Sprinkled like yeast throughout the two halls of this year's CIROBE will be a small but growing contingent of vendors and buyers specializing in Christian books and sidelines. This fermentation on both sides of the aisle comes, in the words of CIROBE cofounder Brad Jonas, "as people are aware that bargain is the way for Christian bookstores to stay alive. A lot of religion publishers have found this show a great way to meet those buyers, as well as those from general market and remainder companies."

It's a far cry from the show's early years, when Christian buyers and vendors were notable only for their absence. "There was very little Christian bookselling going on," Jonas reports. After a few houses specializing in religion tested the waters successfully—Eerdmans was the first, in 1992, according to CIROBE records—"they talked to their colleagues and got other publishers coming," notes CIROBE cofounder Marshall Smith. As vendors expanded their amount of Christian product, more customers interested in the category shopped CIROBE. They spread the word. "It feeds on itself," Smith says, adding, "The last four years, we've really been cooking. The longer the religion publishers exhibit at CIROBE, the better they get at it. They keep coming back, expanding their presence here and offering more books." Religion publishers, Jonas adds, "have been some of our strongest advocates."

An Easy Sell

Retailers, too, are enthusiastic. A decade ago, Mardel Christian & Educational Supply buyer Craig Stoll wanted to develop a bargain book section and decided to try CIROBE. He has attended every year since, often bringing a children's buyer. Since his first show in 1993, both the amount and quality of Christian product have noticeably improved, says Stoll, "both from those who specialize in Christian product and from general bargain book vendors." He specifically shops CIROBE for Bibles and adult trade titles.

Stoll has seen a "dramatic increase" this past year in customer demand for bargain product at the 19 Mardel superstores located in the south and central U.S. "People always appreciate a good value," he says, "but in tough economic times, it's even more important to them to stretch their dollars as far as they can." Besides the high margin and turn of bargain books, he continues, "the fact that customers can leave your store feeling like they got a really good deal is worth a lot—and will bring them back in."

According to SAS Discount Christian Books president Steve Slack, a diverse pool of retailers purchase the Christian book bargain assortments from independent grocery stores, drugstores, Barnes & Noble locations and mom-and-pop CBA stores. "When Christian publishers went to the mass marketers, books by Billy Graham, Max Lucado and Chuck Swindoll showed up on Wal-Mart shelves, and the Christian reader universe expanded," he tells PW. General market retailers, he adds, are now aware that Christian product sells. "The buyers might say 'hey, I'm not a Christian, but some of my customers are,' and they'll try some Christian books."

Although Jonas notes that they don't break out the number of buyers who come to CIROBE specifically looking for Christian books, "The sellers tell us they are there." Sam Eerdmans, v-p of sales for Eerdmans, says he began to notice more Christian bookstore buyers on the floor about three years ago. "There were none when we started," he notes. At Thomas Nelson, Barry Baird, executive director of bargain books, says that selling the mom-and-pop CBA stores and the CBA chains on doing bargain business has been a "long and slow process" but says, "I am pleased that more and more [of these]) stores are doing business with us."

A Walk on the Not-So-Wild Side

Even though only seven publishing houses that deal primarily in Christian titles have registered for this year's CIROBE as of early September (last year was an all-time high of 12), that's still a big jump from the first show in 1991, when there were no primarily Christian houses present. However, Smith is optimistic: "We never know final numbers until Friday morning—a lot of buyers and vendors show up late."

Most noticeable to CIROBE browsers is the proliferation of religion books that show up in the mixes of general-market remainder houses and university presses. At Marketing Resource, "Christian books are an important and growing part of our business," reports president Ed Grossman. Ten years ago, Grossman tells PW, his company had almost no Christian product at CIROBE. This year they plan to offer 500—600 SKUs of Christian books plus related Christian sidelines.

Seven years ago, Bargain Books Wholesale sales manager Debbie Smith said she brought only a handful of Christian titles to CIROBE. Now, she says, "we have more than 800 [Christian] titles out of our inventory of 3,000 books." She'll take nearly all of her Christian titles to the show because "the general-market bookstores want to see the religion material, and we believe there will be more Christian bookstores attending CIROBE."

Nelson's Baird went to CIROBE alone seven years ago with two display tables; this year, he's taking six tables and will bring three additional sales people. When Cecil Boswell, newly in charge of remainder and discount sales at Broadman & Holman, visited CIROBE in 1999 to see what it was all about, he chatted with Baird and his staff. "They encouraged us to have a booth," Boswell says. This year—his company's third at CIROBE—Boswell says, "I see the economy taking a turn in the right direction, so I'm expecting another good year."

Eerdmans took his books to CIROBE the second year of the show and hasn't quit going since. "It's the only remainder show we go to," he said, noting that sales are gradually increasing each year. Sales director Michael Thomson says that Eerdmans plans to offer about 100 titles this year.

David Brainard, president of the book bargain company Christian Book Clearinghouse, goes to CIROBE as a customer to meet with religion houses such as Moody and Zondervan to buy bargain books, which he resells at home school conventions and women's interest conferences, or through the company's Web site. In addition to finding Christian titles, CIROBE has had an unexpected side effect: "We've taken our blinders off to the other product, Brainard says, "and begun to consider the possibilities of carrying some general books."

During the three years Zondervan has had a stand-alone table at the show (they were part of a consortium exhibit early on), CIROBE bestsellers have included gift items such as Love Bears All Things plush bears and New International Version Bibles, as well as children's books, says sales administrator Janine VanDyk.

While the Christian presence continues to increase at CIROBE, Jonas notes, "we always want a little bit more. There are a variety of publishers and bookstores that might benefit by being there that still haven't got the word."

Those who have "gotten the word" include satisfied vendors such as Nelson's Baird. "If I had to do only one show per year—and we currently do seven—at this point in time, it would be CIROBE." And Mardell at Stoll says, "I still buy from some of the same vendors I first discovered at CIROBE 10 years ago. It's fun to find a great item at an incredible price, and you never know quite what you're going to find at CIROBE. It's the thrill of the hunt!"