The growth of the two largest Christian bookselling chains was not to last. Sadly, SPCK Bookshops failed in 2008, having been taken over by the USA based entity St Stephen the Great (SSG) in 2006. That acquisition was mired in controversy almost from day one and the takeover foundered due to the single issue of mismanagement. The assets of SSG today remain under the interim management of the Charity Commission.
Melanie Carroll (ex. SPCK Bookseller) confirmed;
“SPCK Bookshops reached their peak in 2000 when there were 33 shops. In 2001, SPCK Brighton closed down so it was 32 but later that year SPCK Online opened. From 2002 onwards there was a slow decline and by the beginning of 2007 only 23 plus SPCK Online remained, and it was these 23 outlets which were acquired by SSG.
The shops that have opened / re-opened (since the failure) are not all on the same site as before but were opened either by SPCK team members or by supporters/space owners of the old shops. As far as I know, these (eight shops) are; Lincoln, Leicester, Cardiff, Chichester, Norwich, Truro, Hereford and Birmingham”.
Wesley Owen failed as a result of the parent company IBS-STL running into serious financial difficulty brought about by a failed IT system installation and the effects of the worldwide recession. The Wesley Owen chain of 41 shops went into administration in December 2009 and was disposed of in various lots in January 2010.
The fallout on the High Street from this undoubted disaster continues.
CLC in the UK has stepped in and acquired six of the Wesley Owen shops, Koorong (a respected Australian Christian retailer, founded in 1978, with 18 stores and 60% of its home market) took over the eight largest (and most profitable) shops and Living Oasis (part of the Nationwide Christian Trust) have so far reopened 17 shops. Some shops will inevitably remain closed.
In my view, Koorong has the potential to be the ultimate winner. They have the management capability and financial capacity to truly shake up the current UK marketplace. They are most definitely the ‘ones to watch’. Koorong have a reputation of not taking any prisoners! The out-turn for Christian bookselling over the next few years is likely to be very interesting indeed as a result of the entry of Koorong into the UK.
However, although I sincerely wish CLC and Koorong well in their endeavours, I am no longer convinced of the chain model when it comes to running Christian bookshops. For a variety of reasons, so many major book chains have simply failed over the years. It would appear that, in many cases, their high central costs have acted as the drag on the business and this, in a crisis, then hinders rather than helps the business.
In a centralised operation, flexibility can be very limited, hampering the ability to react quickly to any change in market conditions. It’s one thing to read the winds of change; it’s quite another to alter course in time to bring about the required changes. Once I would have argued strongly for the efficiencies of scale and the need for the central buying of stock that the chain model provides. Now I am no longer so sure.
There is still a lot to be said for a very good independent shop operating solely at the local level. Perhaps we’ve just gone full circle? Regardless of the unique external pressures in retailing, I remain convinced of the need for good quality bookshops sited in the local community. I find myself agreeing with Nick Page in his recent blog of the need for ‘really good’ local bookshops with knowledgeable staff who in turn are passionate about selling books.
I am equally convinced that people still want a ‘shopping experience’. In turn, to survive, bookshops have no option but to provide the very best of experience; to stand out from the rest of the retail crowd and to remain totally focused on the customer.
I’ll let Melanie Carroll, an experienced bookseller from Lincoln and, in my view, one of the most original and inspirational trade bloggers, have this final word; ‘Think Local, Buy Local, Be Local – Don’t let our local businesses become a thing of the past’!
The final part will follow shortly.
This brief history of the ‘Christian book trade in the UK’ is extracted from a lecture given by the author to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) Annual Conference in London on Saturday 24 April 2010. For further information see www.librarianscf.org.uk.