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House of James celebrates

by Angelika Dawson

 

For 45 years Lando Klassen has been pursuing his passions for entrepreneurship and community building. The owner of House of James bookstore and coffee shop in Abbotsford has seen successes and challenges but he has never lost his love for Jesus or the people in his city.

House of James began in 1970 when a group of young people and pastors, including Klassen, then just 16 years old, decided to open House of James Coffee House in Mission, BC. 

“We called it House of James because we were putting our faith to work,” Lando explains. “We made really bad coffee, offered stale cookies to hippies and hitchhikers, and we talked to people about Jesus.”

The ministry grew and in 1973, they moved to a main street location, started selling books and changed their name to House of James Jesus Book Shop and Drop-In Centre. Klassen lived in a suite in the back and charged others $100/month for room and board.

“We sold books, 8-tracks and vinyl,” he says. Christian music drew customers.  At the time, there were only two distributors dealing in contemporary Christian music, so it was a challenge to get product but Klassen persevered. He branched out to concert promotion for artists like Servant and later, Brian Doerksen, whose concerts in the early 2000s were very successful. There were financial failures too, like the Back to the Blues Festival, a passion-project that ran for 9 years and never made a profit despite its popularity.

In 1983, Klassen moved the store from Mission to the Little Oak Mall in Abbotsford. The turn-around time was quick, thanks to the help of friends. “We closed in Mission on Saturday and opened in Abbotsford on Tuesday,” he said. “I had dozens of volunteers who just came out and helped set up the store. It was amazing.”

House of James was an instant success and sales took off in the first year. Klassen added on to the space three times but by 1995, he realized that they were jammed to the rafters. He spent two years scouting the right location and finally found a new home on Emerson Street.

The new location gave Klassen a greater opportunity to engage the community. The store hosts book launches, poetry readings, and album release parties. There are summer book clubs and story times for children. Klassen hosts breakfasts for pastors and popular librarian nights. His last renovation included a stage that’s wired for sound, so live music happens at House of James nearly every weekend. 

But despite his best efforts, there have been changes beyond Klassen’s control that have cost him. The emergence of online booksellers has made it hard for independent book stores to compete. In 2010 there were a dozen Christian bookstores in the Lower Mainland. Now House of James is one of only two left. Then came the market crash in 2008. It has been an uphill struggle ever since.

Bible sales have dropped significantly as most people read Scripture on their phones. The biggest drop has been in music. What once made up 25 percent of his sales and took up more than a quarter of his floor space is now a few shelves of CDs on the second floor. Klassen has tried to meet the challenge by diversifying his inventory with greeting cards, giftware and his large inventory of Playmobil toys. While it makes good business sense to adapt to the consumer, the change is tinged with some sadness.

“It’s not just that people buy books online or read e-books, society as a whole is reading less,” he says.

That said, he does not foresee the demise of print. As long as there are good story tellers, providing the public with quality material, he feels that print will survive. 

“I think print will continue to evolve and there are enough of us out there who want a physical book,” he says.

As he looks ahead, Klassen is not sure what the future holds. He is approaching retirement and wants to spend more time with his family. He’d like to write his memoirs, improve his guitar playing, and travel. As for House of James, Klassen would welcome the opportunity to mentor someone who would want to take over the business. 

“I think there is still lots of potential here if the right person came along,” he says, adding that he thinks the future of the Christian bookstore is to be more than merely Christian. “I think you have to be willing to diversify and be inclusive.”

Which is very much what Klassen has tried to do with his business throughout his 45 years. He is quiet for a moment, no doubt thinking about his idealistic 16-year old self who was part of starting a place that would welcome people to explore their faith. He smiles.

“You have to be true to yourself but you also have to be okay with the mess. Be open to possibilities.”

House of James is located at Emerson Street, in Abbotsford BC and is open 9 am – 9 pm, Monday to Saturday.

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