Christian Bookshops: who needs them? Part 2

Melanie Carroll of Unicorn Tree Books, Lincoln, posted the following back on May 28th in the ‘Christian Bookshops — who needs them?‘ thread. That thread remains the all-time most-visited post on this blog and Melanie’s comments seem to raise several important points from that discussion.

She writes:

Had to join in here and just put forward a few (okay a lot of) views & thoughts based on the discussion.

I have been running Christian bookshops (various ones of the SPCK ilk mostly) for almost 14 years, and one of the things I most remember is my first Bookshop Managers conference with SPCK when there was a big discussion about the brand, the name and what we stocked etc. It was quite heated at times, at that point we had some shops that sold a lot of general books and made good money! but the then leadership wanted us to move into a different outlook – some of us agreed – some didn’t, but the one thing I said then and that I say now and stand by is that I can run and (excuse the bad grammer here!) be a Christian bookshop without ever having a so called christian book on the shelf – because its my actions that make the christian bookshop, by our actions and attitudes we spread the gospel and outreach – the books are helpful but not the thing that makes the connection. However that being said I strongly advocate that we should have shops, yes real physical ones, that are out there stocking books with christian centric themes and views – and on this it should be diverse as the faith is diverse! Jesus had 12 disciples not one and I can tell from the gospels that all of them had differing views and outlooks, so for me thats my model, putting forward the differing characteristics inherent in the faith so as to reach as many as possible and not bar the gate.

I left SPCK/SSG over a year ago now and not happily I admit (the tribunal word was not just a word! but being christian we settled out of court). That was ok as I was going to go independent anyway, I got myself a beautiful dirty and run down shop (so ok its units on an indoor market but believe me my stall is as large as my old shop was!) however it was to general books I was going as I love them and did not want to compete with my old shop and risk my staffs livelihoods.

I love selling general books, US Imports etc, and I get to sell Jigsaws, models, dvds and specialist genre’s that I and the customers seem to like (I guess this is the equivalent of Christian tat??)

However I missed selling Christian Books – that had not just been a job to me – it was a vocation! I studied theology up to Masters Level, and my mother tells of me from very small when being asked what i was going to do when I grew up saying i was going to work for god and have a bookshop – so my job was a vocation, a commitment, and act of faith (yes I know that sounds holier than holy – but believe me anyone who knows me knows I ain’t holy! this is just how I feel).

So back in February I went back to my love and am now an independent Christian retailer as well as a general bookshop.

I have sacrificed my income, my savings and viable selling space to put in a dedicated Christian & church supplies unit (and getting the permission off the council to do so is a saga in itself and we have to say Religious Books above the actaul unit! I kid you not getting the permission to do this took nearly 3 months due to the word christian, it would have been so very much easier to give in!) I admit this was my choice and my decision but I do believe that it was the only right thing to do – a city or large town should have a christian bookshop – not everyone uses the internet or has credit cards, and sometimes church candles just get broke by the flower arranger tripping down the altar.

However I need to state here that most of you wont like my shop, as I said it is in a market – so it has no swank and naturally lots of dust! the whole interior of the market looks like it escaped from a bad 80’s film, however the one thing it does have is immense outreach possibility as there is no barrier to it and the general public at all, no scary door and anyone walking past can see the crosses, bibles etc.

I have a spinner of cards and would hope that they are not too cheesy – actaully they look pretty much like most of the cards being sold in the card shops outside except they have a scripture verse inside etc. I do have gifts and olive wood holding crosses, rosaries and prayer cards etc, christian tack I suppose but I would hope not too bad! I have a simple policy – if one of my family wouldn’t buy it I don’t buy it – after all my family is an average family ranging from a kid to the grandpy’s! long term married, divorce stats and single parent kids, agnostics, atheists and the committed! Some of us have degrees and some just finished school, some are travelled and some aren’t! It seems therefore like a good policy to hold.

So I want people to use me, and I hope that I give good service and am serving a purpose.

Do I mind if you buy from Amazon – not if you genuinely can get it much cheaper – but lets be honest a lot of Christian Books on Amazon are not cheaper and some even carry a surcharge! and these are books that are common to my (and I am sure a lot of other christian bookshops) shelves, and don’t forget to factor in carriage and wait time! if you buy it from me there is no wait time (except at the till) if it’s in stock and if it isn’t then there is no postage charge when I order it in for you! (same goes for many other bookshops too).

Also remember Amazon and the like tend not to offer you bookstalls when or if needed!

I was the manager of SPCKOnline before it got danger warnings! I grew that site from its infancy just weeks after it went live! so believe me you won’t get someone more comitted to the concept of online christian retailing (and I hope in time to have the time and finances to do it again for me!), but I would always advocate real physical shops in our streets and that we still use them along with the online side. After all community involves relationship, and though my cyber friends like yourselves are fantastic – when I am grieving you cannot hug me or hand me a hanky! and though smilies make me smile they don’t really work the same way as a smile with eye contact (and no its not the same when I use icam either!), so I think there is still a place for real shops and I hope that we can see past the dust and into the heart of the shabby chic at the commitment that is there whether we agree with it of not.

Oh and remember if the shop assistant in anyshop is scowling, looking grumpy, or is a tad biting then just have a quick check of your own face and vocal tone as basic psychology is we reflect back, and its very easy to not realise we are looking sad, grumpy, unhappy etc ourselves (I know as I am that person, I have a serious face that my niece says looks scary! when i am in a hurry, on a mission or just thinking or not), of course it also could be they have a headache, have just been yelled at by the prior customer for something not their fault or are going through some sort of hardship! Shop assistants are just human beings too!

Ok climbing off the orange box now – hope you will all forgive me at some point – feel free to flick orange peel at me!