By Jim Christie
Feb 23 (Reuters) - Family Christian, the biggest U.S. Christian bookstore chain, said on Thursday it was going out of business and planned to close its 240 stores across 36 states.
"We have prayerfully looked at all possible options, trusting God's plan for our organization, and the difficult decision to liquidate is our only recourse," Chuck Bengochea, the company's president, said in a statement.
"Despite improvements in product assortment and the store experience, sales continued to decline," he noted. "In addition, we were not able to get the pricing and terms we needed from our vendors to successfully compete in the market."
The chain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February 2015 with more than $120 million in debt in the face of a sales slump amid growing competition from online stores.
Bricks-and-mortar rivals also took business away by stocking best-selling Christian-market titles and Bibles.
The company trailed Barnes & Noble Inc, with 640 stores, and Books-A-Million Inc, which describes itself as the second-largest U.S. book retailer and operates more than 260 stores, according to its website.
Family Christian's bankruptcy was noteworthy as U.S. Bankruptcy Judge John Gregg took the unusual step of finding that the company's auction of its business was "flawed" and ordered a new sale.
The original sale produced a $49.8 million high bid by liquidators Gordon Brothers Retail Partners and Hilco Merchant Resources. But the company instead selected a less valuable bid by FCS Acquisition, which like Family Christian is owned by the nonprofit Family Christian Resource Centers Inc.
The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based retailer was eventually sold for $55 million to FCS Acquisition.
(Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco; Editing by Peter Cooney)