The 75-year-old Baltimore resident stood near the eight cash registers of the spanking new megastore--billed as the largest Christian bookstore in the world--with her hands full. She carried books for her great-grandchildren, a carton of the multigrain, nondairy beverage she drinks instead of cow's milk, and a vegetarian cookbook.
Sandwiched between a Target and a Petsmart, the 40,000-square-foot store has more than quadrupled in size from the nearby Takoma Park, Md., location it left behind.
"There's more room here," said Scott, a Seventh-day Adventist who has visited the store at its previous locations for more than 40 years. "Since it's so large, there's more to choose from. They have everything here."
Since early March, shoppers have trickled into the store ahead of its official opening on Sunday (April 9). Impressed by its size, they say they now find themselves having to resist the temptation of buying too many things.
Clyde Kinder, the store's general manager and a Christian retailer for 45 years, recalls being part of a staff of three at a mom-and-pop store in Lincoln, Neb. Though he says traditional stores continue to fill a niche, he thinks the small but growing number of megastores like his have become the best way to meet the multifaceted needs of Christian consumers.
"I think that is the future of the Christian bookstore market," he said. "The smaller stores just cannot carry enough product to fill every need that the people have and so in order to meet that demand and to meet that challenge you've got to go to the larger megastore."
Christian retailing experts confirm that Kinder's store is the biggest based on square footage, far exceeding the size of the average Christian bookstore, which covers 3,550 square feet. They say only about 5 percent of Christian stores could be considered megastores.
"I don't know of another one that's larger than 40,000 square feet," said Bill Anderson, president of CBA, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based organization of Christian retailers.
He said Christian stores--even ones that don't merit the "mega" prefix--are attempting to find ways to increase their inventory, sometimes stocking merchandise higher on their walls when they can't afford to expand their square footage.
"I think the depth and breadth of inventory is a very important part of successful retailing in order to compete with megastores and the Internet," said Anderson, referring to both secular and Christian stores.
Distinguishing itself from the nearby secular shopping establishments, the Potomac Adventist store has a life-size bronze statue in its entranceway that depicts Jesus washing the feet of his disciple Peter.
"What we want to do is we want them to recognize that we are a Christian store," Kinder said of potential customers. "We think that tells them."
Inside the store, there's no question about its mission. Steps away from the multiple sets of automatic doors are books by popular Christian authors James Dobson, T.D. Jakes and Chuck Swindoll.
Aisles are categorized by Christian interest topic, from a plethora of Bibles to volumes focused on family life, spiritual growth and money management to books aimed at particular demographic groups--African-Americans, teens, mothers, fathers, singles.
Although affiliated with the Potomac Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the store provides open accounts to local churches representing 23 other denominations. Kinder has found that non-Seventh-day Adventists far outnumber their Adventist customers.
Two women visiting from Florida stopped by the store to buy one book-- and found themselves heading out with several other inspirational texts on prayer and fasting.
"I wanted everything," said Mary Nightingale, 35, who attends a nondenominational church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was shopping with her godmother. "Everything you see, you want to buy it."
In the music section, Christian recordings ranging from pop to country are on sale in an area accented with a contemporary video screen, 20 listening stations and two booths for singers to try out accompaniment tapes. Gospel artist CeCe Winans already has paid a visit to the store for a book signing and contemporary Christian musician Sandi Patty is scheduled to present a mini-concert during the weeklong grand opening activities.
While books and music are the staples of any Christian bookstore, the Potomac Adventist store offers many of the elements of other megastores--including a gift section, a children's play area with a video screen featuring the popular VeggieTales animated series, and a small stage for book signings and performances. There's also a 200-seat auditorium in the back of the store that's being used for a weekly church service as well as meetings for local schools and pastors.
Additional touches aimed to keep customers comfortable--and coming back--include a baby grand piano shadowed by a few chairs and an electric fireplace and a nearby fountain with water cascading gently off the branches of the copper rosebush at its center.
"We call this our `Rose of Sharon,"' said Kinder, referring to a flower cited in the Bible's Song of Solomon.
Even before it moved to its much larger facility, the Potomac Adventist store had been cited by Christian Retailing magazine for seven years as being the Christian store with top sales. Last year, sales reached about $7.8 million and Kinder expects them to exceed $10 million this year.
One-fifth of the sales floor is filled with about 12,000 food items, cookbooks, cooking supplies and natural health and beauty aids, reflecting the Seventh-day Adventist Church's focus on healthy living. Nuts, grains and vegetarian alternatives to meats, seafood and soup are offered on shelves and in refrigerated and frozen sections. The Clinton White House used to order Boca Burgers, an alternative to hamburgers made with soy protein, from the store.
"Our motto is we care for your mind, body and soul and we think that the three portions of the person are all interrelated," said Kinder, whose store closes early on Friday and all day on Saturday to observe the Adventists' Sabbath.
Extending that theme in a manner that mirrors secular megastores, the Potomac Adventist store will feature a small cafe where customers can buy sandwiches and frozen fruit drinks.
"We'll be baking our own bread," Kinder said. "We'll have chicken nuggets--vegetarian, of course."
While the Potomac Adventist store carries vegetarian products, other Christian retailers--large and small--find other ways to be distinctive.
Mardel, an Oklahoma City, Okla.-based chain with most of its 15 stores exceeding 20,000 square feet, aims to provide local churches with office supplies.
"Churches have to buy copy paper somewhere," reasoned Jason Green, vice president of operations for the chain. "The bulk of our sales are Christian products."
Other smaller stores offer in-store concerts, free gift wrapping or hospital delivery of Christian products in lieu of flowers, said Anderson of CBA.
G. Sean Fowlds, associate editor of Christian Retailing magazine, said some customers might feel overwhelmed by the choices in a Christian megastore, but retailers that have gone this route seem to be successful.
"I honestly can't think of any example of anyone doing that and then regretting it and having to downsize," he said. "Once they build these large stores they tend to just grow from there."