From atheist upbringing to Christian bookstore

By Bryan Richardson

Christian Books and Gifts still being open after 26 years is an amazing feat for a small business. But it’s not as amazing as the fact that Margaret Johnson is the store’s owner.

Johnson, who has owned the store for five years, said God led her to purchasing it. “It was definitely a calling,” she said. “It was not something I ever thought I would do.”

Johnson grew up in Louisville, Ky. Unlike her three daughters — Samantha Johnson, Shelby Whaley and Shawna Taylor —  she didn’t have a Christian mother. In fact Johnson’s mother was an atheist. “Owning a Christian bookstore is the last thing I thought would happen to me,” she said.

Johnson came to work for the store after her husband of 26 years, Jeffery, was stationed at Fort Riley for a second time. During the first tour at Fort Riley – 1994 to 1996 – Johnson said she hardly came into Manhattan and wasn’t aware that the store actually existed.

Johnson said the family started going to church about the time they returned to Kansas in 2001. She worked up the nerve to apply for a job there, but didn’t think she would get it on account of her “baby Christian” status. “I barely had been going to church,” she said. “I was scared to even come in and put in an application.”

The interview process was especially tough because she wasn’t able to tell Rex Miller, who owned the store with his wife, Sharry, about what kind of church she went to or about any Christian music and authors.

Still, Johnson was hired. The job happened to be a good fit because she could only work while her daughters were attending Flint Hills Christian School. “From day one, it’s been great,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a job.”

In a premonition, Rex told Johnson during her first year of working at the store that he could see her owning it one day. “I said, ‘you’re crazy,’” Johnson said. “I thought that was the craziest thing ever.”

The store Johnson now owns was opened in August 1986. There were three Christian bookstores open in Manhattan at that time, but only Christian Books and Gifts remains.

The store serves 55 churches, including two in Nebraska, and has accounts with Fort Riley and Manhattan Christian College. It sells materials for Sunday school, curriculum, textbooks, Vacation Bible School and other supplies.

Johnson said being a full-service bookstore that provides material for ministries as well as books and gifts for individuals has enabled the small business to stick around. “A lot of stores have come and gone,” she said. “We have stood the test of time for 26 years.”

Johnson said trusting in the Lord and prayer are the other factors in a successful store. “It takes a lot of prayer, but we keep praying that God allows us to keep serving the community,” she said.

Johnson said the employees at the store are able to offer customer service and knowledge that a big-box store couldn’t. “I love being able to work with the public,” she said. “I definitely feel like we do a service here that most stores can’t do.”

For instance, Johnson said you couldn’t pray with an employee at Walmart. She said the people come in asking for things such as help finding a church home and prayer. “We feel like it’s a ministry here,” she said. “We don’t just sell items. On a weekly basis, we have people coming in here searching for something.”

Johnson started out as a part-time employee before becoming assistant manager and then manager. If Johnson had her way, manager would have been the last position she held with the store.

In 2007, Johnson said she actually put in her notice with the Millers to quit her job. She went on a trip home to Kentucky. On the 10-hour drive back to Manhattan, she said she prayed about the situation and it was placed in her heart to continue working at the store.

Johnson said she told her husband that she couldn’t quit, and they decided to try to buy it. She said the store wasn’t actually up for sale when the offer was made to the Millers on Oct. 1, 2007. “I came back and said that I can’t quit, the Lord wants me to buy it,” Johnson said.

On Oct. 31, 2007, the Millers accepted the offer. During this time, Johnson had been attending Manhattan Christian College, where she graduated in December 2007 with a business degree. The store was officially hers in January 2008.

After buying the store, Johnson said she made some changes, including incorporating a seating area and some remodeling. Johnson said the store has had an anniversary sale the past couple of years to show appreciation for the customers.

“We have a very dedicated customer base,” Johnson said.

Johnson said every time she is able to put the word of God in someone’s hands is a blessing. “It truly is a God thing,” she said. “It’s been amazing and wonderful. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

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