The retail outlet, owned by the Diocese of Knoxville, has special advantages that big-box and online retailers can’t offer
By Dan McWilliams
The Paraclete book and gift store opened in May 1987 and is still going strong 30 years later.
The diocesan store next to the newly rising Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus celebrated three decades of operation this year.
Two employees, the mother-daughter team of general manager Vonnie Spicer and sales and floor manager Tricia Sellers, have been with the store from its beginnings in a location at Fourth and Gill in North Knoxville. Another staffer, Saturday employee and website expert Melanie Mundy, came on board around 1990.
The store was founded by Karl and Becky Fillauer and moved to its current site in 1990.
Knoxville’s founding bishop “wanted the Catholic bookstore, even though at that time it was privately owned, close to the cathedral and the Chancery offices,” Mrs. Sellers said.
The name of the store came from Father Francis Chaisson. “Paraclete” means the Holy Spirit but can also signify “called to the side of,” “counselor,” “comforter,” and “consoler.”
The Fillauers gave the store to the diocese in April 2012, and now all profits above expenses benefit diocesan seminarians. Diocesan ownership also allows Paraclete employees to have full benefits.
“We are so fortunate to be part of the diocese at this time,” Mrs. Sellers said. “There are numerous special events being planned at the [new] cathedral such as all parish confirmations, concerts, etc. Because of our unique location we will be open during all special events even though they may not fall during regular business hours.”
The Paraclete is the sole supplier for three parishes in the diocese, St. Mary in Johnson City, Our Lady of Fatima in Alcoa, and Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, that staff and operate their own Christian stores.
“They’re all volunteers and they all do excellent jobs at their parishes of selling our product,” Mrs. Spicer said. “What happens is they come and choose the product, or we ship it, and if it sells, great, and if it doesn’t they’re able to come in, bring it all back, and get new product to take up there and sell, so that they always have a turn in their merchandise. This is a win-win for us and for them, to be able to give good product to their people.”
The Paraclete also supplies merchandise for several other parish stores, and the staffers encourage all parishes to allow The Paraclete to order merchandise for them.
“The goal is to keep all the sales within the diocese, so that it’s a diocesan church using the diocesan store, and then in turn the proceeds help the diocesan seminarians,” Mrs. Sellers said. “When you purchase from any other store outside the diocese, all you’re doing is putting money in someone’s pocket. Here, you’re putting it back directly into helping this diocese.
“The goal is that all churches who are currently using other avenues, we would strongly encourage them to purchase through here. We ship out daily. We can deliver if necessary.”
The Paraclete must fend off big-box stores as well as online sellers Amazon and Autom for customer dollars. The diocesan store has its own special advantages.
“Amazon is just out for the quickest buck. They’re not providing the customer service; they’re not providing the knowledge base; they’re not providing the history behind it,” Mrs. Sellers said. “We’re going to give you that one-on-one customer service and help you get the right item for the right person and be confident in what you’ve gotten.
“We try extremely hard to pick the better-quality product. We try not to have cheap-quality, poor-quality product. We’re quite picky with what we pick. We’re not going to skimp on the quality to get a great price.”
The Paraclete rewards its regular customers.
“We offer a loyalty program that is just a free service that the store provides, and we keep track of your sales, and after six visits we give you 10 percent back on your sales in the form of a gift card,” Mrs. Sellers said.
“Then we have special loyalty-customer- only sales, special greenback savings sales for the loyalty customers. Again that’s just another way for people, when they’re trying to decide ‘do I buy from Amazon or buy from The Paraclete,’ the goal is to stay loyal to us and shop here, and we’ll reward you with a discount.”
The Paraclete has expanded “every single year in some form or fashion,” Mrs. Sellers said, “such as another church that’s added on where they were buying somewhere else and now they’re committed to buying through us. We do have an online presence; at the moment it’s an online catalogue, paracletecatholic.org. It has our bestsellers on it. We do add to it every week. It does not have a shopping cart yet. That would be our next step.”
Having veteran employees helps the customer because “there’s way too much information to learn” for a new employee, Mrs. Sellers said.
“There’s a history with the vendors. There’s a history with the product,” she said. “You can ask any employee—it takes a solid year to train an employee. It’s not a 30- day train; it’s a full-year training just because there’s so much information and so much product.”
Books on spirituality are found more often at The Paraclete than fiction, a source of profit for other Christian stores, Mrs. Spicer said.
“We try hard not to carry fiction,” Mrs. Sellers said.
Her mother agreed.
“If you’re going to read something, we want you to read a spiritual book and not fiction,” Mrs. Spicer said. “There is good Catholic fiction, but we don’t really carry that.”
The Paraclete is one of the last of its kind of store in the city, as several Christian stores catering to various denominations have shuttered their doors.
“It has been sad to see many Christian book stores close over the years in Knoxville,” Mrs. Sellers said. “At one point there were 12. We have noticed an increase in sales to many more denominations in the last couple of years.”
The diocesan store also has “a unique opportunity to serve many people who do not want to step into the door of the church but have questions,” Mrs. Sellers said. “We are the first door they walk into for answers. We serve fallen-away Catholics who are interested in returning to their faith and those who want to start their journey and do not know how to start.”
One of The Paraclete’s frequent customers is Paul Simoneau, diocesan vice chancellor for administration and director of the Office of Justice and Peace. He said he enjoys the opportunity to look at merchandise directly as opposed to on a computer screen.
“I like to be able to survey the various titles and authors that are contributing to our understanding of the faith and to see what really speaks to me,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to look over the books versus just going online and choosing a book because someone recommended it.
“I just like knowing that all the proceeds from The Paraclete are going to seminarian education. I just like the ability to basically go in and look at the various titles because there’s such a wide range of material there, from liturgical books, books about the saints, about Mary, spirituality, devotionals—there’s just so much, plus icons and other sacramentals that are important to us. I just find there are so many gems in there that I like going there frequently.”
The Paraclete has a definite mission in mind.
“I would say it is to offer the people of the diocese the very best we can get for the best price, to help their spirituality and help the spirituality of the diocese,” Mrs. Spicer said.