FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, the Jointly Maintained Christian Science Reading Room in the heart of downtown San Diego, California, has operated in the black. The term operating in the black is used loosely (not based on a classic profit model). Getting our Reading Room on the positive side of the ledger is largely due to the generous donations of more than a dozen area Christian Science churches, as well as individuals we affectionately call the "Friends of the Reading Room." However, our sales are really quite good, considering most are from public rather than member sales. Even while continuing to raise funds, our primary business focus is to increase activity and sales—with the long-term goal of the Reading Room becoming completely self-supporting.
Last year we also completed a massive renovation to make our space more current, relevant, and inviting—like other retail space in the community. Since reopening, we have served some 1,500 people, the vast majority of whom had never heard of Christian Science or stepped into a Reading Room before.
Our storefront Reading Room has been in its current location for over 35 years. We have a part-time paid librarian, a couple of paid attendants, and a dozen volunteers on staff. Our doors are open 50 hours a week. Our technology is comprised of three state-of-the-art computers—one maintains our inventory through a new POS (Point of Sale) system that accepts credit cards. Another is used as a CD listening station and research computer, and also provides access to Christian Science websites. The third computer runs a 24/7 informational and product-related slide show on a plasma display monitor in our front window.
It hasn't always been this way. Until about 15 to 20 years ago, downtown San Diego was a very rough area of town, especially at night. A committed and loyal Reading Room staff kept the storefront open during the day and up to eight o'clock at night, making sure the healing message of Christian Science was available where it was most needed in our community. And yet, despite its prominent location, this Reading Room was largely in "survival mode" rather than fulfilling its perpetual promise. Support for the Reading Room continually waned. Modest sales provided little relief. Even as the downtown enjoyed a resurgence, we weren't experiencing a corresponding increase in visitors. We had gotten into a "hand-to-mouth" financial mentality. Something had to change.
Just think—for the price of a good lunch or a couple of lattes, someone can walk out of the Reading Room with direct access to the divine Comforter in their hands.
When I became my church's representative for the Committee of the Jointly Maintained Reading Room six years ago, our church invited a representative from The Mother Church in Boston to talk with us about Reading Rooms. The workshop had a significant impact on me. I asked the facilitator one question: "To the best of your knowledge, does any Reading Room in the world operate in the black [cover all its costs through profit from sales]?"
The answer was—a very tender but forthright, "No."
Hearing that was like hearing that a friend was dying and had little hope for recovery. The same mental protest that I would have felt for that friend welled up in me. I just could not accept that the very place designed to connect the public to everything good the Christian Science movement has to offer could suffer, financially or otherwise.
In the Church Manual, referring to The Christian Science Publishing Society, Mary Baker Eddy stated: "The net profits of the business shall be paid over semi-annually to the Treasurer of The Mother Church" (p. 80). Mrs. Eddy must have expected all the business entities of her church—including Reading Rooms—to turn a profit. Several of the early Reading Rooms located in major cities such as Chicago and New York reported annual sales of up to $27,000 (see Christian Science Sentinel, Feb. 10 and Feb. 24, 1906)—in today's money about $500,000.
And why shouldn't we expect this today? The primary book sold in Reading Rooms, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, is the full revelation of Truth. This book reveals God's laws of health and harmony. These laws enabled Christ Jesus to demonstrate God's presence and power through healing. And anyone understanding these laws can follow Jesus' directive to go and do the same. What a powerful appeal the ideas in this book have for everyone seeking freedom from the frailties of the human condition! Our need is to find ways to help people find Science and Health. I am constantly asking: "How can we maximize our Reading Room location? How can we more ably let the public know that this space is our gift to them?"
In my own prayers to find an answer to the lack of profitability and public response, I thought of Jesus' reassurance: "In my Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2). I considered the promise of abundance implied in that statement. I thought of the Reading Room as our Father's house, and that a mansion often accommodates hundreds of people.
Christian Science is universal, so anyone of any religious or philosophical background (or none at all!) can find an understanding of God and His spiritual creation in a Christian Science Reading Room. The resources available are vast and can speak to anyone, no matter where they are on their spiritual journey. Just think—for the price of a good lunch or a couple of lattes, someone can walk out of the Reading Room with direct access to the divine Comforter in their hands.
After that initial Reading Room workshop, those directly connected with the Reading Room considered the Manual provision which states that the librarian "shall have no bad habits..." (p. 63). We concluded that doing the same thing over and over again without thinking or asking ourselves, "Does this still serve its purpose?" could be considered a bad habit. We asked ourselves, "What is possible?" And then we were willing to try new ideas—be flexible in our approach and challenge ourselves not to be limited by old thinking. We tried new ways of relating to our customers. We asked ourselves, "How are we presenting our products? Are we displaying them in a manner befitting the love and professionalism that has produced them?"
One idea that emerged was the plasmascreen slide show mentioned earlier. In an effort to make the Reading Room more cost effective, we now advertise many of our products through this medium, rather than printing a poster that will be dated in a couple of weeks. Also, though our doors are open nine hours a day Monday through Friday, they are closed at night. The Reading Room is situated directly in front of a trolley stop. Hundreds of people every day wait up to 15 minutes to board the trolley, with little to do or read. The simple idea of keeping the slide show running on the plasma screen has helped us "stay open" round the clock and share Christian Science with these commuters. Not long ago, a trolley cop came into the store after having spent time perusing the slide show when we were closed. She left with a Science and Health in her hands.
Since renovating our space, we've noticed a tremendous influx of young people who are naturally drawn to it and the fresh approach Christian Science has to dealing with life's challenges. For instance, I recently sold Science and Healths to two twenty-something men. One was visiting San Diego for a week as a serviceman in the Air Force. He ministers to Christian youth and was excited to learn about the concepts found in Science and Health. The other, the son of a pastor, was fired up to learn about the book and its healing relevance. He plans to read and share it with a friend who is also interested in healing. A young single mother came in who had never heard of Christian Science until she bought a Science and Health a few months ago. Her life had been in turmoil. She stopped by to tell us how her life has turned around since studying Science and Health.
The presentation of the Science of Christianity should always be fresh, new, changing, always relevant to the people of today.
At the Reading Room we know where our bread is buttered. Each day starts with metaphysics. Like The Mother Church Reading Room in Boston, we have a "prayer team." A designated member of the team, who is off-site, gives the Reading Room and the community a Christian Science treatment every day, and has contact with an attendant at the beginning and end of the day. This support has helped tremendously, and has engaged church members in a meaningful way.
As I see it, our Reading Room's story isn't about having "made it," but rather getting out of a "defensive mode" and boldly trying new and innovative things. Not all ideas stick, but we simply move on and try something else. The Science of Christianity is a law, and it is perfect and unchanging. However, the presentation of this Science should always be fresh new, changing, always relevant to the people of today. Reading Rooms will always be a work in progress.
As I walk to the Reading Room, I test my level of expectation for that day by asking myself, "If Jesus was doing a book signing today at the Reading Room, would anyone show up?" Of course—the line would be out the door! And yet, we have the next best thing—the understanding that the Christ, Truth, is as present today as it always has been, and that the divine Comforter is for all. If this fact were more widely known, the sale of Science and Health and related products would make the buying frenzy of a new iPhone release pale in comparison. That is what Christian Science Reading Rooms are tasked to do—get the word out, and do it with joy!
CHURCH ALIVE: WHAT WORKS? Send us YOUR ideas—what's helped to broaden or enrich your branch church, Reading Room, Sunday School, lectures, or any other church-related activities. Your fellow church members around the world want to know! E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And please put "Church Alive" in the subject line.
Doug Powell lives in San Diego and is currently serving as the Reading Room Manager/Librarian for the Jointly Maintained Christian Science Reading Room there.
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