disadvantage is that some books get taken off the bookstall outside sales hours are and subsequently unaccounted for. (People take books and then forget to leave cash or pay during normal hours.)
The cost of such an open policy will vary based on the size of the church, size of the bookstall, and use made of the bookstall by church staff and members. At our church, the deacon of the bookstall is responsible for regularly reminding staff and the congregation to properly account for books taken during off hours. These regular reminders have decreased the cost of an open policy.
3) Pricing – General Policy
Our goal is to sell books at the lowest possible price that permits the bookstall to be self-sustaining. We don’t sell our books exactly at cost, but the prices are low enough that total revenue is approximately equal to the total cost of the books. Our costs include the books, the price tags (perhaps $20 per year for the several thousand price tags we use), and a credit card swipe fee. The church budgeted for the newly installed electronic point-of-sale system; it wasn’t paid for from bookstall revenue. We also build sales tax into the price.
Since neither of us were here when the bookcases were installed, we don’t know if they were purchased or constructed. Nonetheless, we have several of them built in at the back of our auditorium. This means the books are easily accessible. That said, our corner layout does cause some traffic problems after the morning service.
Our books are organized alphabetically by author within several categories: Christian Living, Christ & Culture, Bible Study Aids, Commentaries, Theology, Marriage & Family, Children, History, Women, Church & Worship, and Pastors’ Books.
5) Hours Of Operation
Our bookstall is operated by volunteers and is open for business immediately following all public gatherings. We stay open for at least 30 minutes after and try to remain open until everyone is done looking.
After years of only accepting cash and checks, our church recently invested in a point-of-sale (POS) system called Square Register, which we mentioned above. It works very well, but it does charge a 2.75% swipe fee on credit card purchases. It also tracks inventory, which has been hugely helpful and saved lots of volunteer hours.
Even though churches are tax-exempt organizations, our local DC law requires us to collect and remit sales tax. This is a matter of state tax law and is something your church should look into before setting up a bookstall. Another potential tax issue is UBIT (unrelated business income tax). Most churches do not need to pay income tax on their book sales, but this is also something you should examine with advice from qualified professionals. Square makes it easy to add sales tax and inform the IRS of payments collected.
Before switching to an electronic point-of-sale system, we used a paper sales sheet to track sales. The sales sheet was a computer spreadsheet that was sorted by author for ease of use by bookstall volunteers. The volunteer printed this sheet for each bookstall opening, marked the books sold, and then totaled up the sales after they closed. They then balanced the sales against the cash/checks received. A photocopy of the last page of the sales sheet went into an envelope with the cash and checks for the church staff member who deposited funds. This was a cumbersome process, but it could be useful if you are just starting out and don’t want to invest in an electronic system.
Square offers a way of tracking inventory and setting up alerts when an item is low or out of stock. But due to the problem we noted earlier, it’s advisable to check the inventory regularly in order to catch any discrepancies between Square’s count and what’s actual available. Ideally, this would happen about once a quarter, but we haven’t had a volunteer to help with this for a couple years now. Most of the time, we find out that Square’s inventory count is wrong when someone asks, “Hey, where is such-and-such Don Carson book?”
8) Buying Tax-Free
We recommend applying for a certification of tax exemption from your state government. Such a certification allows you to make tax-free purchases on behalf of the church.
There’s no real science to ordering books. We try to maintain full shelves by ordering based on current inventory levels, the popularity of given books, and special events or situations that will lead to a spike in demand. For example, sometimes a Bible Study leader will let us know that their group will be going through, say, The Holiness of God by RC Sproul. In such cases, we’ll add that into our calculation as we determine how many copies of that book to order.
For most books, we try to have between 2-5 copies on the shelves and ready to go, but we often order in bulk if we’re fairly certain a book will sell. For example, we buy lots of copies of Who Is Jesus? by Greg Gilbert because people keep buying them and giving them away. So we might order a case of 40 copies and store what doesn’t fit on the shelves in a closet.
We purchase a lot of our books from IPAGE/Spring Arbor. On most items, these distributors sell for 41 percent off the retail price. Some are discounted more, some less. You would need to set up an account with IPAGE, and we believe they require you to have a tax exemption certificate (see number 8 above). Another good option is Westminster Seminary’s bookstore. Sign up for their promotional emails. They send out lots of good deals, and their clearance section is usually good. We also occasionally purchase in bulk or individually directly from publishers like Crossway, New Growth Press, Good Book Company, Matthias Media, and Banner of Truth. You might consider calling them and see what kind of options they have for church bookstalls. We rarely purchase from CBD and Amazon for hard-to-find books, since their prices are usually higher.
10) Receiving Books
When orders come in, we first check them against the packing lists to see if books are missing from the order or if any books are damaged.
11) Pricing Books
As mentioned earlier, we price all books at an even dollar amount so we don’t have to deal with coins as change. We fold DC’s 5.75% sales tax into these even dollar amount prices on the back of the book. We also fold Square’s 2.75% credit card swipe fee into the even dollar amount, since most purchases at our bookstall are made by credit card. In our situation, then, we’re adding 8.5% onto the purchase price.
For example, let’s say we purchase a book from IPAGE that costs $4.25. We would then add 2.75% to the purchase price, which equals $4.37. Using the DC tax spreadsheet, we would “round up” and charge $4.73 plus tax—$5 even. In this case, the bookstall is making $.36 in “profit,” but this goes to offset disappearing inventory and the cost of adding new books. How much to charge is a matter of wisdom for each church. You may want to set prices higher if you’re trying to earn back some of the money that was budgeted to start the bookstall, or if you’re adding more titles to your inventory. The bottom line is this: if we buy a book for 41% off the retail price and add 8.5% for taxes and fees, then we can typically sell it to the congregation for 30-33% off the retail price, which is pretty great.
We use white, round Avery labels (1/2” in diameter) for price stickers. You can simply write the price on the label, or it is easy to download a template from Avery and print a sheet of stickers.
12) Cash Box
We started out using a small metal cash box, one that we purchased for under $20. It stayed in a safe when the bookstall wasn’t open, and we kept small bills in it for change. When we switched to Square, we purchased a locked electronic cash box that’s connected to the Square app. When a cash payment is accepted, the Square drawer opens. We keep $100 in ours (Usually about $50 in ones and $50 in fives/tens), though a smaller bookstall may not need to keep so much change on hand. Every month or so we run low on one dollar bills and replenish them from the bank.
13) Adding Titles
Books are added to our bookstall only by pastoral staff. Frequently, members will request that a book be added, and the answer is always to talk to a pastor. This helps maintain a level of confidence in the books on the bookstall, particularly that an elder has recommended each title. In addition, with limited resources for purchasing and shelving books, we simply can’t add every book someone finds useful.
14) Special Orders
Sometimes people will ask us to order a book that we don’t carry on the bookstall. Often, we’ll say yes to such a request, though sometimes it requires too much trouble, and we’ll simply suggest a place they could purchase the book elsewhere.
15) Subsidized Books
Some books are so valuable—and so expensive—that a church may decide to subsidize the sale of that book. We’ve done this occasionally in the past, but not in recent years. One example was the book Christianity Explained. At the time, it was available from Scripture Union in the US and cost $17 per copy. Because our pastors wanted to encourage the use of this evangelistic Bible study, we sold it at $11, including tax.
16) Shipping Orders
Because we sell at cost, we sometimes get requests to ship books to purchasers around the country. We refuse these requests for at least two reasons. First, the strain on our volunteers would be great. Second, it would reduce the quantity of books available on our bookstall for purchase by our members and visitors. In addition, we suspect (but do not know) that there would be income tax implications if we began selling in such a way.
17) Gift Certificates
We do sell gift certificates, but we don’t track them. The only control is that they require the signature of a bookstall volunteer. Their sale is noted on the last page of our Sales Sheet. They’re treated as cash when received for payment.
Square allows the customer to receive a receipt either by text message or email. We used to do paper receipts, but have had few complaints since we switched to electronic receipts only.
Square allows returns through its system. When we used a cash/check system, we limited the number of returns to keep things simple, and if you use such a system, it might be good to post an “all sales final” sign.
20) Odds And Ends
Our church has a separate bank account for the church bookstall, so that the deacon can have his/her own credit card to make purchases.
It might also be a good idea to set up a bookstall email address, so that if others after you manage the bookstall, they can get the login and have access to previous emails you’ve sent. That’s been helpful for us, especially when we’ve had questions about what previous deacons have done in the past.