TAMPA - Chuck Milner remembers hosting autograph parties with the hottest musicians and authors of the day at his store on Hillsborough Avenue.
"People were lined up so far, they would be outside wrapped around the building," recalls the founder of Tampa Christian Supply.
Those days are now just a memory.
As the last Christian independent retailer in Tampa and one of a dwindling number in Florida, the store no longer hosts those popular signing events. Instead, it's in the process of drastically reducing its book and music inventory.
Nationally, the trend is troublesome. According to a "state of the industry" report by the Christian Booksellers Association, 63 member stores closed their doors in 2011, followed by 39 in 2012. A figure for 2013 will be released next month.
But don't write Tampa Christian Supply's obituary yet.
While bright pink and green signs on the windows and throughout the store - "Huge Prices!" "Fantastic Sale!" - might indicate the final days are here, Milner says that's not going to happen.
"We're going to look a little different in a few months, but we have no intention of going away," he says.
Milner and his son-in-law, Patrick Pellizze, who now manages the store, recently invested about $20,000 to hire G.A. Wright, a Colorado-based company that specializes in professional store closings. Eighty percent of the stock is on sale through March 22, along with an incentive program to get customers in the door. People earn points for every visit and purchase, and become eligible for prizes like a 55-inch television or an iPad mini.
Tampa Christian Supply's mission: To pay off creditors after its most dismal Christmas season ever, when sales were down a record 40 percent, and "reset" the store's stock to better serve its customers. Pellizze says that includes the "nuts and bolts" of church supplies, the largest selection of Bibles in the area, seasonal specialty gifts and cards, and top-selling religious books.
"We're paying attention to what works and what doesn't," he says. Moreover, the store provides something online shopping doesn't: immediacy and personalized service.
And since 2009, it has operated a nonprofit thrift store on the premises that brings in steady business seven days a week. Primarily staffed by volunteers, its sales have grown a steady 30 to 40 percent annually, and it has raised more than $60,000 for church-planting efforts in Cuba. To keep competitive, the store sells nearly all of its clothing for the same price - $2.97 per item regularly, and $2.47 during the sale - and offers free truck pickup service for donations.
Milner retired from the retail side of the business seven years ago, and now runs the thrift operation.
"We don't refuse anything," he says. "Whether it ends up here, or donated someplace else or lands in the Dumpster, we take everything."
CBA president Curtis Riskey, whose organization eliminated its winter trade expo and downsized its summer show, says consumers are increasingly making patronage decisions "based on what companies stand for." So when retailers let them know about the programs they support and their mission purposes, it can create more customer loyalty and support of the store.
For example, Riskey says one Christian company recently announced it is giving all of its profits to help widows and children. It's a trend he expects to continue.
For Milner, keeping Tampa Christian Supply a viable operation is as much personal as professional.
He opened for business in a rented space 50 years ago, serving a niche market in search of choir robes or a religious gift for a special occasion. As demand grew, so did the need for more space. In 1973, Milner moved a half-mile down the street to the store's current location, buying a 3,000-square-foot Dan Good Sandwich Shop for $85,000.
Every year, profits were steady and strong, increasing an average of 20 to 40 percent. He bought adjoining buildings on the site, increasing his footage to 11,000 square feet, and opened additional stores in St. Petersburg, New Port Richey, Clearwater and Odessa, Texas.
"It's like we could do no wrong," says Milner, who was named CBA Retailer of the Year in 1978.
Until 2007, that is.
First, the economy started to take a dive. And then chain stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble, followed by retailers like Wal-Mart, began to discover that Christians spend money, too. They started selling books and music aimed at that audience. Overnight, "we went from an emphasis on service to price," Milner says. The downward trend for independent retailers began, and worsened with the onset of online stores such as Amazon.
"If we didn't own our buildings and had to pay rent instead, we surely would have gone under," he says. He has since closed his other locations.
As a CBA board member for a dozen years, Milner kept close watch on the stores in his state. By his calculation, Florida has lost some 600 independent Christian retailers "with more coming" in 2014.
Carol Cameron, who owned the now-closed Sign of the Fish on Dale Mabry in South Tampa for 30 years, says she saw the "handwriting on the wall" even before the collapse. She started buying videos and books at Wal-Mart at a discounted price, then sold them at her shop at a very slight markup.
"You really can't compete against the big-box stores," she says. "The little hardware stores, the little stationery stores, they were all going out of business. I was doing a lot of juggling and praying. I just wasn't enjoying it as much anymore."
First she lowered her inventory, then she finally sold the store to a Sarasota businessman in 2005. He closed it four years later.
It's not that the market has gone away. Mass merchandisers continue to stock Christian products, and the nonfprofit chain stores LifeWay Christian Stores (formerly Baptist Book Stores) and Family Christian Stores are still in growth mode.
"It is sad to see so many independent stores close their doors but it is difficult for any small business to succeed when the economy is not strong," says Chris Rodgers, LifeWay regional director. "Many independents have turned to LifeWay if their business struggles knowing we will continue their ministry."
Milner and Pellizze don't see that in their future. If the sale is as successful as G.A. Wright promises, they see a revamped Tampa Christian Supply, catering to a loyal customer base that has kept them in business for five decades. So far, so good: The store's most successful day at the cash register in five years was the opening day of the sale.
Says Milner: "We're here to stay."