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Book Trade History; ‘200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 4

April 29, 2010 3 comments

Final thoughts

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.

My 1992 title is still available on Amazon for 1p +P&P!!

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;  

Year Group No.
Aug-05 Christian 408
Aug-06 Christian 420
Aug-07 Christian 431
Aug-08 Christian 418
Sep-09 Christian 400

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.

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Book Trade History; ‘200 years of Christian Bookselling’ – Part 3

April 28, 2010 4 comments

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.

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.

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.

Book Trade – LCF Annual Conference 2010, London WC1

April 9, 2010 1 comment

The Librarians’ Christian Fellowship (LCF) 2010 Conference takes place in London on Saturday 24th April 2010 (from 10.30 – 16.45). The theme is “Of Making Of Books There Is No End”.

The morning speaker is actor, author and broadcaster Tony Jasper on “Author Minefield: Publisher Wants, People Wants, Librarian Wants” and, in the afternoon, Eddie Olliffe, who works for the publisher CWR, on “UK Christian Retailing, Albatross, Dodo or Jewel“.

The venue is the Chancellors Room, Hughes Parry Hall, 19 – 26, Cartwright Gardens, London WC1H 9EF and attendance is not restricted to Librarians or members of the LCF.

Further details from – secretary@librarianscf.org.uk

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