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Countless Christian bookstores in the Los Angeles area closing up shop, yet Word of Life Christian Bookstore on Florence and Main Street is celebrating its 50th year anniversary and planning for an expansion. Philip Curtiss, the general manager of the family-run bookstore, attributes Word of Life's success to their community outreach efforts and ability to keep up with changing times.
"We are on the cutting edge of Christian bookstores, not just in LA but in the nation," said Curtiss. "Even though the sales have been down in the last five years, new technologies create a way to draw in customers and keep us going."
According to Joseph Curtiss III, the Curtiss family has established Word of Life as one of the biggest Christian bookstores in Southern California, offering the largest array of Christian music available for in-store download. This technology is integral to their success. Curtiss, who works with his two brothers and a few nieces and nephews, convinced the owners, his parents, to install the technology to digitally house over 10,000 Christian songs. Customers can come in, listen to music and customize their own CD within five minutes. According to Curtiss, Word of Life is one of the top 20 bookstores in the nation for popularity of downloadable Christian music and houses 70 to 80 percent of available Christian music.
Lavel Hawkins, a praise worship leader hailing from Long Beach, has already visited the store four times and keeps returning because of the expansive library and ease of purchase. Curtiss hopes to one day expand the music library to the Internet, creating a Christian iTunes of sorts. He also wants to expand marketing efforts because he feels not enough people know about the music service.
Another integral part of Word of Life's success is their community ministry. Founder of Word of Life, pastor Joseph Curtiss Jr., started a missionary outreach program next door to the bookstore called United Gospel Outreach.
"We want people to understand that there is this United Gospel Outreach so they won't think Word of Life is just a business, just for profit," explained son Curtiss III. "There is an outreach that gives back to the community as well."
The United Gospel Outreach offers Spanish classes for English speakers, marriage strengthening classes, a summer camp, and health ministry, featuring seminars that teach people how to live healthier lifestyles. The summer camp has been ministering to 13-17-year-olds every summer since 1975. This year they are headed to the Boys and Girls Club in the San Bernardino Mountains.
"Usually kids accept Christ in a situation away from home, away from all the distractions and that's when we've seen people's lives change," said Curtiss III.
The business of changing lives seems to be Word of Life's specialty, even in tough economic times. Throughout the years Word of Life has offered many neighbors their first job, helping them to go on and become policemen, firefighters and other prominent members of the Main Street community.
The ministry and the bookstore work together to draw in customers and believers even when the bookstore is up against competitors like Walmart and Costco.
"They (Walmart and Costco) carry a few things, but they don't carry the line of products we carry," said Curtiss III. "[They carry] some of the best sellers because they want to capture some of the Christian market too."
Surprisingly, Curtiss III thinks Word of Life is not too affected by online retailers like Amazon.com. Word of Life's website helps spread the customer base wider, but their physical locations are helpful as well.
"We are getting more people that are looking for an actual bookstore because a lot of them have closed down," said Curtiss III. "They still want to touch and see the books."
With two locations - the second, larger store on West Blvd., near Hyde Park - Word of Life hopes to expand to a third location, possibly in the Palmdale area. Hopefully, they will not reach the same fate as their old competitors, Lighthouse Bookstore, who had to close all three of their locations in 2009.
"I like the challenge of being able to expand and adjust to technology and take the stores to another level with cyber stores," said Curtiss III "We believe God has us here for a reason and we want to further that cause and be a light to this area."