After 17 years on Broad Street, the Gadsden Christian Bookstore will cease operations on Dec. 31.
Although ‘store’ was part of the company’s name, owner Bart Watts believes that his job entailed much more that a means to move merchandise.
“I wasn’t really thinking about it when I first got into the business, but it became apparent after a very short time that [the job] was very much a type of ministry,” he said. “I had quite a number of people coming in who looking for answers to a spiritual question and wanting to grow in their Christian lives.”
Since the internet was in its relative infancy in the mid-to-late 1990s, Watts and his wife Susan soon found themselves recommending a book or a music CD to a great many people who nowadays would use a mouse click for the exact same purchase.
“People pretty much had to come to a Christian bookstore back then if they wanted a Bible or church supplies, so for a while we were a viable resource in that area.”
Watts also carried greeting cards, gift items and church supplies, and later provided curriculum for of home-schooled children.
The emergence of the internet resulted in a gradual decline in the store’s sales, however, and Watts eventually saw the writing on the wall.
“Quite honestly, I could see this day coming about four or five years ago,” he said. “The internet was the biggest factor, but other businesses like Wal-Mart, Books-a-Million and the chain Christian bookstores began to sell our products. It’s very hard to compete with that.”
A 1983 Southside High graduate, Watts attended Gadsden State and Jacksonville State before working for his father at Watts Construction, Inc. The elder Watts transferred the family business to Bart and his twin brother Brett in 1987. Bart remained in the construction business until 1993, when he sold his share of the business to Brett and struck out on his own.
Watts’ opportunity for a career selling books came sooner after, albeit in an ironic way.
“I was in the library one day actually looking for a bookstore that might be for sale,” he recalled. “I found one [for sale] in Anniston, and about a month later I was the owner of a bookstore. I always liked books and music, and opening a Christian bookstore was something that I had always wanted to do.”
Watts commuted to Calhoun County until 1994, when he purchased the original Gadsden Christian Bookstore, which since 1979 was housed where the current Elegant Moments is located on the 400 Block of Broad Street. Two years later, Watts moved the business to its current location at the corner of Broad and Fifth streets.
Watts cited the store’s downtown located as an invaluable advantage, in terms of both accessibility and store traffic.
“I had the opportunity to get to know so many people over the years, and some of them became friends. I got to meet a lot of folks that I would not have gotten to know otherwise. The people who came in on a regular basis were so much more than customers. Just the joy of knowing that we were able to recommend products that in some cases changed people’s lives is very special.”
Married in 1988, Bart and Susan have three children – Sam, age 21; Jill, age 19; and JoBeth, age 13.
Watts pointed out that the kids practically grew up in the store and now are valuable employees.
“For the past three or four years, Susan and Sam have practically run the store,” said Watts, who earned a Biblical Studies Degree from Southeastern Bible College in 2005. “All three of our kids can pretty much do any job in the store. We’ve also had Mary Stearns for several years. She owned a bookstore downtown for 50 years, so she was a really big help.”
The family will continue to operate Watts Promotional Products, a side business that Bart and Susan began in 2004 and is located in a small office on Broad Street next to the bookstore.
“It doesn’t take up a lot of space, so we’ll still offer church resources,” Watts said.
Watts is not bitter about the decreased volume of business. In fact, he doesn’t blame potential customers for choosing a Christian website instead of visting 434 Broad Street.
“We’ve tried to look at it from the point of view that people around here are still buying Christian products. It’s just that they’re buying them somewhere else. Even if it means us closing our doors and people spending their money somewhere else, anytime you can get the message of the love of Christ out, it’s a very good thing.”