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Book Trade History; ‘200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 2

April 27, 2010 Leave a comment

In the early part of the 20th century, there was a long roll-call of bookshop openings; B McCall Barbour (Edinburgh 1900), Mowbrays (London 1903), The Salvation Army (London 1911), The Church of Scotland (Edinburgh 1918, Glasgow 1922), Scripture Union (Wigmore Street, London 1925), The Evangelical Bookshop in Belfast (1926) along with the London based Quaker Bookshop in the same year.

In the 1930’s, Challenge Literature Fellowship commenced trading (Guildford 1930).  SPCK grew very strongly in this period with branches springing up all over the country. The Church of Scotland opened their third shop in Aberdeen in 1939 just as the Second World War started.

The most significant event of the 1940’s was the establishment of the Christian Literature Crusade with their first shop opening in London in 1941. They are now in the enviable position of being the foremost UK Christian bookselling chain following the recent demise of SPCK and Wesley Owen (IBS-STL). The Methodist Book Centre in Stoke on Trent opened just as the war ended in 1945.

The Roman Catholic chain, St Paul’s Multimedia (now Pauline Books and Media) started in 1955.  Then in 1957, St Andrews Bookshops opened their doors in Great Missenden and in 1963, George Verwer of OM opened in Bolton. Both these shops went on to have a hugely influential effect on the UK Christian bookselling scene birthing in the case of OM, the Send the Light operation with its second shop opening in Bromley in 1966.

There was a major spate of Christian Bookshop openings in the period 1976 – 1996 with the bulk of this activity taking place in the mid-1980’s. Often, these shops had names like ‘Good News’ or ‘Oasis’ or simply ‘The Christian Bookshop’ and several of these owner-managers are now reaching retirement, resulting in probable bookshop closures.

In the 1990’s, activity in the trade became something of a two-horse race between the STL owned, Wesley Owen chain and the SPCK. Often, this was simply a difference of theology and stock-holding ethos. Independent booksellers looked on bemused and not a little alarmed!  Both chains expanded rapidly in this period, in many cases by taking over other independent booksellers. In 1993, Wesley Owen acquired the 22 Scripture Union Bookshops and the 8 Church of Scotland Bookshops, followed soon after by the English based bookshops of ECL in the West Country, Crown Books around the Hemel Hempstead area and the Challenge Christian Fellowship predominately on the south coast.  

Coming right up to date, there remain signs of life in this niche with Strongbraid Ltd, trading as Quench Christian Bookshops, taking over several St Andrews Bookshops sites in Southern England. However, the rising star of our industry is internet retailer, www.eden.co.uk (founded in 2004) which is giving even Amazon a run for its money!

Parts 3 and 4 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.

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Book Trade History; ‘Celebrating 200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 1

April 25, 2010 11 comments

It would appear that the very first UK Christian Bookshop opened in Derby in 1810 – exactly 200 years ago!  The Derby and Derbyshire Auxiliary of the Religious Tract Society opened this shop in the Cock Pit area of Derby. It then moved to The Strand around 1900 (where it was renamed The Bible and Book Shop) and on to Irongate before finishing up in its present location in Queens Street. Subsequent owners have included; Scripture Union, Wesley Owen and now it is owned and operated by Koorong of Australia.

The next Christian bookshop was opened in Bristol in 1813 by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. SPCK as a society had been established much earlier in 1698 by Dr Thomas Bray, a clergyman. SPCK went on to open their second shop in London in 1836.

Quite a number of now well known Christian bookshops opened during the mid to late 19th century including, in 1852, George Muller’s ECL Bookshop in Park Street, Bristol. The Wesleyan Reform Union (1849) and the Faith Mission (1889) also started their bookshops during this period as did the Protestant Truth Society (London) and the Catholic Truth Society (Manchester), also in 1889.  

Pickering and Inglis opened their Glasgow shop (1893), the first of a number of shops around the country. Nicholas Gray of RL Allan & Son Publishers (Chapter House Ltd), based in Glasgow, emailed me recently with more details of the P&I background;

 ‘The story of P & I is told in a book on the History of the Scottish Brethren by Neil Dixon.  P & I started as a Brethren publisher and bookseller in the mid 1890s by preacher Henry (HYP) Pickering and his friend William Inglis who died in 1906, when John Gray (my grandfather) became HYP’s partner and Managing Director. The firm expanded by printing in Glasgow and later Cardiff and opening shops in Glasgow, London, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Dublin, Bournemouth (Keith Jones is ex-P&I), Manchester and maybe some others.  They were a chain before such were known but tended to operate independently. That was their inherent weakness. 

By the 1930s they, along with Marshall Morgan & Scott, were the two leading UK independent publishing businesses, both with strong links to Keswick and their speakers. The bookshops were a good outlet for P & I books and their printing output gave them an advantage over MM&S. 

When the new centrally-run, charity-based SU and CLC shops came along, P & I found it difficult to compete and the shops closed one by one. The last to close were Manchester in 1966 and London in 1985. However the large Glasgow shop continued flourish and survived a company merger with competitors MM&S in 1981. 

My wife and I bought and refitted the P&I Glasgow shop in 1985 and opened a coffee shop which became a hit immediately. The shop was regularly voted ‘Christian Bookshop of the Year’ and in 1995 appeared in upmarket Harpers & Queen magazine’s A-list of UK bookshops. It had an award-winning Chapter House coffee shop long before Borders latched onto the idea.

The Glasgow shop was bought by STL in 1999 and became Wesley Owen’s flagship store for ten years before being bought by Koorong in 2009. 

P&I characters include George Gray (no relation) who managed the London shop in Ludgate Hill during the 1950s & 60s. He gave the unpublished manuscript of ‘How Great Thou Art’ to George Beverly Shea, now regarded as the most popular modern hymn’.

Parts 2 – 4 will follow shortly.

This brief history of the ‘Christian book trade in the UK’ is extracted from a lecture given to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) Annual Conference in London on Saturday 24 April 2010. For further information see www.librarianscf.org.uk.

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