Home > Book trade > Book Trade: Retailing as we know it – is it finished?

Book Trade: Retailing as we know it – is it finished?

There has been a slew of bad retail news of late. Legacy retail versus on-line resellers continues to make headlines. As I write this (mid-January), HMV have announced the relocation of their flagship Oxford Street store after 30 years of trading, to a much smaller London pitch. Shop closures persist. Retail – even Christian retailing – can, at times, take on the appearance of a soap opera. This last Christmas was no exception with what had the makings of a good game of snakes and ladders!  Christmas 2013 was far from easy for some on the High street, although December sales overall rose more than 5% year-on-year.

HMV in Birmingham

Clearly major societal changes are gathering speed. I guess we will look back and see that we have lived through quite a revolution; one of those extraordinary times when a significant step change occurs. Newspapers too continue to be caught up in the ‘old media, new media’ debate. This past Christmas saw the annual winners and losers emerging across the wider retail sector. John Lewis, Asos, Next and discounters Aldi and Lidl triumphed, whilst grocer Morrisons and department store Debenhams slipped further, at least in the eyes of the City.  Waterstones, whilst not having a storming Christmas, turned in a credible sales performance ‘slightly down on last year’. This is an unsurprising outcome with Nielsen BookScan reporting that total printed book sales in the UK fell by £98m during 2013.

In the Christian market, Koorong-owned Wesley Owen has now migrated fully on-line. This January, Wesley Owen ceased to exist as a physical brand having made such a notable contribution to Christian retailing over the past two decades. The independent UK Christian Bookshops Blog carried an in-depth piece on the winding up of Wesley Owen.  Birmingham and York were the last two stores to close, completing the demise of the once ubiquitous chain.  A number of high profile Christian bookshops including the Horsham Christian Centre and CLC’s Kingston-on-Thames branch (previously Chapter and Verse) also shut their doors for the final time.

I have long held the view that the failure of IBS-STL in 2009 and its terrible impact on Wesley Owen was entirely preventable; the result of an ill-judged overseas expansion from which it was unable to recover. Without this chain of events, the national chain may well still be trading today. Having been close to the creation of the brand in 1992/93, I obviously lament this outcome, but recognise that the clock cannot be turned back. The SPCK Bookshops chain went through a similar trauma over a comparable period and this too is cause for enormous regret. Many fine, committed retail staff were displaced as a result of these two catastrophic events; a major loss of skills, spirituality and calling to the wider ministry.

And yet – ministry through print and through bookshops continues on a daily basis, often-times unseen and unnoticed. Perhaps that’s how it should be? A verse from the Psalms speaks to this, ‘The Lord will not let you stumble. The One who watches over you will not slumber. The Lord Himself watches over you’ (121:3 NLT). There remain many fine exemplars of Christian bookselling in this country; a good example of which is Faith Mission Glasgow.

Our calling is not primarily to run bookshops or publishing houses but to disseminate the Christian message in such a way as to reach as many people in this country and around the world as possible. As a colleague put it recently,

Lives changed, hearts changed, through the power of God’s word’.

Our ministry is all about distributing gospel content, however that is packaged. Once we understand this, then criticism of those who choose to package truth digitally should cease. Personally, I’m relaxed about digital, as it seems to fit St Paul’s dictum ‘by all means, to save some’. If we keep these aspects of our trade in balance, we will be far less stressed by any seeming unfairness. There has been an irreversible way to how people consume content. No one can change that. Does this reality negate ministry through bricks and mortar? Of course not. In fact in some ways it strengthens it. We are certainly not going to see the complete disappearance of either physical shops or on-street shopping. I remain optimistic. Justin King, the well respected CEO of Sainsbury’s said in a December interview in relation to on-line competition:

On-line is more than a decade old. The truth remains that 96p in every pound is spent by real customers in real shops doing their own shopping’.

Many people and groups remain committed to maintaining a physical High street presence. Don’t believe all you read about digital. Statistics in this area are wildly variable. Independent physical bookshops, run well, with a eye on costs and in partnership with their local community can and do succeed, especially where they are equipped with space in which to provide local services such as debt counselling, childcare etc. New and imaginative ways of providing spiritual care and counselling can be found which, when allied to a good bookshop, can and does make a real difference to that community.

The new Foyles Bookshop at London's Waterloo Station

Together magazine exists to celebrate all that is best about this trade. There is so much that is good. An unbalanced but persistent tidal wave of bad news can knock us off our feet but Scripture exhorts us to ‘stand firm’, ‘to take heart’ and ‘to work whilst it is still night’. These are encouragements to not let circumstances dictate our feelings and deflect us from the joy of serving God through this ministry.

God give me strength’ should be our exclamation, but in a prayerful and positive way!

This article was written in mid January for publication in Together Magazine (March to April 2014).

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  1. Dawn
    May 7, 2014 at 4:32 pm

    Lovely to read this feature having run challenge and then Wesley owen in Guildford, lovely to see the shop is still one of the few surviving

  2. March 20, 2017 at 9:27 am

    I agree with you that the closure of Wesley Owen stores was preventable. In the first instance anyway.

    I know that even Christian organisations need to make a profit, but not at the expense of putting the Lord second.

    When I worked at WO for 5 years, I often witnessed the area manager (who also ran a branch himself) make my over-worked manager feel guilty about how our shop’s takings were always lower than that of his branch and subtly claimed it was because he put in extra work by coming in on a Sunday and working the entire day.

    “But I’m not telling you to do the same.” he would tease.

    Eventually my manager took the bait and not only began skipping church to push paper, but asked us all one day to come in one Sunday in order to make the dreaded stock-taking easier.

    One by one, each colleague gave an apology and were made to feel guilty for doing so.

    When it got to me, I simply stated very politely that if we put the Lord first, he will deal with the ‘stress of the shop’ and everything will be fine in the end, but we should all go to our separate ‘houses of God’ as normal.

    This was seen as me being super-spiritual and unco-operative and subsequently our manager went to work that Sunday, never letting us forget what sacrifices he had made for our store.

    There are other practices that STL allowed which were very worldly and did not bring glory to the Lord at all. I shall refrain from bringing them up here.

    So although I was devastated to hear of the demise of these wonderful shops, I wasn’t too surprised. I think we forgot who we were serving and why.

    How I grieved for those dear elderly folk who loved the high street presence of a retailer who sold merchandise that witnessed to the many lost souls who entered and gave them a purpose for travelling into town.

    Non-respectable unbelievers were hastily ushered out of our shop, and the morning prayer was usually filled with requests to God to keep out the drunks, mentally ill and those dabbling in the occult. I admit it was often disturbing and intimidating to daily get a barage of those kind entering the place, but they needed God too, and I feel our prayers were grossly mis-guided. Of course, whenever this was mentioned, I was given that certain look.

    One day I was severely chastised by my manager when a young girl came in asking if we stocked books on witchcraft. I politely explained that we didn’t have anything promoting the practice but had several which warned of the dangers. So yes, we had books that were against witchcraft.

    I was told that I should not have said that and that I was opening ourselves up to demonic attack and that I must never respond to questions like that ever again. “You’re asking for us to have a brick through our window!” I was warned.

    I’ll say no more. I loved working there but felt more and more that we were pushing the message of Jesus out in order to complete with the likes of Waterstones & WHSmith down the road.

    Sad but true.

    Thanks again for your excellent article.

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