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Posts Tagged ‘Wesley Owen’

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

March 16, 2014 2 comments

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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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 – Trends in the Wider Market

April 13, 2013 2 comments

Canadian retail blogger, PaulThinkingOutLoud was upset recently by one publisher’s website and its aggressive discounting policy. Writing in his blog – which is well worth following – he saw this as

 ‘Another example of a publisher or distributor bypassing the brick and mortar stores. Although some of this might be legitimate overstock inventory, it raises the expectation of consumers for this level of discounting to be normative, which adds to the discouragement of already battered retailers’.

In another post, Paul writes movingly of competing emotions during the closure of one of his stores. He ends with an appeal to press on towards the goal of in-store ministry.

Do you feel battered by falling sales or emboldened by spiritual opportunity? Yes, Christian bookshops continue to close, footfall is in decline, competition from online is savage and at best support from churches is patchy. Yet we are not always that well informed of current trends in the wider publishing scene. In the same way as what happens in the USA often affects the UK, the same is true of events in the general market impacting the Christian trade.

Wesley Owen Birmingham

Generally speaking, our grasp of the financials on both ‘sides’ is often lacking. Retailers operate on lower margins with high fixed costs (upward only rents, rising business rates – up 2.6% again in April) whereas publishing in the main has higher margins and a far more flexible cost base. Clearly there are worries on all sides and as publishers face lower physical sales, print-runs continue to fall making the viability of mid-list titles ever more tenuous. Many publishers struggle with storing high levels of physical stock, much of which will eventually be written-down. Ironically for publishers, digitalisation represents yet more cost and a growing overhead; this, coupled with falling average cover prices (ebooks sell at half the average price of a paperback: £3.21 v. £6.31).

Our industry is a torrid place. The physical consumer book market declined by 4.6% in value in 2012, with fiction down 4.5% and non-fiction down 6.3% – only Children’s books held steady. The value of print sales slumped by £74m last year. (It could be worse – in Australia their market fell 6.3%). The marketplace churns violently in a volatile landscape; over 200 libraries were closed between 2011/12 and in another sign of turbulence, Cambridge University Press ceased print production on their Cambridge site after 400 years.

Yet 2012 saw the continued growth in digital publishing, social media marketing and self-publishing. Hive became established. Amazon’s Kindle grew faster than ever and a number of other e-readers, notably Nook, Kobo, and Nexus gathered momentum. Controversially Waterstones began to sell Amazon’s Kindle, recognising that they had neither the time nor money to develop their own platform. The Fifty Shades publishing phenomenon came out of nowhere ending the year with sales of £47.3m.

The market for ebooks was revised upwards to £300m late last year and continues to grow, albeit more slowly. Major publishers report e-sales of between 8% and 17% of overall revenue. In November, the ebook agency price probe in the USA and the EC brought a chill to the major houses as they battled against what felt like unfair external pressures. Now ebooks sell for an unsustainable 20p (a marketing idiocy pioneered by Sony) and most slots in the Kindle top 20 are populated by cheap ebooks. Nielsen data suggest that there are 7m UK ebook adopters, with heaviest use amongst ages 35-44, lowest in the under 20’s. However, the BBC reports that just as many UK adults, 7.4m or 15% of the population have yet to access the Internet.

Bookshop closures continue apace with The Booksellers Association figures documenting ongoing decline: down to 1,028 shops (2012) from 1,535 in 2005 – conversely Children’s bookshops are thriving with more opening this year. In the USA, the one surviving major bookstore chain, Barnes and Noble announced after Christmas that they expect to slim down store numbers by a third. B&N have 689 stores currently with 190-240 of these slated to close over the next decade. It’s a widely held view that the holy grail of ‘Discoverability’ is best achieved in a physical bookshop; browsing activity is their USP.

The debate over the future of our libraries is equally as fierce. The UK Government’s Sieghart ebook library lending review is yet to report but author, Terry Deary said recently: ‘Libraries have had their day. They are a Victorian idea and we are in the electronic age’. How to win friends! It’s worth noting that the PLR on printed books from library lending is more than £6m paid out to 23,000 authors. The debate remains live as people continue to ask if digital will trounce the physical book or whether in due course it will all settle down benignly?

There’s a lot of anger amongst booksellers towards the perceived lack of a level playing field. Writing in The Bookseller, Charles Tongue of the Stroud Bookshop said, ‘I believe Publishers are blindly colluding with Amazon and the result will be the destruction of High street retailing’. He was widely applauded.

I like Foyle’s of London advertising slogan; This Bookshop Will Change Your Life – no ambiguity there! Earlier this year, Sam Husain, CEO of Foyle’s sent an open letter to publishers arguing the need for better terms (an average of 60%) and increased support (promotional stock on consignment). He stated that the current bookshop model is broken, needing a complete rethink. This at a time as Foyle’s announced eight redundancies. Bravely, Foyle’s and The Bookseller have since conducted a two-day ‘Re-imagining the Future Bookshop’ workshop, held in London, allowing the trade to collaborate on what the bookshop of the future might look like. 

WH Smith continue to do a sterling job in showcasing books but even their sales fall year on year; down 7% to the end of August 2012 and down a further 6% in the 20 weeks to mid-January 2013. Another indication of the parlous state of the High Street trade is wholesaler Gardners sales results which dropped 3% to the end of February last year. Blackwell’s did improve their results last year but remain loss making.

Waterstones is far from being out of the woods with the release of poor results (admittedly pre-James Daunt) showing a £37.3m loss. I wish Waterstones well because if their 290 branches were to disappear from the High Street then it would be a very serious matter, and I might add, particularly for publishers. However, I’m encouraged for two reasons: anecdotally, people seem very warm towards the ‘W’ brand and some are switching their buying away from the mighty ‘A’. The question is, will it be enough? Waterstones iconic branding campaign last autumn was well received and this year it has plans for the refurbishment of another 60 shops.

Waterstones Guildford

My other reason is that when I visit Waterstones, they generally prove to be busy places and people are markedly buying books. It’s just a shame that Waterstones do not ‘do’ Christianity better and with more visibility. On a positive note, I welcome the announcement by Waterstones of the launch of its staff-training academy and Certificate in Bookselling (accredited by the University of Derby); surely a vote of confidence in its own future by a visionary book chain?

Maybe I’m pipe dreaming? After all, Amazon had overall sales in the UK in 2011 of £2.91 billion (on which they famously paid £416m UK tax). They reported Q4 worldwide revenue growth of 22% to £13bn last Christmas! Latest innovations include customer collection lockers in railway stations and newsagents. This is an immensely powerful online juggernaut and our small trade faces a very significant challenge indeed!

Jessops Guildford

Yet I dare to believe that localism can prevail, customer attitudes can change and that people continue to care about their local shops – you must just hope that I am right! The demise of retailers, Jessops and Blockbuster earlier this year followed by HMV going into administration shows just how tough conditions are. Incredibly, HMV was selling 27% of all CD’s and 38% of DVD’s at the time of its demise.

HMV Birmingham

I would echo Philip Downer’s (ex-Borders) comment from last year;

 ‘The old days of Borders and Ottakars will not return … Coffee, carrot cake, cards and an ebook offer are now essentials for Indies who want to stay in business and thrive for the future’

We have to give customers a reason to come to our shops. Why should they shop with you? I was recently handed a forward-dated 15% off voucher for a national (non-book) retailer. It worked. I visited the shop on the stated date, I used my voucher … and I bought far more than I had intended. In the Christian trade we must start thinking more creatively and connecting with customers in a very different way to the past.

CLC London

Church engagement is a hugely important topic that needs far greater attention and one to which we shall return in the next issue. Many shops find difficulty in communicating with ministers. An earlier church / retail compact has seemingly broken down as leaders shop around – usually online – driven by ‘best price’ owing to the Churches’ own financial constraints. Managers struggle to venture outside their own premises due to low staffing levels or sometimes, unwillingness. And yet, somehow, retailers have to get back in touch with their core customer base – the Churches.

The days of waiting for a church to contact you are long gone. It’s often a salutary task to record daily footfall and till data – but it may just serve as the severe jolt you need in order to take action?

This article was written in early March 2013 for Together Magazine (April – May 2013)

Christian Book Trade – CLC Bookshop, London: a photo update

February 13, 2013 7 comments

Today I visited the CLC Bookshop in Ave Maria Lane, London, adjacent to St Paul’s Cathedral and just off Ludgate Hill. The shop moved here from much bigger premises on Holborn Viaduct in August 2011.

CLC Bookshop, Ave Maria Lane, London

CLC Bookshop London

CLC London is now the largest Evangelical bookshop in England and is run by CLC, an interdenominational Christian charity, now operating in 58 countries with 180+ bookshops around the world. CLC began its work in Colchester in 1941 and its London presence has been in this area of the capital since the first shop opened on Ludgate Hill in 1946, just after World War 2 ended.

Interior, CLC Bookshop, London

The nearest tube station is St Paul’s (Central Line) and from there it’s literally a five minute walk through Paternoster Square across to the shop. Pater Noster (Latin) means ‘Our Father’. The Square lies near the top of Ludgate Hill, the highest part of the City of London.

Paternoster Square, London

This area – originally Paternoster Row – resonates with the history of publishing houses and booksellers as, in the 1940’s; this was the centre of the British publishing trade. In December 1940, the entire area was devastated during the London Blitz – but miraculously St Paul’s Cathedral was saved. An estimated 5 million printed books were lost in the ferocious fires caused by the bombing.

2013_02130027

Emerging from Paternoster Square into Ave Maria Lane (I love the name of this street given the theological predisposition of CLC!), the first building you see is a well-lit and well-signed modern bookshop  – but leaving no-one in any doubt that this is a ‘Christian bookshop’.

Central City of London location - CLC Bookshop

I still mourn the closure of the Scripture Union / Wesley Own shop in London’s West End at Wigmore Street. As the book market changes and the European recession continues to bite, bookselling in our towns and cities is changing markedly and the world of Christian bookselling is no different.

Interior, CLC London

I applaud the efforts of Manager Petra Nemansky and the CLC team who are doing such a sterling job in increasingly difficult times. I hope that the shop will go from strength to strength as the very last thing that London needs is the demise of yet another well located Christian bookshop.

Well stocked Children's Dept, CLC

Please pray for the important ministry of this shop, only a stone’s throw away from the buildings of the London Stock Exchange and if you’re in London, especially if you are anywhere near St Paul’s Cathedral, please do visit the shop – you will not be disappointed.

Extensive range of Bibles at CLC London

Procession to St Paul's Cathedral - directly outside CLC London

CLC Bookshop London

 

Book Trade – A Tsunami of Bookshop Closures

January 28, 2012 15 comments

It has felt like a tsunami of bad news of late with so many Bookshop closures. The UK has lost 26% of its Bookshops since 2006 (over 400 outlets according to the Booksellers Association) and many of these are Christian Bookshops. This decline seems to be quickening with various shop closures announced almost weekly. Even the once-invincible Christian chains have succumbed, weighed down by high central costs and slow decision making: Scripture Union, The Church of Scotland, SPCK, Living Oasis and now Wesley Owen. I’ve written elsewhere that I believe the future belongs to a well-run and nimble independent sector. Have we simply gone full-circle?

The whole sorry saga of these closures came home to me as a bitter blow when I heard of the closure of Wesley Owen on Park Street in Bristol. This was originally the venerable ECL shop where I had cut my bookselling teeth in 1980 under the watchful eye of dear Alan Maynard, God bless him. The ECL Bookshop was originally opened in 1852 by Bristol’s famous George Muller and the building is still owned by the George Muller Charitable Trust.

I wrote on Twitter this week:

Sad times – iconic and memorable homes of Christian Bookshops have disappeared: Wigmore St London, George St Edinburgh & now Park St Bristol’.

Let’s remind ourselves of why we do what we do. My esteemed ex-colleague, Steve Bunn replied on Facebook:

‘What powerful ministries these stores and their dedicated workers had; there will be many when we get there (heaven) who will have come through their doors’. 

Our trade urgently needs the rationale for a new approach. The bulk of Christian bookshops, developed in the 1960’s and 1970’s, were a response to what God was doing in the wider church. They embodied a strong pastoral thrust through staff with a vocational calling. Such shops are now often portrayed as outdated and outmoded with an elderly demographic. They are seen as disconnected from the Church and overtaken by changes and events in wider society.

It’s fashionable even amongst some Christians to decry and downplay the significance of Christian Bookshops but, make no mistake about it, where these shops have closed, they will be missed.

I believe that if Christian shops are lost from the High Street, it will be impossible to replace them. 

Yes, I accept that we do need to pose some important questions – what is God saying and doing today? What does the Church want? Where is the new market for resources? How does digital affect sales and delivery? Can we sustain the passion to remain as Christian ministries on the High Street? And if so, how?

Is there still a place for a Christian Resource Centre on the High Street? In my view, emphatically YES. Would a local community be worse off without a Christian presence on its streets? Again, emphatically YES. However, I accept that some ministries may need to be repositioned to serve God’s purposes today and we may need to build a new expression of Christian retailing through which to develop new local relationships. 

We need a fight back. We need to show why selling Christian material on the High Street has never been more important. Closures are insidious. They weaken all of us across the entire trade. It’s bad for Churches, it’s actually worse for our culture – Christian values should be at the heart of society, plain for all to see. It lessens the availability of prayer and pastoral advice in the community, it damages the visibility of Christianity on the High Street and it severely diminishes the reach of suppliers.

I know of what I speak. For Publishers’ to survive they need markets. They must maintain their print runs and they need a sales network. Already print runs are falling and sales (and margins) are simply not being replaced by the Internet or via digital networks. Gradually, publishers are recognising the magnitude of the problem that shop closures are creating. Just where is the required volume of replacement sales going to come from?

That elusive balance of mission and business is constantly shifting. The line continually needs to be recalibrated. My sense is that we once again need to regain the vision of what can be achieved through the ministry of quality Christian material. We may have strayed too far into the territory of mammon and lucre.

It’s not too late. Publishers can still support the Indy’s and what’s left of the Chains. I remain a retailer at heart. I’ve worked for a distributor and a publisher but always with a retailer’s instinct. Other publishers too are doing their best. Consistently, Lion Hudson and IVP have won accolades for their support of the trade – and deservedly so. To my mind, the mantle of the original OM STL has transferred to IVP. They have built on that all important sense of deep concern and support for the ministry of Christian literature. CLC continues to plough a steady and significant furrow in UK retail.

It’s not too late for all suppliers to give retailers a better deal. Sometimes it’s more about their tone, not discount. Some give lip-service to supporting shops but go headlong and unfairly into chasing other markets. Retailers aren’t stupid, they know when they are being strung along and unjustly treated.

As I was contemplating this post, I listened to this moving song by Don Moen. I feel it’s apt for our present situation:

‘You are brighter than my darkest night, stronger than my toughest fight
Just one touch from you my King, my Friend and I’ll never be the same again’. 

 Soli Deo Gloria

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.

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