Third Space Books: Buyer Beware

Third Space Books (www.thirdspacebooks.com) is the online trading division of the St Stephen the Great Bookshops (also known as the Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, SSG and/or SSGCT), the organisation that took control of the former SPCK Bookshops in October 2006 and declared itself bankrupt in June 2008.

Run by the brothers Philip and Mark Brewer (also known as J Mark Brewer, Principal of Texas law firm Brewer and Pritchard), this organisation purports to represent the Orthodox Church here in the UK and has an express vision of “Rescuing Britain’s Christian Heritage” by taking over and reopening redundant churches. In pursuit of this vision the brothers acquired the ailing chain of bookshops, seeing them as potential Orthodox mission outposts in strategic locations across the UK and, in particular, in the country’s Cathedral Cities, as outlined in an email from Mark Brewer to Archbishop Nicolae of the Romanian Orthodox Church in America:

The Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (England), an Orthodox missionary charity, needs energetic Orthodox people to volunteer (as they do in Project Mexico or IOCC) to come to the U.K. for important missionary work; i.e., selling Christian books in England. 

England is a land full of surprises to modern Orthodox Christians: Saint Augustine of Canterbury established his episcopacy in 597 and Orthodoxy flourished for over 450 years (until the Norman conquest in 1066). One of our shops is actually inside the former medieval kitchen of the great Durham Cathedral. There lie the holy relics of two renowned Orthodox saints, Cuthbert and Bede!

Having taken over the chain of 23 SPCK (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge) bookshops from the Anglicans in November 2006, we are now transforming them into shops where Orthodox literature, icons and the like are readily available to England’s tourists and the broader public. 

As you can see from our website, the book shops are situated adjacent to some of England’s most beautiful cathedrals and are themselves situated in historic buildings. 

England offers breathtaking scenery, mild summer weather and most importantly, the opportunity to live and work in an English-speaking environment hungry for the True Faith.

Could I respectfully ask Your Eminence to please extend an invitation to the people in Your Eminence’s Episcopacy, who have a missionary zeal for Orthodoxy (at least 18 years of age) to work for 2 to 10 weeks this coming summer? We can provide accommodation (in the homes of local Christians) and with the Lord’s blessing, a rewarding experience of a lifetime.

In Christ,

Mark Brewer

[Two postscripts follow declaring SSGCT’s charitable status and explaining how to defray travel costs against tax]

Source: Orthodox Missionaries Needed in England, 30 Jan 2007
(Noted by Clem Jackson in Christian Marketplace, March 2007)

Sadly, as many visitors to this site will be only too painfully aware, this attempt to turn the shops into “Orthodox” mission outposts was never part of the agreement under which the shops were entrusted to the Brewers. If anything, rather, it seems to represent a substantial — and, since it appears to have been attempted behind the scenes, some might say duplicitous — violation of that agreement, two key undertakings of which were:

  • To maintain a breadth of stock
  • To keep the existing staff on the same terms under TUPE regulations

Source: Straight Talking from SPCK, 14 Aug 2008

(For the record, I should point out that I personally have no problem whatsoever with the idea of genuine Orthodox Mission or of bookshops carrying a wider selection of Orthodox material: had the Brewers’ approach been more honest at the outset and more carefully thought through, no doubt it could have worked. See How NOT to do mission and Avoiding mistakes in mission for some superb commentary and analysis)

Unfortunately those of us who have watched the business fall apart have become used to seeing such violations from the Brewers. It seems that in the Brewer version of “Orthodoxy” anything goes, especially when it comes to treatment of their staff:

Following the change of ownership, a new contract was drawn up increasing the working week from 37.5 to 40 hours with no additional pay, turning all part-time staff into casual staff with no guaranteed hours every week and taking away all rights to company sick pay.

Now, virtually all Usdaw members have been dismissed with no notice, some by email, and have received little or no information about what this means for their rights and their pay.

Source: Usdaw fights for mistreated bookshop workers, 24 Jun 2008

The latest violation is at least fourfold in the form of an All Shops Memo from Philip Brewer dated August 16, 2008. The memo — which may be read in full here — includes: 

  • Instructions to staff to collect gift-aided “donations” in exchange for discounts
  • Breaches of Amazon’s Associates Programme Operating Agreement
  • Instructions to staff that require them to deceive and lie to customers
  • A disregard for issues of customer privacy and data protection
Two excerpts from the memo:

4. On all purchases of 10 GBP or more, offer a 2 GBP discount if a donation of 1 GBP or more is made. They must also fill out a gift aid form.

5. Be sure that in all inquiries for books that you do not have in the shop, that you offer to order the item for the customer and have it delivered to their home. To accomplish this, log on to our site, http://www.thirdspacebooks.com, and process their order. To set up their password, use the last four of their phone number and their initials. Example would be 8524pwb. When completed, please tell the person that we have hired Amazon to ship their order and that if there are any problems, there will be a return label for them to deal with it. Also tell them that they can continue to order from thirdspacebooks for all book needs, not just religious, and that it supports charity.

Amazon’s Associates Programme Operating Agreement specifies: 

4. Referral Fees
You may not purchase products during sessions initiated through the links on your site for your own use, for resale or commercial use of any kind. This includes orders for customers or on behalf of customers or orders for products to be used by you or your friends, relatives, or associates in any manner.

8. Identifying Yourself as an Associate
… you may not in any manner misrepresent or embellish the relationship between us and you, or express or imply any relationship or affiliation between us and you or any other person or entity except as expressly permitted by this Agreement (including by expressing or implying that we support, sponsor, endorse, or contribute money to any charity or other cause. We will make available to you a small graphic image that identifies your site as a Programme participant. You must display this logo or the phrase “In association with Amazon.co.uk” somewhere on your site.

Amazon UK were informed of these breaches yesterday morning, 25 August 2008, but as this report is published no reply has been received and they do not appear to have taken any action to rectify the situation.

Update 27 August 2008: Amazon have now replied as follows:

Because of the number of participants, we cannot always get detailed information from every Associate. In this case, however, we will certainly take a closer look at the website of this specific Associate. Should there be a breach of the Associates Programme Operating Agreement we will not hesitate to close the associate’s account… We would like to thank you for bringing this issue to our attention and would like to assure you that this issue will be thoroughly investigated.

Third Space Books: Buyer Beware

Anyone trading with this company, in whatever guise, whether online or via any of the former SPCK Bookshops remaining under the Brewers’ control, is not so much “supporting charity” as helping to perpetuate a culture of bullying and deceit in the workplace, of mismanagement and gross violations of trust. Please do not go there.

A Petition

If the issues raised in this report concern you, please read and consider signing the SPCK/SSG: News, Notes and Info Petition to rescue Durham Cathedral Bookshop from the Brewers — and spread the word. Thank you.

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