The shape of our trade is changing, perhaps beyond recognition for those who still think of bookshops as some sort of quaint cottage industry where dusty tomes gather even more dust on dusty shelves. The reality we’re up against is this: online bookselling with its armchair shopping and lower prices is here to stay. Hiding behind the bricks and mortar of our high street — or back street — stores isn’t working; and the arrival of the eBook simply adds to the challenge.
The former SPCK bookshops are history, although a few have risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes; and even now, as I write, work is underway in Chichester to resurrect the bookshop there: reopening is planned for this Saturday, December 12. Five of the St Andrew’s Bookshops have been split off from the rest of the chain to form the new Quench Christian Bookshops group: will their new emphasis on becoming “a hub for the local Christian community” give them the edge they need?
Wesley Owen is in crisis and we have yet to see which branches will survive: all or just a few? The bigger stores or the smaller ones? All of us are feeling the shockwaves from Biblica’s decision to pull the plug on its UK operations and until the powers-that-be decide in their decidedly questionable wisdom to let us know who the group’s new owners will be, it seems that we can but watch and wait — but is that not what the season of Advent is about? Biblica’s timing in pulling the plug — especially as Keith Danby has stated that they were not forced to do so by their bankers — appears as outrageously atrocious as their timing in implementing SAP here in the UK last year. But what of God’s timing?
What then can we do? Does watching and waiting need to be passive? Last month Matt Wardman posted an outsider’s perspective, a conversation starter, New Ways of Being Bookshop. Just as churches are having to emerge from the ghettoes of Christian subculture, are having to find ‘fresh expressions’ and new ways of being church, so too must we find new ways of being bookshop. Dozens of conversations are emerging across the blogosphere: conversations that we, surely, need not only to be listening to but actively taking part in.
For Christian bookshops profit isn’t — or shouldn’t be — our driving force: we are called be a prophetic presence on the high street, not simply another profiteering one. And for that we need churches behind us, supporting us as part of their mission strategy, helping us to reach out to our communities, to be places where people asking questions about spirituality and faith can make their first tentative steps.
Never, it seems to me, has the time been more ripe for us to be just that: a prophetic presence on the high street. Not an invasive or intrusive presence but a solid presence that says, here is a rock or here is an anchor in the midst of the storm. How we ride out the storm of our crisis with STL — a storm which one publisher I spoke to has likened to a tsunami — will be our testimony to those around us, to the wider book trade as well as to the individuals who visit our stores.
Last year, it seemed as though churches didn’t want to know. One clergyman has even said to me, quite bluntly, that if a Christian bookshop can’t make it as a business then it has no business being in business. I hear what he says — but my heart says he’s wrong. Yes, we need good business sense, we need better sense than we’ve seen behind the scenes with SAP at STL UK, but we also need spiritual sense. As someone far wiser than me has observed, prophecy is not so much about hindsight or foresight: it is about insight. To develop as a prophetic presence in our nation, that’s what we need; and that’s what we now see emerging in dozens of online conversations: church leaders are asking questions about the shape, viability of and rationale behind Christian bookshops — not in order to dismiss but to explore the very real possibilities for missional thinking that our presence presents.
I’ve recompiled my previous index of some of those conversations here, adding a few recent articles from the mainstream media, and I’ll be updating it periodically as further stories unfold. I urge you — somehow, in the midst of all the manic busyness that this time of year represents — to take some time out to read through these conversations, to join in with them, to start your own; and see where the Spirit leads:
- is it worth selling books to bookshops? John, O Books Blog, 29/01/2010
- The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street: Rebecca Paveley, The Times, 15/01/2010
- Letter to Santa: Help independent bookstores: Dave Rosenthal, Baltimore Sun, 17/12/2009
- Great deals at Eden.co.uk / Shop Christian: Mimsie, 11/12/2009
- WESLEY OWEN & the decline of High Street Christian Book Retailing: Peter Swift, 10/12/2009
- Support a local bookshop this Christmas: Liz Hoggard, The Independent, 07/12/2009
- Beyond Borders: the future of bookselling: Rachel Cooke, The Guardian, 29/11/2009
- Is this the final chapter for traditional bookshops? James Thompson, The Independent, 24/11/2009
- Should we pay double to save the bookshop? Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent, 24/11/2009
- Some random thoughts on UK Christian Bookselling: Eddie Olliffe, 24/11/2009
- May you write through interesting times…: Nick Page, 24/11/2009
- Justifying mission – as if that’s possible! Simon Jones, 23/11/2009
- Connecting to create social capital: Simon Jones, 22/11/2009
- So, what kind of High Street presence? Simon Jones, 21/11/2009
- IBS-STL an opportunity? Neil Brighton, 21/11/2009
- The fate of books: Chris Walley, 20/11/2009
- Nostalgia isn’t the source of missional thinking: Simon Jones, 19/11/2009
- The end of Christian bookshops? Clayboy, 17/11/2009
- missional thinking about the high street: Simon Jones, 17/11/2009
- Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization: Clay Shirky, 17/11/2009
- Theology Books and the Christian Ghetto: Sub Ratione Dei, 08/11/2009
- Eden and the high street: Ian Matthews, 02/10/2009
- Christian Bookshops in Wales: Areopagus, aka Bill Lollar, undated
- Why shop at Amazon? Katagrapho, 20/05/2008
- Christian Bookshops — who needs them? Phil Groom, 20/05/2008
- More than just a business? Phil Groom, 16/05/2008
- Answering Bill: Phil Groom, 15/04/2008
- Confession: Bill Cahusac, 11/04/2008
- Women are Moabites (apparently) Brunette Koala, 05/02/2008
- My local Christian bookshop… Phil Whittall, December 2007
- Jesus loves you, too bad about the messenger… Adam Dickson, 28/11/2007