Jean Bender and her Mennonite pastor husband Richard thought people in the suburbs should have access to Christian books without having to travel all the way to downtown Buffalo to visit the Sword and Shield, the area’s only Christian supply store in the 1950s.
So in 1953, with less than $500 worth of books and two sets of bookshelves, they started a Christian bookstore in their Williamsville living room.
“Our publisher said, ‘I don’t advise you to even think about making money for a very long time,’ ” said Jean Bender-Mast, who remarried after her husband’s death. “But our ministry was not to make money; it was to serve the community with Christian literature, so we went ahead.”
With just a high school secretarial course and some family bookkeeping experience, and while raising her young children, Bender-Mast built what was then called Bender’s Christian Supplies into a thriving local institution. She started with a few orders from local churches that bought Bibles and study materials, and, learning “just by doing – trial and error,” she built a customer base far and wide, with people traveling from Canada and Rochester just to visit the store.
More than 60 years later, Bender’s Parable Christian Store fills 13,500 square feet on Sheridan Drive in Clarence. The store has moved twice and expanded several times to keep up with demand.
“Back then, it was a lot easier to grow from scratch than is it now,” said Arden Bender, her son, who took the helm in 1991.
Today, Bender’s faces the same challenges as any brick-and-mortar retail store – consumers are bypassing the store in favor of Internet shopping.
That has been especially true for the store’s book sales, which have dropped dramatically. Books and Bibles were once the bulk of the store’s inventory, but with more and more people buying books online or using e-readers to use books digitally, books have dropped to less than 30 percent of the store’s sales. It doesn’t help that mainstream bookstores and big-box retailers such as Walmart and Barnes & Noble now carry the same Christian and inspirational titles that were once found only at Bender’s.
Bender’s has also been affected by the sea change in the music industry, with many consumers preferring to buy their music digitally or stream it through online services such as Spotify.
“We still sell a lot of CDs, but that type of sale has changed a lot over the last 15 years since iTunes started,” Arden Bender said.
The store now sells half as much music as it did 15 years ago.
“It has been tough,” he said.
To survive, the store has greatly increased its inventory of specialty gift items such as jewelry and housewares, and focuses on customer service.
It has also streamlined its operations, cut back its hours and joined the Parable franchise, which handles its online sales and does some marketing for the store. It also rents out part of its giant building to Kingdom Bound Ministries, which puts on the large Kingdom Bound music festival each year at Darien Lake.
But with sales down by 4 percent from 2012 to 2013, the future is not secure.
“Who knows where we’ll be in five years?” Arden Bender said.
He hopes the store will be right where it is. Not just for the sake of the business, but for the sake of the community.
“There’s going to come some Saturday when you realize you forgot to buy the Communion cups for tomorrow,” he said, “and now where are you going to get those things?”