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Book Trade – Return to the shop floor

November 3, 2013 1 comment

On British TV, Back to the Floor programmes are a ‘must-see’. Viewers watch bosses mix with workers, sometimes culminating in an epiphany of goodwill after their stint at the coalface, sometimes not!  Management Today runs a monthly piece where it sends one of their unwitting writers to spend a day in a workplace. Well, in July, CLC did similarly in placing me for a spot of holiday cover in Guildford.

Guildford is one of CLC’s smaller branches – probably they didn’t want to tax me too much – tucked away somewhat off the main drag. This shop has been trading in upmarket Surrey for many years; first opened by Challenge Literature Fellowship in 1930, and subsequently acquired by Wesley Owen in later years, it was one of the six shops rescued by CLC from the STL Distribution demise in 2009.

CLC Guildford - front

I was really struck by the shop, its history, the staff, customers and the locality. I asked myself, what would change in this community if this shop was not here? This is an unremarkable shop. It’s small-to-medium in turnover and similar to many other shops up and down the UK. But it’s there. And, for me, that makes the difference. Keeping shops open is a particular burden of CLC. Of course, shops sometimes have to close as they reach a natural end point. In this case, the shop is there – and I think Guildford is all the better for it. What about those towns and cities where there is no shop? My contention is that these places are poorer spiritually without such a presence.

Once again I saw the importance of ‘talking up’ Christian retailing – It’s not at the bottom of the resources food chain. Christian retailers can be poorly regarded, even by fellow Christians. I applaud the Waterstones initiative raising the role of ‘Bookseller’ to an enhanced status within their branches. We rightly demand a lot from our shop floor staff, but we need to applaud and encourage them whenever possible.

This entire experience reinforced a cast-iron conviction that an on-street ‘Presence’ is critical to our Christian witness. I came away with this clear challenge to suppliers: Why are you not more supportive? Why do you act as if it doesn’t matter if shops disappear? Now I know these questions can seem subjective. I’m sure that, right now, some of you are indignantly putting pen to paper – but please hear this; this really is how it feels on the ground.

Anyway, to return to my experience of ‘Back to the Floor’. I’d been for a day’s induction as it’s clearly some while since I stood behind a counter. What fun … for me, at least. Although acting manager, Jill may have thought otherwise, she didn’t voice it, not to me anyway!  I’d forgotten so much, but like riding a bike, things came back fairly quickly and I’d actually hand-sold a quality, leather NIV Bible towards the end of that first day. A truly good feeling!

The manager impressed me. She showed sheer tenacity and a real dedication to the job, well beyond the call of duty. There was an incident in the street involving the Police and a couple of ambulances. This was well handled by the staff; they were on-hand, got stuck in and this put the shop in a positive light as a part of their local community. Time and again, I was struck by the dedication of this small team, often with very limited backup. And this doesn’t just happen in Guildford; it happens all over the UK on a daily basis. When you open your shop today, you will make a difference to the people you come alongside.

I found it hard. I found it physically demanding and on occasions, I found it boring! It was the hottest day of the year so far, the till was situated in the front window and it felt like I was being cooked every time I served a customer. I battled to get home on that first day. The trains were delayed due to the rails buckling in the heat and my 30-minute journey took two hours. In the shop, I had a schedule but it was next to useless as everything took far longer than planned. Customers and phone calls have this habit of obstructing the routine! Then there are the practical difficulties caused by having too few staff or volunteers to call on. You’re pulled in so many directions. You’re tied to the till. Having a break and even getting to the loo becomes a logistical challenge.

As you can see, it was all going so well. It got worse. I became irritated by someone using the shop as a library, spending literally hours reading their way through the books. Do you know; they were back again the next day? Oh dear, I knew that I was supposed to be welcoming and caring but in a rather small shop on a very hot day that too was hard. I decided that there are some really odd customers out there; an eclectic bunch indeed. Can I also say with some authority that people buy the oddest of items in the gift line! But there again, we were the one’s stocking them. Oh well …

I was blown away by how technology is now so central to the whole operation. It really is a whole lot easier to run a shop; from mobiles for texting customers to websites for accessing information. In the past this would have taken forever and then the result would probably have been wrong! The sheer immediacy of information was the most striking. There is so much bibliographic help available. PubEasy was a delight to use and I was able to build my order as the day progressed. Then there is the delicious irony of using Amazon as the shop database. Amazon is obviously a double-edged sword but it’s superb for in-store use – providing you don’t show the interface to the customer (as I did) and then spend ages having to explain pricing policy to a disgruntled purchaser! Credit card usage, especially for inexpensive greetings cards, made me smile. The daily cash take is minimal as more and more customers use plastic for even the smallest of purchases. It makes end of day cashing up much quicker and the card companies cannot really lose as they gain from both parties. As purchasing moves on to Smartphones, this too will have an effect on retail procedures.

What did I learn? That I loved working in the shop. Despite what I’ve said, there was an enjoyment of the day and particularly of serving people that you’d have to go a long way to beat. Good people skills remain absolutely key despite the tech. It’s still possible to hand-sell; indeed I think it’s a requirement! I know licensing is contentious but there is something when playing CD’s that does help the sale of music. On two occasions in as many days, I sold music that, at the time, was being played in-store. I noted the strong appeal of fiction. Fiction sells and it’s not correct to say otherwise.  Authentic, CWR, BRF and Lion are each producing beautiful Children’s books, the standard of which is second-to-none and a delight to sell.

To me, the sale of the Bible remains central and deeply fulfilling. The range of Bibles available is extremely good, regardless of version. All Christian shops must concentrate on Bibles in depth as their core stocking statement. At the time, the lack of Tyndale NLT’s was a huge frustration resulting in two almost empty shelves – not good for all concerned. Hodder Faith have a superb range of British text NIV’s in attractive bindings and boxes, although I’m certain an enhanced large print series would be welcomed.

Bible department, CLC Guildford

The necessity of good stock knowledge was rammed home yet again to me. For shops, it’s an Achilles heel and one where we fail so often. We do have to get a whole lot better at this. Basic product training is absolutely key. Publisher core lists are useful but I’d like to see the ‘must-haves’ from each publisher; a smaller selection of titles you simply cannot do without, as core stock lists tend to be way too long. I cannot over-estimate the importance of office-based staff being ‘hands on’ in the shop. It set me thinking – the general market has held a number of successful ‘publisher/retailer swap days’. Why not the same for our niche – and for authors too? Anyone up for it? There’s such a lot we can learn from each other. It’s totally different when you move from the spreadsheet to the till; from theorising about what should happen, to seeing what actually does happen on the ground.

Two stories and I close. Two young foreign students came in. Initially I was fairly suspicious as they took what seemed like ages checking the shelves. I wondered why they were there (shame on me). As they paid, they told me in their limited English – I speak no Spanish – that the two books they were buying were presents for their mothers at home. A pointed lesson not to judge either appearance or motive too quickly!  Someone else came in and told me they’d been healed of a condition through prayer. He was clearly OK now. As he left, he said to me, ‘God bless you’. His words really cheered me that day and I was moved both by the power of blessing and by the power of encouragement. That’s what you and I do, despite the daily challenges. We bring a mixture of blessing, encouragement and presence to our local communities.

Well, what great fun. It had been an age since I’d done this. Anyone out there interested in holiday cover, do let me know – but only if you’re by the seaside! I cannot promise to double your turnover but, on the strength of these few days, I will at least keep the doors open! Oh, and by the way, CLC have asked to return but funny this … I’ve not been given a date yet!

This article was written in early September for Together Magazine (October – November 2013)

Book Trade – What Future for the Christian Book Trade?

August 12, 2013 2 comments

As I write, the fallout from the Kingsway – D. C. Cook distribution decision remains unclear. What is clear is that we are facing yet further consolidation within the distribution sector. Change is unsettling and disturbing and we should say a prayer for all those affected by it.

I benefitted much from reading Steve Mitchell’s (m.d. Authentic Media UK) closely argued seven-page monograph, What Future for the Christian Book Trade?, published as the lead article in the quarterly journal, Faith in Business (available online, £2).

I greatly admire Steve’s ability to look forward, assess future direction and consider those aspects of this trade that many of us would prefer to leave well alone – in short, to cause us to think. Melanie Carroll described the piece as ‘honest and insightful, and as such not without elements of controversy and pain for all elements of the trade’. Steve wrote it as ‘an academic article aimed at church and business leaders explaining the issues facing the Christian book trade’. 

I was particularly encouraged by Steve’s statement – cited twice in the text – that ‘the majority of books are still sold in a physical form from physical retailers’.  I was struck by his examination of the ‘disloyal consumer’ and the stark observation that ‘publishing is likely to see the cold wind that has blown through the retail world enter its domain’.

Yet the essence of the Gospel remains unchanged. Tom Wright in his New Testament for Everyone translates Romans 16:25-26 as,

Now to Him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel, the proclamation of Jesus the Messiah, in accordance with the unveiling of the mystery kept hidden for long ages but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings, according to the command of the eternal God, for the obedience of faith among all the nations‘.

Quite a task – and still this remains our mandate.

There remains compelling content for us to distribute, albeit in what are now differing and changed formats. What has been described as the historic Guttenburg to Google Revolution is playing out in our own lifetime. Parchments were then turned into printed books and these are morphing in shape and feel into digital content. Quite what all this means for us as a trade is still being worked through but I found Steve’s article to be an eloquent resume of these hugely important issues and highly commend it.

17th century MSS in St Peter's Church in Brooke, Rutland.

Seek first the Kingdom and …

Increasingly I have come to accept that spiritual insight stands worldly wisdom on its head.

The Bible says ‘God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise and the weak things of the world to shame the strong’. How we hate this. It’s not very cool and gets little recognition from the secular movers and shakers. For our part, we chase after professionalism and eschew the amateur. We love to be seen as wise, hating to be foolish. I was brought up short by the sheer impact of this statement in Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus,

My own thinking about Christian leadership had been affected by the desire to be relevant, the desire for popularity, and the desire for power. Too often I looked at being relevant, popular and powerful as ingredients of an effective ministry. The truth, however, is that these are not vocations, but temptations’.

These truths are as important for us in business as they are within the Church. As a trade, we should be even more profoundly aware of them. All our business plans and strategies are of little significance in the light of the deeper principles of the Kingdom: ‘Seek first His Kingdom and all these things will be added to you‘. Other ministries and practices which we judge, sometimes harshly, as ineffectual may be, in the economy of God, quite the opposite. If they result in the spiritual turnaround of just one person, they will have been worthwhile.

In my experience, we tend unconsciously to turn this verse around and to do our adding up before any seeking of the Kingdom. Business culture and worldly practice rears its ugly head and takes us in another direction entirely and we think that our ways are the best ways – they are not. The wisdom of Scripture should be rediscovered for the way that we do business. I have a small plaque hanging in my office recording the words of a captain in one of the Roman legions, discovered in the Libyan Desert; ‘I have learnt and pondered this truth: there are in life but two things to be sought, love and power, and no-one has both’

All of this is far easier said than done, particularly in the inevitable pressures of the moment. We probably accept it in our hearts but our heads overrule the idea as naive, one which is unworkable in the day-to-day. In the end, God is left out and we then wonder why we flounder! Brennan Manning wrote in his book, A Glimpse of Jesus:

The glory of Christ lies in this … He has called forth disciples to come after him … they are ‘marginal’ people, not part of the scene, irrelevant to ‘the action’. In their ministry of quiet presence they do not need to win or compete. The world ignores them – but they are building the Kingdom of God on earth’.

Someone said to me recently: ‘We are where we are to do the work God has called us to do’. In this trade, this is so true. Calling is critical. It clarifies both purpose and direction.

Just how many Christian trade outlets are there?

This is the one question guaranteed to be discussed whenever book trade people get together. It’s a question with no simple answer because it depends on what you actually mean by ‘outlet’. It’s also compounded by issues of theology, inclusion (who’s in, who’s out) product type and definition.

The most accurate place to go for answers, however, is the UK Christian Bookshops Directory. This has been a labour of love over several years for webmaster, Phil Groom; to whom this trade is deeply indebted for what is a magnificent and free resource. I thought it would be fun to delve into the detail and pull out some of the facts from this archive.

The UKCBD County Index lists 462 Christian trade outlets including London (as at 30th June 2013).

The largest concentration of trade outlets is Yorkshire with 29 listed, followed by London 27, Kent 20, Devon 14, Glamorgan 14, Hampshire 13, Surrey 12, Sussex 12, Cambridgeshire 11, Somerset 11, West Midlands, 11 Dorset 10 and Lancashire with 10.

In terms of the UK regions; Scotland (including Highlands & Islands) has 43 outlets, Northern Ireland 25, Wales 37, Islands (CI, IOW, IOM) 5, Northern England 86, Central England 91, East Anglia 32, South West 42, South & South East 74 and London with 27.

Christian trade outlets exist in hospitals and café’s, in abbeys and cathedrals, in city missions and conference centres and in traditional denominational settings. One internet retailer is listed: Christian Bits, Haslemere and there are a number of chain booksellers on the list: Quench, St Andrews, Pauline Books & Media, Faith Mission Bookshops, CLC Bookshops and the Blythswood group.

One question is what proportion of these shops operate from church and cathedral premises rather than from the high street or market stalls. 42 of the shops listed here are within church premises, some of which are full-feature shops such as Origin, Woking, but some of which are probably more akin to large bookstalls. This raises the hoary old query of ‘when is a trade account really a trade account’.

The Cathedral and Church Shops Association has 120 members. However, only 29 Cathedral shops are listed on UKCBD, some of which are no doubt far more focused on souvenirs and gifts than on books, once again highlighting the debate in terms of what type of outlets should be included in our definition?  Part of the problem is the perceived (and perhaps actual) decline of the traditional High street Christian bookshop. Reports of such closures are seemingly constant and rumours circulate on a fairly regular basis of shops that are about to close.

The periodic Bookseller Association numbers bear out the brutal fact that bookshops are indeed closing at a rather alarming rate. However, what strikes one in reading though this data is that there is a great deal of creativity out there when it comes to making Christian resources available. Long may this be the case. Perhaps trying to categorise outlets in some way or other is counter-productive. Rather, maybe we should simply celebrate diversity and variety, recognising that so many areas actually do have Christian materials available, often in the most surprising of places.

Design used courtesy of Yeomans Marketing

In closing, let me hypothesise, using the data, in terms of the probable numbers of High street Christian resource centres. The best estimate seems to be around 300 shops trading as part of the traditional high street. Of these, possibly around 200 to 225 are doing the type of business which could ensure a sustainable future. Massive challenges face these shops, most obviously the internet and digital content, but not least the matter of demography as many of these owner/operators come up to their retirement without necessarily having any succession plan in place.

In terms of visibility, the trade no longer has a fully obvious High Street presence across the country. Christian resources are not as widely available as they once were. Sadly, there are entire cities now without any Christian on-street presence.  In my view and given this situation, digital activity on the part of Christian online retailers such as Eden Interactive or Christian Bits is to be welcomed if we are to continue to reach out to this nation with quality Christian material. The irony could be that Christian resources are actually more accessible now given the ubiquity of the internet, but that’s a debate for another time.

This article was written in early July for Together Magazine (August – September 2013)

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