Since its inception in 1745 as a seller of books for the Moravian Church in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, the Moravian Book Shop has thrived by evolving in response to the needs of its community. Early on, the store stocked mostly liturgical and devotional books for the use of Moravian churches, missions and schools and plied its trade over time in a variety of locations, including an inn across the Lehigh River, a brief stint in Philadelphia as both a printer and bookstore, and a YMCA building on Main Street.
Today the Moravian Book Shop occupies 14,000 square feet in four contiguous buildings on historic Main Street, the oldest of which was built in 1871. The store had a grand opening for a 2000-ft. expansion in March.
The shop still retains a relationship to the Moravian Church. (The church arose from a 15th-century Protestant reform movement in Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic.) The store is owned by the Ministers' Pension Fund of the Northern Province of the Moravian Church, and profits go to support the pension fund. The store's board of directors is appointed by the church, but maintains its independence. "The church is supportive of the idea that the bookstore should provide reading materials to the public and not be directed by the church," said Debbie Delgrosso, general manager.
The book shop's inventory of 10,000 to 15,000 titles includes general-interest books, as well as strong collections of fiction, local interest and religion. Though books remain the heart of the store (using about a third of the space), the many worlds of the Moravian Book Shop include a Moravian-Bethlehem room specializing in traditional items such as the multipointed Moravian Star, a music section with CDs and cassettes, a garden shop, a card and gift shop and a gourmet deli/café.
Diversity of the shop's offerings is what "saved the store," according to Delgrosso, especially after Barnes & Noble opened five years ago in Allentown, a 20-minute drive away. In fact, the Moravian Book Shop is the only independent in town that survived the arrival of the superstore. "When Barnes & Noble opened, we saw an immediate drop in sales," Delgrosso told PW. Adding to the competitive heat are Borders, which opened this April in Allentown, and of course, Amazon.com.
The Moravian Book Shop has fought back by maintaining its knowledgeable staff of seven long-time employees in the book department and a high level of personal service. "Service is exceptional," noted Elizabeth Walker, a retired librarian who has been a customer since she moved to Bethlehem from Philadelphia in 1964. "Unlike other stores, the staff loves and knows books. They know some of the subjects I'm interested in and either tell me about books or put them aside for me."
The shop puts an emphasis on special orders, claiming it can get books for customers as quickly as Amazon, with the bonus of a personal touch. "I can go in, and if there's nothing on the shelf I want, they will order without flinching, instead of pushing what they have," Walker commented. Personalized service became an important part of another customer's life four years ago when she was bedridden, recovering from a broken back. "I'm a great reader, and I got to know the staff at the Moravian Book Shop by phone," said Barbara Bray, a retired psychologist. "They would go out of their way to help order books and do book searches for me. When I was trapped in bed, they would chat a bit with me."
Children's books is another strength of the store, which has plans to develop the collection further. "There are more impulse purchases with children's books because they're so visual. Also, people ask our staff to help them make selections," said Jeanne Quinn, buyer and supervisor. The store holds a children's story time each Wednesday to bring in kids and parents and perhaps build future audiences. "My children feel close to the Moravian Book Shop. My mother brought them here to browse when they were young," recalled Delgrosso.
The store also supports three reading discussion books that meet on the premises and offers discounts to book groups at other locations, such as the local bagel shop. Books discussed range from Dorothy L. Sayers's The Nine Tailors (Harcourt Brace) to Phillip Pullman's The Golden Compass (Del Rey) for the Mother/Daughter Book Discussion Group. In addition, the shop holds special events, such as p try readings, local author day and a bridal weekend.
Despite tough competition, the Moravian Book Shop believed in the strength of business and community support enough to invest in the recent expansion. "Our decision was based on hope and optimism. Space became available, and it provided an opportunity for us," said Delgrosso. "We feel Bethlehem has a bright future. There are plans to expand the historic area downtown, which already has a viable Main Street. The Bethlehem Hotel is scheduled to re-open. The Smithsonian plans to start a museum in the Bethlehem Steel Works."
"Bethlehem is a good environment for us," Quinn told PW. "There are three colleges: Lehigh University, Moravian College and Northampton Community College. We have three museums within two blocks. The town is stabilized by the Moravian Church. And we have a magnificent public library. The cohesiveness of the community brings people into reading."
There seems to be a measure of economic stability in Bethlehem. Although Bethlehem Steel no longer manufactures steel in Bethlehem, it maintains its corporate headquarters there. As steel production waned over the years, town leaders had the foresight to ensure that investments were made in industrial parks, supporting a variety of businesses and employment.
As one meanders through the Moravian Book Shop, one feels a warmth of spirit that permeates the store. Books and gifts have been carefully chosen. There are comfortable spaces for browsing and sitting. Staff is available to answer questions, but not obtrusive. As customer Elizabeth Walker noted, the store serves as "a reminder that there are pockets in the world where people and books matter."
Kawaguchi writes about culture and business. She lives in White Plains, N.Y.