It’s curious, the life of monks. Religious observation often accompanied with a stoic silence. Leaving your life and worldly possessions behind to live simply and pray. As an outsider, I can’t help but find it all very interesting. I suppose that’s what initially drew me to LaserMonks back in the mid-2000s. To have this peculiar lifestyle collide with the internet seemed contradictory, though not expressly.
I should explain. LaserMonks was an online store where you could buy ink for your printer. It was run by the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, in Sparta, Wisconsin. Most monasteries make food or beer to support the monks who live there and do good things for their communities. But the abbey behind LaserMonks saw a market in supplying ink to people. There’s a great amount of detail about this in the book about their operation, “LaserMonks: The Business Story 900 Years In the Making”. The book was penned by two consultants that came in to assist the monks with the fledgling business that eventually boomed online. They tell the story of their business model, guided by Saint Benedict, who was hospitable above all else, and frame the details of their success. They gave excellent customer service, supported their community, and eventually built on their e-commerce site to sell goods from other monasteries.
But after millions of dollars in revenue and ten years in the business it all suddenly stopped. The website was sold for parts and everything from the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank auctioned off, including the land the abbey sat on. In March of 2012 I got an email from them, explaining the business was under new ownership. Even the brand was given to the highest bidder.
What happened? I just find it shocking. One minute they’re filling out orders and taking prayer requests, the next the whole thing is shuttered. It doesn’t make sense.
The book talks so much about how they were committed not only to their customers, but the staff who worked with them. The consultants grew the business, bringing in many Monkhelpers, as they called themselves, to run the call center attached to the monks. These staff members were people within the Sparta community who needed help. Needed stable employment to support their families. The business cared about them deeply, training them to be compassionate and human. Often it is discussed in the book about the long term relationships they were building.
Their profits were doing good, too. They made many donations, supporting people who needed assistance in accordance with their mission. They were making an impact, and often they attributed their popularity to consumers that felt it was important to make a difference while they spend their money.
Granted, the book was not written by the monks. It was written by these consultants in the secular world. But even still, for people who talk so directly and emphatically about the future, investing in long term strategies, investing in PEOPLE… it just doesn’t seem to add up.
I know businesses close all the time. Just because you have the best intentions doesn’t mean you’re invincible to changing economic tides. But to have no explanation, no postmortem, no answers… It just flies in the face of everything the monks held true.
So, all we’re left with is to wonder why. Could something salacious or scandalous have happened? I dreamed up a hundred stories in my mind about how it all could have gone down. I even snooped around and emailed a journalist who wrote one of the only articles I could find talking about the demise of the monastery. In the article text, he more or less shrugs his shoulders and moves on.
I did email him about this. Told him that simply accepting “them’s the breaks” didn’t ring true to me. He didn’t reply. To be fair, I did tell him he could dismiss me as “some nosy lady from the internet”.
Maybe someday I can find out what really happened. I’m not sure if a sense of entitlement is a sin of some flavor, but I bought from LaserMonks for the right reasons. I liked these people and the idea that they wanted to help others. That you could straddle the realm of philanthropy with business and make the whole thing click. If I had to look at the whole situation, I suppose I’d have to come to the conclusion I was wrong. I just want to know how.