- The Washington Times - Monday, December 4, 2000

Potomac Adventist Book and Health Food Store is the rare Christian retailer that does not see Christmas as a make-or-break sales season.

Called the "world's largest Christian bookstore," the Silver Spring business generates only 15 percent of its record-setting income during the holidays.

The key to such year-round earning power, its management said, is a growing American market for health food and for a diversity of Christian wares.

"Christ spent more time healing people than any other thing," said J.C. Kinder, who for 16 years has managed the store, which moved from Takoma Park early this year. "Healthful living and Christian love always go hand in hand."

A life-sized bronze statue of Jesus washing a disciple's feet fronts the store, founded by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1904. It became a full-service store in the 1960s and now is independent.

Health food sales, which involve mostly vegetarian alternatives to meat and dairy products, produce 45 percent of its revenue.

That will reach $8.5 million this year, and for its 10th straight year is likely to put Potomac Adventist at the top of Christian Retailing magazine's "Top 100" list.

"This book store has consistently been No. 1," magazine editor Larry J. Leech II said.

But some of the 6,000 to 8,000 Christian bookstores nationwide vehicles of the $3 billion to $5 billion industry wonder if Potomac's premier status isn't boosted by food more than trade in Bibles, books, music and gifts.

Mr. Leech said the "Top 100" list may reassess that. It already has decided to split into two "Top 50" lists for independents and chains because chains such as Family Christian Store have gobbled up so many independents.

Still, this growing market that joins spiritual concerns with a consumer economy is far from going flat, Mr. Leech said. "When would it bottom out? Only after people are no longer interested in this product," he said.

A tour of Potomac Adventist's 40,000 square feet opens a window on the possibilities.

There are ethnic dolls that say grace or the Lord's Prayer, an art gallery, Spanish language fare, a home schooling section, vestments for clergy and do-good Christian videos for children.

A third of all revenue comes from books, while Bibles and music each account for about 10 percent and gifts 5 percent.

The ambiance and public outreach also have made Potomac Adventist more than a store. Monday mornings, moms can bring preschoolers for readings, and in its first year the store has featured top Christian recording artists such as Amy Grant and CeCe Wynans who have spent a day signing new releases.

"We have the largest selection of religious music on the East Coast," said Mr. Kinder, an Oklahoma native who has been in the trade for 45 years.

The music section has listening stations where a shopper can don headphones and sample 90 seconds of an album by song, artist or title from a digital data base.

"People love it," said Mary-Floride Omwenga, who heads the vast section. It also sports two soundproof "vocalist booths" where church soloists may practice with 1,000 different accompaniment tapes.

The store's 185-seat auditorium has hosted pastors' conferences, and mega-publisher Thomas Nelson used it to show 130 ministers of 18 different denominations its new Bible on CD-ROM.

"Our approach is personalized," Mr. Kinder said. "Interest spreads mostly by word of mouth."

The outlet mails to 350 churches nationwide and gets $1 million in mail order sales.

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