Book Trade History; ‘200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 4
My title for this talk at the LCF Annual Conference was; UK Christian Retailing; Albatross, Dodo or Jewel? I chose the title because each one of these three images could be used to describe or sum up the Christian retail trade depending on your point of view;
- Albatross; a large seabird, majestic in flight or as in Coleridge, a ‘burden or encumbrance’
- Dodo; a flightless bird known only in history; extinct, long gone, utterly dead and finished
- Jewel; beautiful to look at, highly valued. precious to its owner, ‘the jewel in the crown’
I believe I had a definite calling to what for me is the vocation of Christian literature. For the past 30 years I have engaged in this activity in various forms; as a bookseller, a writer, a distributor and a publisher. I retain a fundamental belief in the importance of maintaining a Christian witness on the High Streets of our country. I therefore cannot but help feel that the loss of any Christian shops on the High Street is a bad thing and I, for one, mourn the recent demise of those that have failed particularly so many of the SPCK shops. This has thrown up fundamental questions as to how the collapse of quite so many shops was allowed to happen in the way that it so tragically did.
Controversially, I have long pondered whether the separation of Christian bookshops into a specific subset of the wider book trade will turn out in the longer term to have been a mistake? Would it have been better for these specialist outlets simply to have remained part of the wider general bookselling community as it is elsewhere in the world, particularly the USA? To outsiders, our bookshop names must inevitably seem a little twee and out-of-touch. Does such a separation help or hinder our aspirations for engaging in Christian witness? I still don’t really know the answer to that one.
Many commentators would argue that to be a truly national retail chain, you need at least 600 outlets to be represented in the main towns and cities. No Christian operator has ever come close although at one point in the 1990’s there were probably over 600 Christian Bookshops of some shape or size across the UK, but operating independently. Those numbers have dwindled and are dwindling still. There is some evidence of new players entering the market year-on-year but, on the whole, numbers of Christian bookshops are consistently down.
Most Christian publishers work today on the basis that there are around 150 – 200 bookshops in the Christian niche capable of carrying out a viable trade. Interestingly, official figures from the BA suggest this is much higher with the membership of the Christian Group of the Booksellers Association holding steady at around at 400 outlets;
Due to its unique history, Northern Ireland remains the strongest market for Christian product when compared to its population size; this region continues to sell more Christian books per head than anywhere else in the UK. In the other regions, Scottish shops are now mostly sited in the Central belt and conurbations and there are virtually no Christian bookshops in Wales outside of the Cardiff area.
In my view, internet retailers will win every time on the basis of price, range and convenience. If ‘Bricks and Mortar’ booksellers are to succeed in the future, they will have to provide that illusive and intangible ‘sense of experience’ to their customers. In some respects, that’s all bookshops have to offer but maybe, done well, that’s all they need? The challenge we face today is to ask and answer the question, ‘what should the Christian bookshop of the 21st century look like’? Is it, as the always-incisive Phil Groom has suggested, best seen as a ‘sacred space’ or will it, as a commercial entity, cease to exist at all, lost as an irrelevance in an increasingly secular world?
As Phil Groom has pointed out elsewhere, why do we buy expensive coffee in the surroundings of our local Starbucks or Costa Coffee when we could make the same cup of coffee at home far, far cheaper? The answer of course is that we are buying into the ‘experience’ and the ‘sense of community’. Therein may lie the solution to the question-mark hanging over the local Christian bookshop.
This new ‘old’ model using innovative and collaborative local community initiatives is most definitely returning. Yes, of course you can buy books cheaper elsewhere but if the experience is delivered well, then people will continue to shop with you particularly if you are an integral part of their local community and if, more importantly, their experience of your retail offering is consistently good.
Nick Page in a blog last year is of the view that ‘average’ is no longer good enough. If there is to be a future, then the bookshops have to be ‘really good’ and run by people who love books and love selling books. They have to be ‘exciting, memorable, fascinating’ where events are held and reading encouraged. In short, to be successful, this bookshop has to have ‘personality’!
For me, one striking fact is the high level of quality debate amongst bookshop practitioners today which in itself should encourage us that a new kind of future could emerge. Thanks for sticking with me throughout this 200-year history! I hope it didn’t feel that long and that you picked up some useful thoughts en route. We have a lot to thank those early pioneers in Derby for. I would have loved to have worked in a shop where you answered the phone with ‘Good morning, this is The Derby and Derbyshire Auxiliary of the Religious Tract Society, can I help you’!
Let’s celebrate those 200 years of Christian bookselling in this country. The Christian message of love and hope through Jesus Christ, delivered via whatever format you might choose, still has the power to change lives and circumstances. May God bless you.
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.