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Book Trade: Literacy matters – and Libraries matter too

June 4, 2014 1 comment

Libraries are once again in the news, and not for the most encouraging of reasons. Closures, cuts and low staff morale seem to be the order of the day. Austerity has taken its toll. In that sense, libraries and bookshops have much in common. Both are fighting for the attention of the reading public, both are under pressure, feeling under-appreciated and threatened in a fast-paced and increasingly digital reading environment.

Closure statistics are salutary. 100 libraries are slated for closure this year, plus 200-300 others to be taken over by volunteers, with the inevitable loss of a professional service. One library campaigner was reported in The Bookseller in February as saying, ‘We are in a state of emergency’. Local authorities will see cuts to their budget this year of 2.9%. One library assistant from British Columbia posted, ‘Cutting libraries during a recession is like cutting hospitals during a plague’. That quote obviously resonated as it’s now all over the Internet.

The authoritative Public Library News website states that, since April 2013, 489 libraries (including 81 mobile libraries) have been closed, or are likely to be closed or have already been passed over to volunteers. This disturbing figure is almost 12% of the total library estate of approximately 4,134 libraries around the country. It is just possible that local campaigning may halt a small number of these closures.

Yet this is not the whole story. There is another aspect to this particular soundtrack. The fight back has started. Central government is being forced to listen to a growing chorus of concern. The many thousands of employed librarians and their libraries are an irreplaceable national treasure. Most agree that libraries are vital centres for literature and reading. Libraries – along with most well run bookshops – emphatically have a future, albeit one that may be somewhat different from that which has gone before.

In September 2013, against these current trends, Birmingham City Council opened their flagship 31,000 sq. feet, 10-floor ‘Library of Birmingham’; one of the largest libraries in the world, and built at a cost of £189m. This library houses over one million books, the Quaker Cadbury family’s ‘Bournville Village Trust Archive’, and one of the two most important Shakespeare collections in the world. Manchester and Liverpool have also opened revamped libraries very recently, both projects costing many millions of pounds.

Birmingham library pic

What are the actual facts about libraries in the UK today?

  • There are 4,134 public libraries in the UK (including mobiles)
  • 40 new libraries opened in 2012 and 2013
  • There are 288 million visits to public libraries each year
  • This represents 4,522 visits per 1,000 of the population
  • There are 42,914 computer terminals in libraries, all with library catalogue and public internet access
  • Public libraries lend 262.7 million books a year
  • This breaks down into: 91.6 million children’s books; 116 million adult fiction; 54.6 million adult non-fiction
  • There are 10.3 million active borrowers

(Source: The Reading Agency – accessed 20 March 2014)

The Bookseller noted in a recent editorial, ‘there were 10 times as many library visits last year as there were votes cast at the last General Election!’ These statistics are impressive. Closures are obviously a real concern but these numbers are evidence of very considerable traffic flow in and out of the public library service every day.

The reinvention of the public library – as with the local bookshop – is underway. The coalition government has just reconvened the Sieghart Commission (chaired by a Publisher) to report independently on the English library service, and report back to Parliament later this year. Its remit is to investigate how our public libraries should adapt for 21st century use. The importance of this commission is that its members are widely respected across all parts of our industry. This same group published a report on E-lending via libraries last year; the conclusions of which have been broadly supported, although the Booksellers Association has since expressed well-argued concerns and is requesting certain safeguards for bookshops. One of the newer members of the commission, Luke Johnson, suggests that future library services may well include computer training, childcare and career advice. However, the core activity of promoting literacy and reading must surely continue.

Anyway, why am I writing about libraries in an esteemed journal dedicated to retailing and publishing? Well, for one thing, we each share a common vocation and the deep conviction that books are vital to the health of society, and need to be made available as widely as possible. Speak to anyone, and most will be able to recall their own childhood library. I visited my own local library in the Cotswolds on a weekly basis, taking out a pile of books every time. I came to know exactly what was on each of the shelves, and I was given special dispensation to take out more books than was normally allowed! There is no way that my parents could have supported my reading habit financially were it not for this library. As I write, in my mind’s eye, the whereabouts of those books and layout of the shelves remain a clear memory. My two-year-old grandson has taken up the mantle, delighting in a large pile of children’s picture books on a regular basis. I too have discovered the capers of Elmer the Elephant.

We should all care about the future fate of our local libraries. The library continues to form part of that vital chain in introducing books and learning to future readers. In other words, the future customers of all good bookshops! We have tended to take our libraries for granted. I realise that there are those who see them as an anachronism in an age of the god, Amazon. Governments dislike the expense. The 152 separate local authorities responsible for the UK’s library estate are caught between ‘a rock and a hard place’ in trying to balance their books, so the easiest option is their closure. This is short-termism at its very worse.

Thankfully, councils have a statutory duty under a 1964 Act of Parliament to provide a ‘comprehensive and efficient library service’ for their local communities. Anyone living in the UK is legally entitled to borrow a book free-of-charge from the public library. Oddly, whilst prisons have the same duty to provide a prison library, this is not the case for schools.

We sometimes fail to realise that for some people, books remain expensive, particularly for the vociferous reader. Affordability of books remains a real issue, especially for young families and other sections of society. Not everyone has sufficient disposable income to spend on books. Why then are we closing so many libraries in the UK and removing this hard won social resource? Like bookshops, once they are gone, it’s next to impossible to bring them back again. Does anyone actually care? Well, yes – many people do, and the Internet is full of campaigning websites indicating significant grass-roots support around the country.

Among these websites are:

www.publiclibrariesnews.com

www.readingagency.org.uk/news      Click on ‘library facts’

www.voicesforthelibrary.org.uk

One of the more concerning aspects of this unfolding story is the sheer loss of library staff from the profession. Figures collated by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy show that employed staff numbers dropped 6.8% in the year 2012-13 to 20,302 professionals. Yet library volunteers in the same period shot up 45% to 33,808. For a vital public service this represents a double whammy: the closure of library buildings, and the loss of books and professional staff. The six million dollar question within the profession is whether volunteers are really in any position to run an efficient library service? That particular jury will remain out for some while yet. Readers of this magazine will keep these closures and redundancies in their prayers, especially as many Christians work within the library world. Their profession is hurting in much the same way as in the publishing and retailing world, with the attendant impact of uncertainty and unsettledness on so many families.

I remain as passionate about the future of libraries as I do the future of bookshops. I fully expect both to remain part of our literary landscape. This is one reason why I am involved with Speaking Volumes, a growing charity that exists ‘to help libraries stock good-quality Christian books for all readers to enjoy’.  We work with public libraries, and also libraries in schools, prisons, hospices, playgroups and churches – anywhere, in fact, that books are lent or made available to a wide readership, and we assist by providing 50% of the full price of the books and DVDs.

In April, the ‘Librarians’ Christian Fellowship’, recently re-branded as ‘Christians in Library and Information Services’ (CLIS), appointed me as their next President. I am the first non-Librarian to hold this post, so feel something of a fraud! No matter, I’m a bookman at heart and anyway, I’d always harboured an ambition (unfulfilled) to train as a librarian.

This appointment signals CLIS’s desire to bring those of us involved in books – whether authors, booksellers, librarians or publishers – closer together. To quote ‘The Christian Librarian’ journal, this change of name:

‘Signals to the wider professional world that CLIS is responding to changing times; to the way jobs and work places may be nothing like the work patterns and careers of the past. We have come to this point out of a deep conviction about our calling as a Christian voice in an increasingly secular world’.

This is absolutely a platform upon which I am proud to stand.

This article was written in March for publication in Together Magazine (May to June 2014).

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Book Trade – Christian Resources Together 2011; Full Workshop Text

June 15, 2011 4 comments

ALBATROSS, DODO OR JEWEL

‘Is there still a place for Christian bookshops to sparkle on the High Street’?

Introduction

Last year I was asked to give a lecture on Christian Retailing to the Librarians’ Christian Fellowship and Steve Briars invited me to deliver similar material at this year’s CRT.  I am delighted to do so – although the two audiences are quite different!  Since that lecture in April 2010, things have moved on a pace and we are learning to live with constant challenges and change. However, there is no lack of evidence that we are involved in changing people’s lives on a daily basis.

I aim to address four incontrovertible facts facing all Christian retailers;

  • The UK is increasingly secularised and less open to Christian forms of spirituality
  • Formats, methods and channels – but not the content – are changing almost on a daily basis
  • Consumers, and particularly younger people, are not buying as many physical books as before
  • The Christian industry – Booksellers and Publishers – is undergoing a serious and prolonged period of retrenchment and rationalisation

I have invited three practising retailers –

  • Andrew Lacey, Manager of GLO Bookshop, Motherwell, Scotland
  • Melanie Carroll, Owner of Unicorn Tree Books and Crafts, Lincoln
  • Steve Mitchell, Retail Director of Wesley Owen

each representing different facets of our trade – to address this question;

  • How can our trade best communicate the Good News in an increasingly post ‘bricks and mortar’ era and to a progressively digital generation?

Which of these three images describe and/or sum up today’s Christian book trade;

  • Albatross; large seabird, majestic in flight or as in Coleridge, a ‘burden or encumbrance’
  • Dodo; 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’

A brief trade overview

  • The very first UK Christian Bookshop opened in Derby in 1810 – Just over 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, STL/Wesley Owen and now it is owned and operated by Koorong of Australia.
  • Just to add ecumenical balance, 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.
  • Many commentators would argue that to be a truly national retail chain, you need around 300 to 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 most operated independently.
  • Those numbers have dwindled and are dwindling still. There is some evidence of new players entering the market year-on-year but, in my view, numbers of Christian bookshops are consistently down.  I would estimate there are around 220 bookshops in the Christian niche capable of carrying out a viable trade.
  • 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. Scottish shops are mostly sited in the major central belt conurbations and there are virtually no Christian bookshops in Wales outside of the Cardiff area.

 The ‘Missional’ nature of Christian bookselling

  • For the past 30 years I’ve had the privilege of being engaged in the vocation of Christian literature distribution in its various forms. I have been involved as a bookseller, an author, 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 detrimental and I, for one, mourn the demise of those that have closed.
  • Controversially, I have long pondered whether the historical 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 our specialist outlets simply to have remained part of the wider general bookselling community as it is elsewhere in the world? 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?

A quick look at the wider social environment

  • The UK is a largely secularised, post-Christian society with a significant multi-cultural population. There is clear anti-Christian bias throughout the media and in politics and militant atheism is on the increase. Christian TV & Radio has very low penetration, making product mass marketing difficult.
  • Regular church attendance is in decline in most of the traditional denominations. However, there are bright spots; the Black majority and Hillsong churches are growing. Cathedral attendance is increasing and the Emerging Church movement gaining ground. 
  • There is a general decline in book readership in society; not just amongst Christians.  Competing media and digital attractions vie for our time and the lack of time affects all of us however much we enjoy buying and reading books.

Some thoughts about channels and digitalisation

  • The way books are being bought is changing rapidly. An experienced international bookseller said to me only last week that, in over 30 years, he had not known a time of such momentous change as there has been in the past two years. Someone else has described the current upheaval as ‘a perfect storm’.
  • There are enormous structural and societal changes taking place. These have been described as being as immense as the transition from parchment to the printing press. Most are outside of our control and are being imposed on us from outside of the trade. It therefore should go without saying that it is foolish to fall out amongst ourselves over changes which are so outside of our control and which are affecting the whole of retail.
  • Woolworths, the 45 Borders UK stores and the Irish Bookseller, Hughes & Hughes have all left the UK High Street in the past couple of years. Since Christmas this year, WH Smith bought 22 British Bookshops and Stationers stores, Borders USA entered Chapter 11 – and is effectively bankrupt – and the REDgroup in Australia went bust leaving big UK publisher debts. HMV put their Waterstones chain up for sale selling it for a knock-down £53m in the last few weeks to a Russian tycoon.
  • Supermarkets now sell one in every five books purchased and UK Libraries are under massive pressure due to imminent Government spending cuts.
  • The issue here is primarily about the explosion of differing routes to market. Print no longer dominates in terms of the delivery of ideas. Content will continue to remain key.
  • There are parallels with the development of digital television. More channels = fewer viewers.   In our field, more ‘books’ (however those are defined; print or digital) equals a dispersed customer base which is no longer dependent on the traditional bookseller.
  • Due to digital delivery channels, it is easier to self-publish now than at any other time. Blogs and social networks proliferate but some would argue that this only leads to the problem of quantity at the expense of quality.
  • Territorial Rights are clearly a problem in the context of a global marketplace. Old-style publishing rights are not always recognised in the internet environment as single copy orders are taken and shipped – often across national boundaries – on a daily basis.
  • Paradoxically, more printed books are being published year-on-year in the UK. Book production figures in the USA rose 5% last year despite a huge increase in eBook sales.

Impact of the Internet esp. Amazon, downloads and ePublishing

  • Online sales make up 17% of all UK retail spending – and growing.
  • Digital downloading is beginning to affect the sale of print items, especially newspapers.
  • Book purchasing via the internet is no longer an exception, it is the norm. Amazon recorded their first £10bn sales quarter in early 2011.
  • Several eBook Readers are competing for attention and rapidly gaining traction in the market; Sony’s eReader (Waterstones), the iPad (Apple Stores) and Kindle (Amazon).
  • There has been an inexorable rise in the sale of eBooks with PA figures showing that eBooks grew to 6% (£180m) of £3.1bn UK book market. This may grow to 10% in 2011.
  • Amazon are selling more eBooks than paperbacks; 105 on Kindle to every 100 in print. Four authors have already sold over 1 million eBooks each. Amazon lists 945,000 Kindle generated eBooks. Analysts expect 2011 sales to be $5.4bn in Kindle generated eBooks.
  • However, despite these figures, over 90% of sales continue to take place via print. Black and white text books are struggling but print Bibles and Children’s books remain strong sales lines.

Where might all this change be heading? What is the future for our trade?

  • Retailing is hard graft for many categories. Shopping habits are changing fast and there is much less time available for those trips to the High Street. When time is found, then competition for time and money is increasingly fierce.  Supermarkets dominate.
  • BBPA figures earlier this year show that the quintessential English Public House is closing down at the rate of 30 per week.
  • One in seven retail outlets in the UK were surveyed as being empty in September 2010. UK shop leases are the Achilles heel for all retailers. Most are expensive, with ‘upward only’ increases and, if not carefully drawn up, extremely inflexible. Many businesses struggle with high establishment costs and Business Rates for non-charity shops are high.
  • Christian bookshops are obviously not immune – and many are having a torrid time. There have been some major shake-ups in the past couple of years, with a lot of shops going and, thankfully, a few coming.  The SPCK meltdown in 2008 and the IBS-STL debacle at the end of 2009 has badly destabilised Christian retail in this country.
  • Demographics also conspire against these specialist shops. Church attendance in the traditional denominations is largely declining and newer Churches with their younger audiences, such as Hillsong, are self-contained in terms of their resource requirements.

Final thoughts

  • The challenge we face today is to ask, what should the Christian bookshop of the 21st century look like?  Will it, as an entity, soon cease to exist, lost as an irrelevance in our increasingly secular world or can it be reinvented in an increasingly post ‘bricks and mortar’ era and for a progressively digital society?
  • Although I sincerely wish CLC, Faith Mission 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, hinders rather than helps. Once I would have argued strongly for the efficiencies of scale and the need for central buying that the chain model provides. Now I am no longer so sure. 
  • In my view, 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?
  • In my view, internet retailers can win every time on the basis of price, range and convenience.  If ‘Bricks and Mortar’ booksellers are to succeed in the future, they have to provide that illusive and intangible ‘sense of experience’ to their customers.
  • Nick Page has written elsewhere that ‘average’ is no longer good enough.  For a future, these bookshops have to be ‘really good’ and run by people who love books and love selling books. They have to be ‘exciting, memorable, fascinating’, places where events are held and reading encouraged. In short, such a bookshop must have ‘personality’! 

A final meditation from 2 Corinthians (NIV);

2:17 ‘Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God’.

4:1 ‘Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God’.

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.

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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