Spanish Christian bookstore fills a need in Las Vegas.
Santos Sosa is a little subdued as he talks about his near-20 years of bookstore ministry in Las Vegas, Nevada, just a couple of days after the horrific country concert shooting that left 59 dead and more than 500 injured. “This situation has broken the heart of our community,” he says.
The tragedy somehow underscores the importance of Shalom Libreria Cristiana/Christian Bookstore’s presence—which according to a complimentary article in the local Deseret News, shines “a higher quality of light” in the famous gambling city—as a place to find resources of comfort and hope.
The mostly Spanish-language store’s continued existence is the result of a mix of faith, focus, doggedness, and diversification.
“If it was just a business, I wouldn’t be able to make it,” Sosa acknowledges, “but I know God put me in this city to fill a need, to help Christians grow.”
He arrived in Las Vegas as a young man fleeing the widespread violence in his El Salvador homeland. Joining an older brother already in the city, he planned to stay for just long enough to be able to buy a house for the rest of his family back home and then return to be with them.
A keen Christian book reader and music listener who came to faith as a teenager, Sosa was a regular visitor to a small Spanish store whose inventory he soon went through. “I thought that one day I might like to do something like that, with more variety, so people could have a place to go and find things to help them grow in their Christian life,” he recalls.
Taking a risk
Having no business background and no money didn’t deter him when he found he could lease space in a small business unit. Having by this time secured work in a casino kitchen, he took on a second job to fund the launch, and navigated all the paperwork. In the early days, Sosa worked nights at the casino and days at the bookstore, snatching a couple hours of sleep in between, while paying someone to cover the weekends for him. But after several years, having expanded to 700 square feet of store, he felt nudged to go full-time.
“It was a bit of a risk,” he admits. “I had a good union job, with security. But I always had this dream of doing something for the community.”
And so Shalom moved into its own space, with Sosa later expanding to a second location for a few years. The downturn in the economy and the growth of other channels eventually meant he had to consolidate in one location—where he now has around 1,300 square feet—some six years ago.
“It broke my heart, because when I opened the store I never thought I would close it,” he says of letting go of his first location, in a shopping area where traffic was dwindling. “It was a very hard decision to make.”
Shalom’s customer base is predominantly Hispanic—there are around half a million Latinos in the city—but Sosa has been expanding his English-language stock a little.
“My dream has always been to have a bilingual store,” he says, “and a few years ago I began to realize that for second and third generations in the Spanish community, their language is English.”
At the same time, he has parents who speak English who also want a good Spanish Bible for their children. Sosa notes the two markets are different, pointing to how a Spanish title may sell for $10 while its English edition can be priced at $25.
Offering other services
Bibles are a major category along with books. Shalom still sells some music, but it was a way bigger emphasis when the store began, with sales tapering off as digital has grown.
“People are still listening to music,” he notes. “They’re just doing it in different ways.”
There was a time when Shalom sponsored concerts, hosting them at churches or rented venues, but now Sosa prefers to put what money he can spare into more inventory.
As music sales have dipped, he has found other ways to make up the difference, including bringing in more gifts. He also started offering other services—faxes and copies, and computers for people to use before “everyone had their own or a smartphone.” He still offers a print service, “because there aren’t many places you can go to print something out any more,” and processes wire transfers for people sending money back to family in Latin America. “It all helps me stay open.”
Mail-order business has grown, too. Regular customers have recommended the store to other Spanish-speaking relatives around the country, as have visitors to Vegas who stumble across Shalom. “They’re surprised to find a Christian bookstore here,” he says. “They find the city is different than what they thought.”
As many other Hispanic stores have closed, Sosa has received more out-of-state orders. His growing reputation as a go-to place for Spanish-language resources has also opened another unexpected door—to prisons. People wanting to send Christian materials to Spanish-speaking inmates turn to him for help because individually mailed packets are refused while those from a bookstore are let in.
Learning to be patient
When he was starting out, Sosa canvassed Hispanic churches for support, with mixed results. Today he has a few churches he serves with Sunday school materials, but it’s not a big slice of business. He acknowledges that his determination alone wouldn’t have been enough to keep Shalom going all these years; he speaks gratefully of the support from family that has helped him keep the doors open. “If it was not for them, I don’t think I’d be able to still be here,” he says.
He may have started out as a novice, but he’s learned a few things over the course of almost two decades. Being faithful to God and being patient are the most important lessons, he believes. “And I’ve learned to be grateful to God and to people who have helped me a lot.”
Good management is also a must. “You need to be conservative and know what your limit is; there are good times and bad times, and sometimes when you have extra money you can be tempted to spend more than you should.” That philosophy has meant he mostly uses distributors: “Publishers require a lot of quantity, and I haven’t always had a lot of money; I’ve only wanted three or four of something.”
Shalom is open seven days a week, until 8 p.m. on weekdays to accommodate the particular needs of the community. Because Las Vegas is an entertainment capital that is always open, “people are working 24 hours,” Sosa says, “so you have to be open when they want to shop. In other places you close on Sunday, but here you cannot.”
He chose the name Shalom—which has prompted some grumbles from shoppers when they find out it’s not a Jewish store—because he liked how it sounded, but only later discovered its full meaning and how that fit his vision.
“It’s peace, but also the beginning and end of everything,” he explains. “If you have shalom in your life you don’t need anything else; it covers everything. I believe that here people can find a Bible or a book that can change their life and help them in all different areas.”