It has felt like a tsunami of bad news of late with so many Bookshop closures. The UK has lost 26% of its Bookshops since 2006 (over 400 outlets according to the Booksellers Association) and many of these are Christian Bookshops. This decline seems to be quickening with various shop closures announced almost weekly. Even the once-invincible Christian chains have succumbed, weighed down by high central costs and slow decision making: Scripture Union, The Church of Scotland, SPCK, Living Oasis and now Wesley Owen. I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the future belongs to a well-run and nimble independent sector. Have we simply gone full-circle?
The whole sorry saga of these closures came home to me as a bitter blow when I heard of the closure of Wesley Owen on Park Street in Bristol. This was originally the venerable ECL shop where I had cut my bookselling teeth in 1980 under the watchful eye of dear Alan Maynard, God bless him. The ECL Bookshop was originally opened in 1852 by Bristol’s famous George Muller and the building is still owned by the George Muller Charitable Trust.
I wrote on Twitter this week:
‘Sad times – iconic and memorable homes of Christian Bookshops have disappeared: Wigmore St London, George St Edinburgh & now Park St Bristol’.
Let’s remind ourselves of why we do what we do. My esteemed ex-colleague, Steve Bunn replied on Facebook:
‘What powerful ministries these stores and their dedicated workers had; there will be many when we get there (heaven) who will have come through their doors’.
Our trade urgently needs the rationale for a new approach. The bulk of Christian bookshops, developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, were a response to what God was doing in the wider church. They embodied a strong pastoral thrust through staff with a vocational calling. Such shops are now often portrayed as outdated and outmoded with an elderly demographic. They are seen as disconnected from the Church and overtaken by changes and events in wider society.
It’s fashionable even amongst some Christians to decry and downplay the significance of Christian Bookshops but, make no mistake about it, where these shops have closed, they will be missed.
I believe that if Christian shops are lost from the High Street, it will be impossible to replace them.
Yes, I accept that we do need to pose some important questions – what is God saying and doing today? What does the Church want? Where is the new market for resources? How does digital affect sales and delivery? Can we sustain the passion to remain as Christian ministries on the High Street? And if so, how?
Is there still a place for a Christian Resource Centre on the High Street? In my view, emphatically YES. Would a local community be worse off without a Christian presence on its streets? Again, emphatically YES. However, I accept that some ministries may need to be repositioned to serve God’s purposes today and we may need to build a new expression of Christian retailing through which to develop new local relationships.
We need a fight back. We need to show why selling Christian material on the High Street has never been more important. Closures are insidious. They weaken all of us across the entire trade. It’s bad for Churches, it’s actually worse for our culture – Christian values should be at the heart of society, plain for all to see. It lessens the availability of prayer and pastoral advice in the community, it damages the visibility of Christianity on the High Street and it severely diminishes the reach of suppliers.
I know of what I speak. For Publishers’ to survive they need markets. They must maintain their print runs and they need a sales network. Already print runs are falling and sales (and margins) are simply not being replaced by the Internet or via digital networks. Gradually, publishers are recognising the magnitude of the problem that shop closures are creating. Just where is the required volume of replacement sales going to come from?
That elusive balance of mission and business is constantly shifting. The line continually needs to be recalibrated. My sense is that we once again need to regain the vision of what can be achieved through the ministry of quality Christian material. We may have strayed too far into the territory of mammon and lucre.
It’s not too late. Publishers can still support the Indy’s and what’s left of the Chains. I remain a retailer at heart. I’ve worked for a distributor and a publisher but always with a retailer’s instinct. Other publishers too are doing their best. Consistently, Lion Hudson and IVP have won accolades for their support of the trade – and deservedly so. To my mind, the mantle of the original OM STL has transferred to IVP. They have built on that all important sense of deep concern and support for the ministry of Christian literature. CLC continues to plough a steady and significant furrow in UK retail.
It’s not too late for all suppliers to give retailers a better deal. Sometimes it’s more about their tone, not discount. Some give lip-service to supporting shops but go headlong and unfairly into chasing other markets. Retailers aren’t stupid, they know when they are being strung along and unjustly treated.
As I was contemplating this post, I listened to this moving song by Don Moen. I feel it’s apt for our present situation:
‘You are brighter than my darkest night, stronger than my toughest fight
Just one touch from you my King, my Friend and I’ll never be the same again’.
Soli Deo Gloria
After so much bad news dominating the Christian Book Trade recently, it is wonderful to be able to post a piece of Good News – all about the Good News!
In this case, the Good News Centre – a registered charity and a rural Christian bookshop and coffeehouse – located on the borders of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. Along with a number of other Christian outlets in the UK, this shop opened 30 years ago – on Saturday 22nd March 1980.
How do I know this? Well, because I was there 30 years ago. We were invited by the then Trustees to be the managers of the Centre – a brave act of faith on their part and, in my view, with that kind of start, a miracle it’s still functioning today! I learnt my trade of bookselling there. I’d done a bit in retail beforehand but I was so pleased to be asked to go and sell Christian books for a living.
In those early days, I was helped enormously by a monthly trip to Bristol to be mentored by Alan Maynard at the then ECL Bookshop in Park Street, Bristol – a shop founded by George Muller of Mullers Homes and another shop that had operated on faith principles (as with the GNC in those early days).
30 years later, both the GNC and I are still going – both a bit frayed around the edges – but still selling Christian material. It’s a privilege that I’ve never taken lightly. If I hadn’t been given that kick start in Newent, I’m not sure that I’d have had the right foundation to go on and do other things – so thank you, GNC!
Like most Christian retail initiatives, this one grew out of the vision of a number of key individuals to see their local town impacted beyond the walls of their local churches; to connect with the shopper and be visible on the High Street.
The history of this shop goes back to the mid 1970’s when a Christmas temporary shop opened in the town. The success of that venture led to other temporary sites and then in 1977, the Parish Rooms in Newent came on the market – and the rest, as they say, is His Story.
God moved powerfully through various people to ensure that the shop was established in the town. The story of the years leading up to the opening is quite compelling and if you are interested, a small booklet is now available.
The Parish Rooms are a Newent landmark. This black and white oak timber-framed building was built in the 16th century and was extended in both the 18th and the 20th centuries. The Centre features a Bookshop with two sales floors, the Coffeehouse, an office, a large car park and two maisonettes.
I managed the Good News Centre from 1980 to 1985. Over the following 25 years, the Centre has had three truly excellent managers – Heather Morgan (now with Care for the Family) from 1985 – 1989, Tim Lewis (now Chairman of Trustees); 1989 – 1990 and Peter Wathen; from 1990 – 2008 (Pete still has the distinction of being the longest serving GNC employee). Since then, the Centre has been managed by a small team led by Donna Clark.
We were invited back for the celebrations on Saturday. I was delighted to see the Centre functioning so well. These are difficult days for the Christian book trade but the GNC has always seemed able to buck the trend.
May the Good News Centre long prosper and remain as a witness to Newent and the surrounding area.
For more information, go to www.goodnewscentre.com and for the ‘Good News Centre Story’ (priced at £1.50 + p&p) apply to the Good News Centre, High Street, Newent, Glos, GL18 1AN or telephone 01531 821 456.