The Maryland Bible Society has operated in Baltimore for more than 200 years, selling Bibles to city residents, 19th-century immigrants from Germany, and both Confederate and Union soldiers during the Civil War. Its past presidents have been among the most notable members of local society, including the men for whom Fort McHenry and Goucher College are named.
Now, after selling more than 200 million pieces of religious literature, the society has completed a digital transition, closing its landmark Baltimore store and moving its operations exclusively online.
Its Bible store at 9 E. Franklin St. downtown shut down last month in an effort to cut costs and improve efficiency by limiting sales to the Internet and telephone. The arched entrances of the Gothic-style, four-story Indiana limestone building remain shuttered. Carved into the stone above are the words, "The Bible House."
Officials said the move was prompted by the same pressures that major booksellers are facing around the nation.
"We're not immune to the changing world," said David Moyer, executive director of the Maryland Bible Society. He said online and phone sales have been increasing the last few years and there's been less foot traffic at the store.
Since the society is a nonprofit, offering Bibles "at cost," Moyer said he hopes the move will help keep costs low for customers.
The Bible Society once catered largely to area residents who came to its storefront because it offered a broad selection of Scriptures — selling locally printed, illustrated and large-print Bibles, as well as editions in Mandarin, Russian and Korean. More recently, buyers have begun to search for such specialty products online.
Today, many online customers come from out of state or even abroad. Much of the inventory is in distribution centers across the country, Moyer said.
Mark Millman, a retail analyst with the Baltimore-based Millman Research Group, said the move to online sales makes sense for a small retailer.
"People today are feeling more comfortable in making purchases online. It saves them time and money," Millman said.
But Millman said it's also beneficial for the sellers, since they don't have to pay for retail space, insurance or maintenance.
Jim Milliot with Publishers Weekly said that in January through November 2010, bookstore sales were down 2 percent and have declined steadily over the past four years.
Meanwhile online sales, including purchases of digitized books, are increasing.
For example, third-quarter store sales at Barnes & Noble dipped 4.7 percent, to $1.4 billion, even as Barnes & Noble.com sales increased 32 percent, to $210 million, for the quarter.
Borders recently closed its marquee Chicago store on that city's Magnificent Mile.
The Franklin Street "Bible House" opened in 1925, when renovations were completed after the previous tenants, the Eureka Life Insurance Co., moved out. The Fifth Regiment Veterans Corps had previously occupied the building.
According to a July 1925 Baltimore Sun article, the building's façade was renovated with "no interruption to sale of Bibles or their distribution."
Before moving to the Franklin Street location, the Bible House was located at a storefront occupying 8, 10 and 12 E. Fayette St.
Before becoming the Maryland Bible Society, the Baltimore Bible Society celebrated 100 years in 1910. The Baltimore society was founded six years after the British and Foreign Society — the first Bible society — and two years after the first American society was started in Philadelphia.
During the Civil War, the Maryland society supplied both Union and Confederate soldiers with Bibles, "with 9,000 Testaments sent across the Potomac," in 1863, according to a 1933 Sun article.
Later, "as the tide of immigration into the Baltimore rose, the Maryland Society was increasingly active in supplying Bibles to arrivals on the North German Lloyd line," and a second Bible house was built on Charles Street in 1874 but burned down in the Great Fire.
In addition to Society president James McHenry, for whom Fort McHenry is named, the Rev. John F. Goucher, the founder of Goucher College, became the president in 1910.
"There's tremendous history of the Bible Society in Baltimore," Moyer said.
Moyer said the Bible Society has already entertained offers on its building, but said it would most likely be several months before a move.
While the decision to sell the space or rent will be made by a 23-member board, Moyer said he anticipates the organization will sell the building and move offices to a smaller location in the city to be "more effective in our ministry."
"The building is bigger than we need. We only occupy two of four floors," he said.
Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.