Like many small businesses, Andrea Rizzuto’s one-woman operation, the Churchtown Book & Gift Shoppe in Pennsville, had no prayers when COVID-19 crippled commerce in early 2020.

The Salem County store reopened for a short time after the lockdown and even ran a GoFundMe campaign to try to stay afloat. But, ultimately, the bookstore was forced to close permanently.

However, Rizzuto views the abrupt end to his 32-year business as a blessing in disguise.

“I would still be working if it wasn’t for this damn virus, but the Lord knew I needed time for other things,” said the 76-year-old Monroeville resident.

These “other things” included addressing a number of health issues. Rizzuto had surgery on both ankles and used a wheelchair for almost six months. More recently, she underwent knee replacement surgery.

Now on the mend, Rizzuto is moving on to the next chapter of his life. She said she hoped the new owner of the one-bed, one-bath, 2,231-square-foot former Bible bookstore would derive as much satisfaction from the property as she did.

“There’s so much room there, it’s amazing,” Rizzuto said. “This is a beautiful property for the right person, for the right use. It was a wonderful blessing for the 32 years I spent there.

The property was sold in January to a buyer who planned to convert it into an art studio. She was briefly relisted last month, but was taken off the market by the new owner.

When Rizzuto bought the site in 1989, it had already been operating as a Christian bookstore for more than five decades.

She credits God’s guidance for leading her to the business.

“I was unemployed at the time after working in sales for McDonnell Douglas Corp., and told a friend I was just thinking of selling Bibles,” the Philadelphia native recalled. “She remembered seeing a tiny little sign by the bookstore cash register saying the business was for sale, so that’s how it all started. The Lord was just leading me to do something for him.

The business, then called Pinebrook Christian Bookstore, was one of five owned and operated on the East Coast by Minister Norman B. Kellow, author of “Daily Will I Praise Thee”.

“We didn’t have much at the time, we didn’t have any extras, but I spoke to Dr Kellow and he said, ‘That’s not the price I’m selling the store for, that’s who I sell it to,” Rizzuto says.

Moving to New Jersey with her husband, Joseph, and five children, Rizzuto took over the business. She sold Christian literature, cards, gifts and related items – or sometimes just gave items away to those who could not afford to buy. She took no salary “because it has been a ministry to me to spread the Gospel of the Lord and to bring people to the Lord.”

Rizzuto has also used the store to launch a number of charitable initiatives, including a long-running program in which she and volunteers have made mattresses using plastic bags as stuffing to distribute to homeless people in the area. .

“It was quite wonderful. I would say we’ve done over 100 over the years,” she said.

Of the countless sales she has made over more than three decades to individuals, churches and religious organizations, Rizzuto has declared one item to be by far her perennial bestseller.

And no, it’s not the Bible.

“The best-selling book the entire time I ran the store was ‘How to Listen to God’ by Dr. Charles Stanley,” she said. “And it changed the lives of so many people. He teaches how never to miss a blessing, how never to be on the wrong path.

Rizzuto has memories of a young woman – “obviously on the wrong path” – who came to the store one day to browse.

“You could tell she had been through a rough road,” Rizzuto said. “I knew she was out of it, so I gave her Dr. Stanley’s book, told her to ‘ask the Lord to be in your life.’ … She just smiled and left.

The woman returned a few months later and proclaimed, “The book has changed my life.” After resolving some legal and personal issues, the woman eventually began counseling other young women, Rizzuto reported.

Like many independent bookstores, even before COVID hit, the Churchtown Book & Gift Shoppe was struggling to compete with online retailers. Rizzuto expanded the store to sell new and used church furniture. (A set of benches was sold to a TV production company and can be seen in the NBC drama “New Amsterdam,” Rizzuto said.)

The ex-business owner said she still had a lot of inventory in her basement. So if anyone is in the market for “a pulpit and two sets of pulpit chairs – a set from 1700s Europe – a prayer kneeler, hymns, new books…” they are still for sale, she said.

Rizzuto said she eventually wants to open a shop at Cowtown Flea Market in Pilesgrove. She also has a bucket list that includes visiting the life-size replica of Noah’s Ark at the Ark Encounter theme park in Williamstown, Kentucky; go to Jack Hanna’s Columbus Zoo in Ohio; and cataloging a large box of family photos dating back over 100 years.

“Every day gives you something new,” Rizzuto said. “I always tell people that the three most important things in life are God, family, friends and you.”

“Put God first and He takes care of the rest,” she said.

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Patrick O’Shea can be reached at [email protected].