Does the future have a bookshop?

Photo of Ian Matthews

Ian Matthews

Ian Matthews writes:

There has been much lively debate over the last twelve months or so about the future of Christian publishing and, especially, retailing; much of it triggered by the game-changing events in Carlisle. On this blog there has been some heated discussion about the ethics of on-line retailing, local support and what the future holds. With the kind permission of Phil I wanted to share some of my thoughts having worked on both sides of the fence, and as someone who now earns part of his living thinking about new ways of communicating.

I wanted to look at the music industry as an example of what might happen. There was a time when even a modest town would have a thriving independent ‘record’ store – perhaps two – and probably one of the major chains. The local independent created a niche through selling more specialised genres and artists (less top 40 stuff) and by connecting closely with the local music scene – promoting concerts and events and being a part of the local music scene. Such a place was already endangered by the aggressive pricing of the multiple retailers before the advent of the CD, and their discounting of backlist didn’t help. By the time downloading started to take hold (25% of all music sales – physical or downloaded – is now through iTunes alone, never mind Amazon,, emusic etc; and all of the file-sharing) their demise was certain.

The chains thought they had won, but they too are now failing (in the case of Zavvi, formerly Virgin Megastore, they have failed) and any high street presence of a CD store is looking unlikely in all but the biggest retail destinations.

What has this done locally? 30 – 40 people who used to work in an average town now have had to find alternative careers and people who are looking for obscure artists are going online. However, the local music scene in the UK is healthier than it has been for years – open mic events, pubs with gigs, concerts, music festivals etc all contributing to a vibrant community in many towns. Much of this local stuff is powered through the internet – facebook, myspace, twitter etc, and local artists are financing it through both physical sales and selling online (tunecore and CD Baby both offer schemes for unsigned acts to sell via the major on-line retailers). Local community in the niche interest area hasn’t disappeared with the loss of the retail outlets. In fact, this has driven more imaginative ways of engaging people in music and musicians locally.

So, is there hope for the Christian bookshop? There is another example that can, I think, point the way. The retail chain Games Workshop started life as a small games retailer that hit the big time by securing the rights to Dungeons and Dragons in the UK, before developing a number of product lines of their own. It catered for a dedicated and small market of hard-core ‘gamers’, and found their audience disappear almost overnight with the advents of high-quality computer games. Their response, in the last decade, was both unexpected and risky.

They decided that rather than continue chasing after their shrinking customer base, they would build a new community. They transformed their stores into locations that were family-friendly, open (a lot) and welcoming. They trained a whole new set of managers who were committed to this. My daughter has started to enjoy their Lord of the Rings game and, when she wanted to do this we went into the local shop to have a look.

As soon we walked in we were greeted by a friendly shop assistant (who actually turned out to be the manager). After a brief explanation he sat us both down, talked through the range and persuaded us to have a go painting one of the little characters each (they had 4 painting stations all set up and ready to go). He talked us through each step of the way, chatting with us and making us feel very welcome. After this was done, we took our figures and he walked us through the actual game for half an hour. At the end of this, he had spent an hour and a half with us and there was no expectation that we would buy at this point (although we did buy some paints and brushes). He talked through all the options and invited my daughter back to one of the many events they did.

Here is the point: he was creating community not selling to us.

The shop has three ‘gaming rooms’ upstairs as well as three tables on the shop floor and the painting stations. The products are all around, but the actual activity is the focus – people can come in and play (and paint) at any time. They run ‘academies’ on a Sunday afternoon (that are free of charge) and evening tournaments. Their business comes from their community. Oh, and we were able to take the figures we painted away with us … for free.

What conclusions would I draw from these examples?

  1. There is no right for a Christian bookshop to exist
  2. The world is changing, and we all need to adapt. The bookshop may go the way of the music shop, but life still carries on
  3. Witness and community can exist and thrive without a Christian bookshop – in the end the Church will find creative ways
  4. Arguing that people should shop in a local Christian bookshop for ethical reasons will only create short-term loyalty
  5. Creating community is more important than the sale, and taking the time with a new customer was the key in the latter example. I felt absolutely no pressure to leave, leave him alone or buy anything.

I do think there can be a future, but it is not a future made by generous suppliers, guilty customers or a shrinking customer base. It is a future made by the imaginative, creative and risk-taking individuals who will find the new models that will succeed.

Ian Matthews worked in both retail and publishing. He was head of marketing for a telecommunications retailer, owned and edited the Christian trade magazine, consulted for a range of publishers and spent five years running Zondervan’s operations in the EU. He is currently working with a student ministry called EGM Films, running a literary agency and working as a marketing consultant.

13 thoughts on “Does the future have a bookshop?

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  2. Ian,

    I would agree with all you said if you were totally right, but I’m afraid your comparisons are innacurate and present a misguided picture because the truth is Independent Music Shops are not gone yet – in fact there still about 300 of them still in the UK and they are banding together and working together and they are being supported in this endeavour by the trade and are working hard to survive still!

    Just across the aisle from me is one of Lincoln’s Indie Music Stores and Ben has a thriving business that specialises in Vinyl, which also is seeing a revival in poularity – Ben has a fantastic link in to the local music community and a great facebook page where he ties in whats playing in the shop with spotify, another local indie has also entered the Lincoln Arena recently as well, but with a slightly different focus to Ben and is also doing well.
    One of my regular customers runs a thriving independent Music shop in Louth as well.
    Indeed even Oxfam want to get into the Indie Music Shop business – so hardly a dead market I think, reduced yes – dead no.

    In fact indie music shops are in exactly the same place as we are – so you can’t use them to show how we will or may go to the wayside – because like us they are holding on and fighting back, and like us the canny and keen pundits are realising that with the demise of the indies goes a lot of the smaller producers too.

    You are however right about making our shops more than just places that sell – but then I would question how many of our shops are just places that sell??
    I think most of them would at least hope to be places of witness.

    However I do fully agree with you that we do need to change, adapt and to play the game as best we can – and yes being part of the community is integral to this.

    You raise Games Workshop as a suitable and admirable place of community – you know as a member of the role play game community I hold that up as a shining example, but do you know what the saddest thing is – the fact that the Gaming Community is so much more committed and community centric than our own Christian Community would seem to be.
    You don’t get these discussions there because we all support each other naturally, we see each other as part of a family – even if we play different games, we understand the nature of being community, of being different, of supporting and working together, of needing each other and perhaps there is the important bit that is being missed here.
    You see in Lincoln we have a Game Workshop but we also have an independent Gaming Shop too, they work together because they are the same but different, we the community go between one and the other without issue either for us or them but the important thing is we go to them, we use them, we appreciate them, we commit to them, we see ourselves as part of the whole, we see them as us, we see them as our friends, our brothers & sisters – and so if we want something from the internet we see if they can get it first – they usually do and if they can’t they tell us the best place to get it from.

    because it’s a real community where believe it or not we care about each other and want the best for each other and we want them to be there for us and with us(yes even whilst trying our best to destroy the evil invading orc army of the opposing faction in the most comprehensive way we can!).

    The same is true of Ben’s music shop and his music community that are rallying round – whats so sad here is the same is not necessarily proving true of our Christian Communities, that for me is the shame of it all.

    We who should be the example are not, in fact we are sometimes anything but – the example is in the fringe communities – and you know what I’m glad I’m part of those fringe communities and have not lost sight that at the end of the day it IS about Community, serving others and reaching out rather than seeing it all about me – I only wish some of those outside agencies and individuals felt this way.

    Ian, I know you don’t like me bringing ethics based issues into these discussions but i’m sorry i don’t actually think you can divorce the two given the fact we insist on using the title ‘Christian’ – if we want to take that one out of the discussion then maybe we can ditch the ethical implications too – though given the shift to consideration of eco, local & fair trade being shown these days maybe not!

    I know that you like me have faced redundancy and the turmoil that brings, I also know you like me are one of the lucky ones that have found other work, I do however question the blase way you say ‘What has this done locally? 30 – 40 people who used to work in an average town now have had to find alternative careers’
    Because the truth is that many of them haven’t found alternative careers and that is an issue for everyone.
    Did you know small businesses – and that includes the indie retailers – account for 59% of the private sector workforce?? not such a small figure is it.

  3. I think it’s Ian’s point 5 I’d take issue with: “Creating community is more important than the sale…” — I’d say, rather, Creating community is the key to the sale. Because without that sale to pay the workers’ wages (not to mention all the other business expenses), the whole enterprise goes down the pan.

  4. Melanie

    The 300 surviving indie shops is a loss of over 3,000 in the last 12 years! Compared to the Christian book trade that would mean a survival of 40 or so Christian book shops!

    My point about the Indie music shops is that where the 3,000 or shops were, there is still a thriving music scene – the death of the indie music shop is not the death of the local music community.

    You are right about the gaming community – my point is that GW looked at the declining customer base (as the Christian bookshops now have) and rather than just service them, they sought out and helped establish a new generation of gamers with a strong community. There were predictions ten years ago that the chain would be out of business in months.

    I don’t dispute ethics is important, but ethics alone will not create a loyal customer.

    I think my five conclusions still stand.

  5. Ian,

    You will always think your 5 points stand because they serve your veiwpoint and your ethics, I will continue to believe my points stand for the same reason.

    At the end of the day you are perfectly correct no SHOP at all has the right to exist other than that it does and meets it’s bills etc.

    Yes you are correct and bookshops do need to adapt. I think many are – but I still hold that your music shop correlation is in fact in error and if anything provides hope for the bookshops in that they can survive against all & seemingly overwhelming odds given they are not gone.
    That is to say what we have now may be all we have, perhaps we can’t grow the market more, but it does not mean they will eventually go, nor should it be used as an excuse not to build the community.

    Witness and community can exist without a bookshop- of course it can, but what witness is it when we as the community can’t support those who endeavour to do these things for the community?

    Arguing people should support their local community as a matter of ethics better not be just a short term thing! Because sorry it’s not just an ethical issue – it’s a biblical principle and if we can’t see that and support that then we have much bigger problems than just loosing ‘Christian’ bookshops because somewhere we lost what it really means to be Christian.

    Creating Community is indeed what it’s all about – but Ian if you don’t get that community works both ways and that 1-4 are all part of that then again see my response above.

  6. One vital thing that Ian has forgotten is that no one opens runs or supports a music shop because there is a devine spirt leading them to share the music of the world in there high street.
    However God constantly leads indeviduals and organisations to share Gods wonderfull message to there towns and Citys and as long as there are people with vision sacrifice and dedication and yes funding there will be christian retail shops on our highstreets.
    Andrew Gray

  7. i think inda christian bookshop have a place on the high street i think we need as christian bookshops to be more creative and a good customer base , using the book shops as a place for local band to do a cd sgin evening agree with that its good to spent time with customer we are to give them of being diffrent from the other shop on the high street we should be as sale driven as the other shop on the high street either

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  9. We do not have a right to exist as retailers, but of course as Andrew said, we are doing what we do, as we follow God’s leading. Many Christian shops diversify, the most popular idea, seems to be a cafe alongside. We have one of our shops in a small town, which will not support a Christian shop, so we are also a Computer shop, & repair Epson printers, In & Out of warranty, & we are also a Wool and Crafts shop. The non christian products help us to maintain a witness as they pay most of the running costs. We also get a lot of opportunities, to witness, to many, who would normally, never enter a “religous shop” So if a shop is struggling, look for gaps in your local market, & diversify.

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