Home > Book trade > Book Trade – A Tsunami of Bookshop Closures

Book Trade – A Tsunami of Bookshop Closures

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 Such shops are now often portrayed as outdated and outmoded with an elderly demographic.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

  1. mike levy
    January 28, 2012 at 6:04 pm

    An interesting and valued article – yes, I agree, we must fight back to maintain that all important ministry.
    I do believe that God has and continues to prune us and prepare us for what he has in store. We must follow him and keep in step with the Holy Spirit – without whom there is no ministry!
    Mike Levy

  2. January 28, 2012 at 10:50 pm

    Mandy Briars wrote on Facebook:
    It was encouraging to read Eddie’s article on the value of Christian bookstores. We are undoubtedly going through a period of change within the retail sector and without question it is challenging. However I fully endorse what Eddie is saying that the Christian community and society in general would be all the poorer without our Christian stores in our towns and cities. We have to embrace change but come out the stronger. Steve, under the umbrella of CRT, has shared with the BA-CBG and the Christian Suppliers Group the idea of a National Christian Store Week to help engage our churches with the shops. We firmly believe together we can make a difference for the Kingdom through Christian retailing.

  3. Pete Slee
    January 28, 2012 at 11:27 pm

    Thanks Eddie for you usual thoughtful reflections. Hopefully they will be read by many for whom they will also be thought-provoking! I especially liked the paragraph that includes:
    ” My sense is that we once again need to regain the vision of what can be achieved through the ministry of quality Christian material.”
    I believe that the future of Christian literature depend on all the stakeholders stepping back and taking a long hard look – humbly asking God and one another: “What are we doing well? What are we doing not so well? Where do we go from here? How do we adapt to the climate and season we are in?”
    I trace my interest in the trade back to my teenage years (the ’70s) in Newquay, Cornwall – as a customer of ‘The Good Book Shop’, a tiny unit run by Gwen Pearce. Gwen’s desire was to try and provide a witness on the High St as well as a place for Christians to purchase essential resources for themselves, their churches and to give to others, not yet Christians.
    If Bibles and other Christian books are to continue to be published and distributed to the people who need to read them, I suggest that there must be a conversation between all interested parties: retailers; wholesalers/distributors; publishers; authors; churches; individuals.
    While P.O.D., ebooks etc may provide text in ways that will meet the needs of some, I believe there is still a place for well-produced, moderately-priced books to suit various tastes. Surely this can still be done in a way that gives retailers a reasonable margin, that – with other products and services – will allow the continuation of such High St presence.
    Just as some publishers are – as you point out – doing their best to support this ministry, imaginative ways need to be found to encourage churches to invest in this area of mission.
    I fear that an “us & them” mentality has infected the trade and that we need to pray and pursue any opportunities of eradicating this! I think some [albeit well-intentioned] professionalisation has led to an unhelpful divide between the vision of local churches’ mission-focus and the role of the Christian retailer to help deliver this. In hindsight I applaud the vision of Nationwide Christian Trust to try and rectify this: let us not presume that they were necessarily misguided – perhaps it was just too soon and not fully thought through.
    For me, one of the questions we should all be asking is:
    “If God still wants his people to grow in his love and bring others into his light – and if there are people He has gifted to communicate such things – what are we doing to ensure the maximum number are reached with His Good News, by whatever means?”

    • Pete Slee
      January 28, 2012 at 11:30 pm

      Yes Mandy I think Steve is on the right lines to engage churches. The most important issue is breaking through the consumer mindset to help local churches see the mission opportunities!

  4. St.Denys' Bookshop
    January 29, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Speaking as one of the few remaining independent Christian Bookshop I have to say that it has become very difficult to survive. I feel one way thet publishers could suppport the ‘high street’ would be to delay online, electronic and other virtual publications for 6 months after the publication of the real printed book. This would be on the same model as was previously the norm with paperbacks following a year or so after the publication of a hardback. This really would the bookshops a hand and at the same time would fly the flag for the printed book.

    Publishers might also review the level of discount offered to Amazon who seem able to supply not yet published titles at discounted prices along with ‘used’ copies of titles still to arrive in the shops.

  5. January 29, 2012 at 6:18 pm

    Well said as always, Eddie: thank you.

  6. January 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm

    Reblogged this on The Christian Bookshops Blog and commented:
    Eddie Olliffe reflects on the current state of High Street Christian bookselling with so many closures and asks important questions about the way forward:

  7. January 30, 2012 at 10:53 am

    Again as ever, Eddie, you raise the issues and put forward your thoughts in a clear and concise manner that cuts to the heart of the issues – Thank You.

    Reading the responses on here I am cheered and in part saddened. Cheered that there is still a feeling for supporting the trade and initiatives still to try, saddened that despite this there is still much hardship and a nagging sense of doubt or resistance to change – on many parts.

    For me, I’m here working, outreaching, trying to adapt, and I know so too are many of the other bookshops still out there, and some just rising.

    Trying tried methods again and again may not be the answer, though in some places it is and has been successfully updated and driven, having a vision that is not shared by the community and trying to drive it through will also never work.
    Being open to change, open to communication, that is likely the only real way forward but how to do it in practice is the hard bit – it’s certainly not an action without stress as it’s an attitude of almost constant unrest, never knowing what may be ahead, never knowing what the next conversation will be, what the next layout will look like.

    It’s a tough job, a really tough job and if I had to equate it with anything within our christian sphere then I guess that would be the work of the itinerant preacher, perhaps similar in feeling to one of those early disciples sent out without anything extra and expected to almost make it up as they go along, each day one of change, a new conversation with the people around them and if the message isn’t recieved then dust off your feet and try again. For me that’s if the way – if it’s working great, carry on, if it isn’t then dust off that shelf and try again, reach out to a different group, try getting in something different, give up something that isn’t working and don’t keep trying to break through that which isn’t going to be changed, that has hardned it’s heart – even if it is something christian. Perhaps now is the time to try for something not explicitly Christian, to try moving on and reaching out, to try leaving that dust behind for the untried, because maybe that’s what we are being called to do and in so doing a new growth may occur – a much needed growth.

    Our Christian bookshops are closing and our church communities are by and large shrinking – maybe we are being called to be something different yes, maybe we are being called to reach the lost and not the found – and maybe that can only happen when we truly allow ourselves to change, to take the risk of stepping a little out of the community we thought we were there to serve and instead reach out to the community we need to reach and witness to.

    It’s a thought. I remain convinced by our witness and the need for our witness, I remain convinced that we can grow and flourish again. I remain convinced by our need to change and our ability to do that, We are a people of the journey, we can adapt, we can change, we can travel forward.

    I’m here to help, to share, to talk, to work with others should anyone else want to walk a while with me 😉

    • Pete Slee
      January 30, 2012 at 10:23 pm

      Thanks for this, Mel. Yes, flexibility and risk-taking seem to be so essential and, yes, it must be very challenging for those of you who wrestle with this on a daily basis. I hope you and fellow retailers continue to find the strength and vision to keep going!

  8. January 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    Have just been rereading Richard Greatrex’s post from back in January 2010: Whither Christian Bookselling?. It’s just over two years on since Richard posted that: have we moved forward yet? I fear too many in the trade have become stuck in a rut: maybe we need this “tsunami of closures” to shake us out of it?

    • January 30, 2012 at 3:34 pm

      Phil, thanks for flagging Richards article up – I seem not to have seen it the first time and it’s an excellent piece and totally relevant today.
      Hmm thinking on your saying we need this ‘tsunami of closures’ and Eddie’s use of the Tsunami imagery, a watery swallowing – I’m minded of Jonah and his attempt at ignoring where he should be and what he should be doing, I’m also minded of the lessons he never learned, I think somewhere there’s a message there for us now.

  9. January 31, 2012 at 11:45 am

    *sigh* … and now the tsunami aftershock 😦
    The Bookseller: Bulk of Wesley Owen bookshops to close

  1. January 29, 2012 at 6:45 pm
  2. February 2, 2012 at 9:30 pm
  3. February 4, 2012 at 8:32 am

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