by: Elaine Tomski
You may think a company with the name Choice Books is all about books. Wrong. Choice Books (CB) is all about John, Nancy, Sue, and a young Muslim man. Broken people who are lost without the hope of Jesus Christ.
John was so lost, he didn’t want to live anymore. That is, until the message in a book made all the difference. John sent Choice Books this testimony: “I have to take this time to tell you my story. This past Saturday I tried to kill myself; had it not been for divine intervention, I would have succeeded. While in the hospital, I asked my girlfriend to bring me Paul’s book [Hiking Through, by Paul M. Stutzman]. I had just purchased it from Walmart. I have always wanted to hike the AT [Appalachian Trail]. I was not a believer in God until this last weekend. As I read Paul’s book, I felt like it was speaking to me. Towards the end, God and Paul sealed the deal with something along the lines of, ‘This book will end up in the hands of those who need it.’ Well, it certainly did. Paul, God, my wonderful girlfriend who had the knowledge to save me from myself… thank you all. I want you to know, Paul, that when I left the hospital, I gave my only copy of your book to a homeless man that was also depressed. He lost everything and was living in the woods… we started talking about camping, then hiking, and he told me he always wanted to hike the AT… It was at that moment I realized what God wanted me to do… I had to pass on the book to someone else.”
“I believe the printed page has the power to transform lives,” says Joe Bacher, Executive Director of CB of Northern Virginia. “Today, with fewer than 1,000 Christian bookstores across the nation, our opportunity to be in the general marketplace is truly a gift. As a culture, we are in a crisis of overwhelming emotions of despair, anxiety, and fear resulting in depression, divorce, and suicide.” Many people who desperately need hope will never consider walking into a Christian bookstore. For this reason, CB racks are placed anywhere people go. Joe says, “A title grabs their attention, the Holy Spirit moves, the book is purchased, and hope and encouragement is the result. We are grateful for the opportunity to offer hope and encouragement to the brokenness of the world around us.”
Have you noticed their book displays in places where you shop or visit? The books draw us in with colorful covers and promising titles. You may be one to spin the display to see all that Choice Books has to offer. Located across the continental United States, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico, we find their book displays in grocery stores, drug stores, hospitals, large department stores, travel centers, airports, and military bases. They are placed in hotels, campgrounds, general stores, gift shops, hardware stores, restaurants, and bakeries. Displays are also found at tourist attractions, offices, car washes, bus and train depots, educational facilities, and newsstands. Whew!
Choice Books’ mission is To share the “good news” of Jesus Christ in the general marketplace through inspiring and wholesome reading material. They’ve been enriching people’s lives, one book at a time, since 1962.
ORGANIZED TO REACH PEOPLE
- In 1962, fewer than a handful of men organized their efforts to sell inspirational books to various retail stores.
- By the 1970’s, the association called Life-Line Books grew to nearly 600 displays.
- In 1973, the organization registered under the new name “Choice Books” and expanded its distribution across the United States.
- In 1991, Choice Books reached record annual sales of one million books.
- In 1998, the not-for-profit organization defined seven regions set for distribution.
- Today Choice Books, LLC purchases its inventory from over 70 publishers. They sell books on more than 11,500 displays in retail locations, providing the opportunity to move over 5 million books per year into the hands of hurting people.
Simon Schrock has been involved in the ministry since 1968, so he’s no stranger to the history of Choice Books. He is also no stranger to turbulent U.S. history; he lived near Washington, D.C. while the Vietnam War was raging, Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered, and Senator Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Simon says, “During a time of riots and destruction, I was handing out gospel tracts to hippies.” When a new acquaintance, Owen Yoder, approached Simon to ask, “Have you ever thought of book rack evangelism?” Simon’s response was, “Wow! Have I ever?!” Together, the two worked at Life-Line Books, utilizing the centralized book-buying services of the Mennonite Board of Mission’s multi-media subsidiary in Virginia.
Simon had his mind set on placing a display at the Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan WNA). Following several phone calls, Simon was directed to the airport newsstand and granted an appointment with the shop manager. Although Simon’s idea of placing a 56-pocket book display was rejected, he was given the opportunity to put ten titles on the shelves. On November 22, 1968, Simon prayerfully delivered Christian books to the Aero Newsstand in Washington National Airport. It was a small beginning, but Simon was aware of Jesus’ teaching, “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10).
Simon filled the car’s tank with 35-cents/gallon gasoline and regularly drove from his home in Virginia to the airport to restock the shelves. In 28 days, 51 religious books sold. Before you know it, Simon was able to place the intended 56-pocket book display in the newsstand, and responded to the invitation to put books in seven other small shops in the airport. Today, Choice Books are sold in over 160 airports across the nation.
Since the 1970’s, Simon has been a “dove” among the “hawks.” With God, all things are possible; He arranged for Simon to meet a retired colonel from the Pentagon while standing in the coffee and cookies line at a Basic Youth Conflicts Seminar. What began as a conversation between Kyle Davis and Simon Schrock developed into a friendship, then an invitation to speak with Christian men at the Pentagon about Book Rack Evangelism. Several men at the Pentagon were so excited about the opportunity to place inspirational books in the Pentagon’s drug store and newsstand that they drove to the Schrock house to pick up the books and volunteered to keep the displays stocked. Much strife and terrorism have surrounded the Pentagon since books of hope and encouragement were first carried beyond its fortress walls. How fitting that Jesus Christ’s message of peace continues to be available inside the Pentagon today.
The Holy Spirit gave Simon a burden for the lost, and Choice Books gave him the means to reach the lost. Simon says, “The idea was in place, and I tapped into the vision.” He’s most grateful for the opportunity to display Bibles. Simon says, “We do sell a lot of Bibles, particularly around New York City.”
At the age of 82, Simon continues to work at CB of Northern Virginia. He has saved reader response letters, filling nearly 27 boxes. “If a letter indicates a reader’s life was changed,” says Simon, “I put those into a notebook, and I’m currently filling notebook number nine.” Nancy is one who experienced life change. She writes, “I just wanted to thank the people from Choice Books. I used to secretly look at Choice Books in the grocery store at a time when I would not have entered a Christian bookstore or church. Through reading a Choice Book, I came to see the beauty and truth of the gospel and eventually surrendered to Christ. Thank you.”
EXPANDING TO REACH PEOPLE
Dave Hostetler has been serving through CB of Great Lakes since 2002. His ministry with Choice Books involves many people, but let’s begin with Dave’s story. Imagine a young widower who has lost his wife to cancer. How can he raise three children while working to support his family? The answer is an auto body repair shop at home. Now imagine the happiness of finding a precious new bride named Joy. Then devastation arrives when, one day, the smell of gasoline turns into an explosion and the aroma changes to the scorch of burning flesh. Severe burns spread across the upper portion of Dave’s body. Following a lengthy recovery, how will Dave provide for his family once again?
Dave and Joy asked God to lead them down the right path to pay the bills. Joy recalls them praying, “If it could be a ministry, that would be wonderful.” It never hurts to ask, right? God orchestrated every step, making connections from Dave’s mom to Simon Schrock to the Director of CB of Great Lakes, who hired Dave to develop the northern part of Michigan. Choice Books provided him with a vehicle and the product. Dave went on the road and started selling books so fast he could hardly keep up. He says, “Everywhere we went, people wanted this Choice Books program. God opened doors we had never dreamt would open.”
Dave loved working with retailers. He enjoyed making friends with people in the stores everywhere he went. He says, “One of the highlights of my career with Choice Books is ending up with people at the back of my service vehicle, praying with them, and giving them books during their hard times.” Like the day a cleaning supplies vendor was stocking shelves at the same time Dave was stocking books. Dave says, “He was divorcing his wife, who was going into prostitution and taking custody of their young child.” The father was so worried; he didn’t know what to think or do. So, Dave prayed with him and gave him a book to provide hope. Dave says, “God ordained our meeting.”
In 2010, Dave was called to serve as the District Manager for the Northern Ohio office. The Hostettler family moved near Joy’s childhood home in Holmes County at the perfect time to care for her parents. Do you see God’s handprints on this story? But wait. There’s more. Two visits to the hospital separated by years show how God connects the dots in the lives of His people. One of Dave’s favorite stories is of the Christian nurse, Sue, whom he had befriended while severely burned. Many years later, he ran into Sue again when their seven-year-old son was receiving treatment in the same hospital ER following a bike accident. Sue asked, “Are you still doing the books?”
Sue had always loved visiting the Choice Books spinner display just inside the entrance, to the left, of her grocery store. Until, as Sue says, “My life got kind of rough. I became angry with God and turned my back on Him.” Then, Dave says, “She literally hated the book display and began avoiding it,” always going to the right as she entered the store. Dave says, “One day, the display was just like a magnet to her eyes. A force caused her to go over and take that book off the shelf.” Sue said, “Dave, that book completely changed my life around. I’m back with God, closer than ever before.” Sue also shared that same book with three friends. She says, “Now we have Bible study together every week, and we’re walking with Jesus.” Dave is happy to report, “Many lives are being changed through this ministry.”
NETWORKING TO REACH PEOPLE
Seven Regional Distributors extend the reach of Choice Books.
- CB of Northern Virginia.
- CB of Great Lakes
- CB of Gulf States
- CB of Kansas
- CB of Midwest
- CB of Pennsylvania
- CB of West Coast.
All seven regions affiliate with an Anabaptist church/conference, including Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren.
The Choice Books LLC Board of Directors provides guidance.
Central Office Staff review books and manage the centralized buying.
Ken Gonyer, CEO of Choice Books, has the big picture view of the organization. He says, “Take a look at a Choice Books display, and you see solutions to problems.” Sometimes a buyer has a spiritual problem. Sometimes the problem stems from family or is of a physical nature. In any event, Ken says, “Our resources are placed to point people toward the Lord. Many people are in despair and confusion. We desire to bring light into a dark world by offering inspirational, wholesome, and sometimes fun reading material to them.” Fun items, such as word find books and inspirational coloring books for adults, bring attention to scripture and thus, hope. Ken also says, “Many types of books on the displays build sales so we can place Bibles.” Their Bible sales goal for 2018 was a whopping 200,000 copies.
Not only is Choice Books a resource for the average person seeking hope, but their displays are also a resource for believers in locations where Christian bookstores are closing. While continuing to provide devotional and scriptural materials, Ken says, “I’d like to see more Bible Study types of aids. The Rose Book of Bible Charts, Maps, and Timelines is our best seller in Walmart.” Another great seller is a surprise to Ken. “I never thought a zippered Bible cover would be a big hit in America, but we’ve had a travel center ask us to put a special display in just for Bible covers. And they sell really well!” By putting an inspirational message on the outside of the beautiful cover, with the Good News message inside, who knows what opportunities the Lord will use to share the hope of His peace?
As CEO, it’s Ken’s privilege to share the vision within the organization. “We have a new verse every year to encourage our workers.” Romans 12:12 was the verse for 2018. “Rejoicing in hope; patient in tribulation; continuing instant in prayer.” He says, “This ministry is hard work, and when there are challenges, we go to the Word of God and seek His inspiration and encouragement. That’s what Romans 12:12 is all about.”
Because of growing anti-Christian sentiment in our culture, 2017 brought opposition from a growing number of retailers. Therefore, the organization made thankfulness to God and prayer a priority for 2018. Ken reports, “Through this prayer time, God has done what only God can do by lifting up believers into buying positions. In three cases, the buyers who didn’t like Choice Books were moved out of those positions and replaced by buyers who are very positive and interested in us.” One of the new buyers wants to see a Bible in every one of their 10,000 locations. Ken says, “It’s been fun to be able to give God the glory for that.” God is in the business of multiplying, isn’t he? Fish. Loaves. Books. Buyers. Locations. Ken adds, “Because of prayer, we are poised to take advantage of placing our materials at more locations. I’m very excited and feel very hopeful about the future.” The people at Choice Books actively pray and prepare while remaining patient for God’s perfect timing.
Ken has also approached CB’s publishing partners with this request, “Tell me what you have that’s a solid Christian message targeted toward millennials.” Publishers responded with books to attract this younger audience. Ken says, “We are trying to stay relevant to the folks who need to hear our message.” Because of CB’s Anabaptist background, Ken says, “We hold those values before us and also engage with the culture using all different kinds of tools.” The challenge is to take an old-fashioned message into an ever-changing world. The CB organization is very aware of new forms of technology. Ken says, “We attempt to engage in those venues in such a way that we don’t compromise our values. We want to stay relevant to the people we want to reach. It’s just a tool.”
Finally, Ken encourages the readers of Just Plain Values, “As partners in the faith, do whatever you can to support this unique outreach, because there’s nothing else quite like it with the span and reach given to us. We can’t do it alone. We need your prayers, support, and encouragement.”
BEING A LINK IN THE CHAIN TO REACH PEOPLE
Another man of vision is the Executive Director of CB of Great Lakes, Nathan Miller. He says, “I believe authors have a God-directed burden to compose and write a message. Publishers partner with the authors, and we partner with the publishers. We are one link in the chain so that the original burden is shared with the reader.”
Nathan says, “Choice Books was born out of a vision to reach people who couldn’t be reached before.” One person who might be considered hard to reach is the subject of yet another life change. Nathan says, “There was a young Muslim man, from New York state, who was traveling through a travel center in Columbus, Ohio. He picked up a book from the Choice Books display. This book was influential in this young man making a commitment to Christ as Messiah.” Now a Christian, the young man is soundly rejected by his Muslim father. Nathan says, “Still, the Holy Spirit must have been orchestrating circumstances.” Phil, a Choice Books colleague in Virginia, connected with this young man. Phil mentors his new Christian friend and encourages his transformational journey.
“So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).
REACHED, TOUCHED, CHANGED
Yes, Choice Books is about so much more than books. When the message of hope touches people’s hearts, their lives change forever. It’s the sole reason people at Choice Books reach out every day. They are people connecting people to the saving hope of Jesus Christ. He will ever be our highest choice.