Unconventional store puts helping people first.
Many Christian retailers believe their mission is to feed their customers, but few do it quite as literally as the ECCO Family Bookstore. Visitors can leave not just with Bibles and books, but the ingredients for a meal from the food pantry at the back of the downtown New Baltimore, Michigan, store.
The free mini-market is just one of the unique features of the volunteer-run nonprofit, which marked its tenth anniversary last December. While ECCO’s operation may be unconventional, it works.
Visitors often want to know why anyone would work there without being paid. The answer given by volunteer manager Marianne Erdman and her team of 10 or so? “Heavenly treasures,” she says. “It’s not what you get back, tangibly, right at this point. This is our way of reaching out to the community.”
ECCO’s ministry center just down the street from the waters of Anchor Bay aims to reflect the New Living Translation of Isaiah 58:10: “Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.” Staff—from Catholic, Baptist, and nondenominational backgrounds—“pray that the Lord will give us the right words for everyone who comes in here,” says Erdman, who believes the retail environment provides an open door for making an impact.
“People who serve other people can change a life in just one day,” she says. “It’s so important. Customers come in and offer or donate money and will tell us every time they come in they can sense the Holy Spirit here.”
Though the food pantry is an integral part of the store’s ministry, it began by accident. When a local congregation started the store as Emmanuel Christian Center Outreach, it was part of the church’s offices, which included a 400-square-foot pastor’s study at the back. When a group of volunteers took over the operation soon after, they didn’t have the funds to remodel.
So that extra space was used for a variety of things—from free movie nights and book clubs to Bible studies and low-cost counseling—before finding its niche. Now equipped with an industrial-size refrigerator, the pantry provides some fresh and other foods to anyone in need from the local area, as well as toiletries. Through an arrangement with a local salon, ECCO staff can also give out vouchers for free haircuts.
Members of the local homeless community are regular visitors to the store. One time the ECCO team held a winter outreach in the parking lot of a local supermarket, distributing clothes, batteries, and tarps, and serving food. “If we didn’t have it, we went into the store and bought it,” Erdman recalls. “So much of what we do is just networking and finding the things other people need.”
At its 700 square foot of floor space core, though, ECCO remains a bookstore. Bibles are the strongest category. There are also sections for Christian Living, men and women, marriage, family, prayer, and church growth.
ECCO includes a sizable used books section—as a nonprofit they can give a tax deduction note to donors. They let people pay what they think a book’s worth, “and more times than not, it’s more than we would have asked,” Erdman says.
Regular contributors to the collection are invited to take some used books for free, read them, and return them in usable condition. It helps keep the section rotated and looking fresh.
Some shoppers are older and not digitally savvy enough to do their own online searching, so the team handles a good number of special orders. If shoppers will pay there and then, Erdman will order the book on her Amazon account and have it shipped direct to their home or the store for pick up.
“They’re so thrilled that we would do that for them and not look to make any money that many times they’ve insisted on giving us a donation for the store,” she says. “Those customers we will keep for life.”
ECCO has a small but varied children’s section with Bibles, books, puzzles, and toys. The gift section, including work by a local artist, also features products from two anti-trafficking organizations in Cambodia and India, with all the money going back to the groups.
As part of its community focus, ECCO isn’t just about supplying products—free or otherwise—but bringing people together. For the past five years it has hosted and promoted the late-summer Discover Our Community event, a sort of combined sidewalk sale and festival at which local vendors and churches are invited to have booths. “It’s a nice way for families to walk around and get to know other people in the community,” Erdman says.
For Deer Widow Night in 2016—the first day of hunting season—ECCO joined with other downtown businesses by staying open for women shoppers and putting netting up over the kids section to provide a background against which groups could take selfies. “It was a lot of fun, and we did fantastic in sales,” says Erdman.
The store also hosts events—with snacks and refreshment—for local authors who are asked to make a donation of their choosing from any sales.
“We may put out $10 for snacks, but that local author will let all their friends and family know about it,” Erdman says. The signings don’t always result in sales, but that’s not the only point of them. “It’s really part of what we do to help people,” says Erdman of ECCO’s role as a community hub. “It’s uplifting to the authors, and they might make one connection while they’re here that makes it totally worthwhile for them.”