New Ways of Being Bookshop

Matt Wardman writes:

Following recent posts by Phil Groom about the crisis in the STL Distribution company on the SPCK News Site and here at the Christian Bookshops Blog, I thought I’d run a few reflections up the flagpole.

I have no involvement in bookselling, apart from loving and buying books, but, like the Mouse, I have tried to listen throughout the last 2 years of supporting the campaign to scrutinise the rundown of the former-SPCK bookshop chain.

Where are we?
Some parts of Christian Bookselling is now in chaos – obviously. SPCK will not be back as a bookshop chain, and that has taken away a good deal of infrastructure and resources (did I really write that 2 years ago? – it’s the original Radio 4 interview) upon which many other activities and smaller projects used to rely.

Now, events at STL are putting a question mark over the future, or at least the nature, of the trade’s distribution backbone as well. I won’t say more about STL because I’m not in the loop and I’ll get it wrong.

Further, I remember Phil’s comments on the Christian Booksellers’ Convention at this time last year:

Perhaps I am unduly pessimistic in regarding Bible Society’s acquisition of CBC, the Christian Booksellers Convention, as an effective obituary notice for CBC. Perhaps merging CBC with CRE, the Christian Resources Exhibition, is not so much the end of an era as the beginning of a new one. …

This, quite simply, makes it a non-starter for a retailer focused trade event. We are already faced with online competition from our suppliers: are we also expected to smile sweetly and welcome direct, face-to-face competition as those same suppliers offer our customers deals to walk away with that we will never be able to match because those suppliers will not offer us terms that will make such deals possible?

Putting these insights together leads me to think that an important need at this time is to place the retailer back at the heart of the dialogue, and look for ways to survive in a very difficult environment.

The SPCK Experience
The “former-SPCK” position is that we have lost 25 bookshops, but with a variety of successful (or at least “working”) models emerging to fill the gaps in a surprisingly large number of places.

  1. Independent bookshop in (and supported by) a Church in Cardiff.
  2. Bookshop in a former church combined with Cafe in Norwich.
  3. Market-stalls – Birmingham and, I think, Worcester.
  4. Combined Christian/Secular bookshop in an indoor market, including a wide range of other products in Lincoln.
  5. Completely new bookshop, filling a similar space in the market, but with a local focus

And these are simply a few examples off the top of my head.

In addition, there continue to be other places where there may be an opportunity for a new project and an existing customer base / supporting community which would support such projects.

I’m saying “look how well these people are doing”; I’m saying “it can be made to work, even now, in the middle of a recession”.

What is working?
Having watched, written and campaigned about the dismantling of the SPCK network over a 2 year period, I’d note the following factors:

  1. The foundation of a loyal customer base – which can come from local churches, being a unique supplier of “product x”, engaging people via a blog, or on the ground (what about a Craft Table), or from an existing community seeking a new bookshop after the local SPCK vanished.
  2. Wider range of products. This can be Christian non-book products; but it can also be by treating Christian books as a specialist category within a non-specialist shop.
  3. Form of incorporation. As a comparison, the OXFAM Bookshop chain receives an annual subsidy of well in excess of one million pounds simply from the reduction business rates for charity properties.
  4. Online trading. Some places do this successfully, but I don’t have case studies.
  5. Certain churches have even used this as a strategy to support themselves, for example the Bradford-based Harvestime organisation.
  6. Creative cost-sharing/reduction with other organisations.
  7. Putting something “upstairs”; OXFAM tend to do it with other specialist franchises, such as secondhand wedding dresses.
  8. Collaborating with other local independent businesses in the traditional way.

I’d acknowledge that there is nothing fundamentally new here, and that many bookshops already do some or all of these.

They all have these points in common: innovation, flexibility and different tactics in each place.

Reframing the Dialogue around Retailers
These are my key suggestions as to current needs and opportunities:

  1. A lack of focus on the retailer the traditional trade events.
  2. A need for innovation.
  3. Intense economic and other pressures.
  4. Recent accounts of what others are doing successfully (or equally importantly, not successfully), how, and in what context.

I wonder whether some type of event deliberately aimed at helping retailers learn from others’ experience and to share successes and failures would be beneficial at this point.

Wrapping Up
I’ll stop there for now, and may add some more thoughts later.

What do you think?

Appendix: Some Related Discussions (added by Phil Groom; most recent first, updated 08/12/2009)