NEW PORT RICHEY — Ten years ago, a person in want of a Bible might make a trip to 5748 Main St.
Tampa Christian Supply had plenty of Bibles, not to mention Christian novels and motivational books and music CDs.
But these days, so do Wal-Mart and the Web. So after 30 years in the heart of downtown, Tampa Christian Supply is closing its doors, citing a loss of customers.
"Now you can get Veggie Tales at any store," said district manager Patrick Pellizze, referring to the popular Christian cartoon series. "We are a direct competitor with everybody. Wal-Mart, Circuit City. ... It's just been difficult to get people to come to our stores."
Tampa Christian, which is owned by Chuck Milner, still has two stores in Tampa and St. Petersburg that will stay open. A Clearwater location was closed late last year. Both the New Port Richey and Clearwater stores have been subsidized by the other two, Pellizze said.
No closing date for the New Port Richey store has been set. The store is selling everything at a 20 percent discount to get rid of the inventory. Tampa Christian plans to keep the building but rent it out.
Shirley Saginario, who has worked at the store for six years, said top selling items in recent years have been hard-to-find books and gifts for First Communions or weddings. (Or gifts for someone with a sense of humor about his expected ascension: One license plate frame for sale says: "In case of rapture, car's yours.")
But Saginario is as eager to chat about her long talks with customers as she is about the items she has rung up. She said she took the job only a few months after her husband died.
"The Lord brought people in, women who'd lost their husbands," she said. Sometimes, she said, she found herself ministering to these women, sharing what she had learned.
"What Satan meant for bad, the Lord meant for good," she said.
She said her bosses have given her considerable leeway that she couldn't get as a Wal-Mart employee: If she needs to step away from the register to minister to a customer, she can.
"I'll say (to customers) 'We're going to pray. Do you want to pray?' " she said. "You don't get that everywhere. It's been a real blessing."
Rob Webb, a Hudson resident, dropped by the store Wednesday and ended up buying a T-shirt illustrated with a Bible verse.
"I come here all the time," he said. When he saw the "for rent" signs out front, he realized the store was closing. "I said, 'Oh, that's terrible.' "
He said he'd rather support an independent store than shop at the big-box retailers, which he said often sell only the most popular Christian titles, some of which he likened to "fad diet" books.
Webb was wearing a wooden cross that he bought at Tampa Christian several years ago. "It's all faded now," he said. "But they still have some. In the same spot."
According to a 2005 article in Publishing Trends, a monthly newsletter about book publishing, Christian publishers began forging relationships with big box stores like Wal-Mart and Costco in the mid 1990s. As sales at independent Christian stores declined, they have tried to compensate for the losses through inspirational items such as key chains or Bible covers.
Andy Butcher, editor of industry publication Christian Retailing, told Publishing Trends that the real tension is between Christian retailers and Christian book publishers.
"It's 'Great news! Christian books are selling at Wal-Mart,' " he said, "and 'Bad news! Christian books are selling at Wal-Mart.'
"Christian retailers want to see their category sell as broadly as possible, but they don't want to hurt their own sales either."
Back in New Port Richey, Saginario, the store manager and only employee, said she wasn't sure what she would do next. But she's not too worried.
"Now, I'm just saying, 'Okay, Lord, you're closing this store,'" she said. "'Where will the next one be?'"
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.