Christianity on the High Street: is there a better way?

OVER THE PAST YEAR OR SO we’ve had numerous conversations and discussions about the future shape of Christian bookselling and retailing. We’ve seen the sad demise of the former SPCK bookshops (a story that’s far from over), the break-up of Wesley Owen following the collapse of STL UK when Biblica overreached itself (for what that cost, see Clem Jackson’s recent report for Christian Marketplace: IBS STL (UK) Administration closes), and a number of independents struggling or closing down; but we’ve also seen the rise of Living Oasis with its mixed message about developing a Christian presence on the high street whilst simultaneously “de-Christianising” its storefronts, various independents springing to life or changing hands, and more and more shops discovering the world of social media (find Christian bookshops on facebook | twitter). One thing is clear: Christian bookselling/retailing in the UK is not yet dead.

But is it truly alive? Is there a better way? Should we be seeking a new model for a Christian presence in our towns and cities? Has the time come, if not to discard the bookshop/retailer/café concept entirely, to develop something else? But if so, what?

Ian Matthews takes up the conversation:

Bookshops, Cafés and the Witness on the High Street

I am writing as someone who has, over the years, managed retail shops, edited a retail trade publication, worked for publishers and been (vaguely) involved in the rescue of our local Christian bookshop by a newly formed trust. I have also earned money in the last few years advising people on how to adapt to a changing retail culture.

These are, without doubt, dark days for Christian booksellers in the United Kingdom. It is generally difficult for many independent retailers and small chains (and even larger ones), but Christian bookshops seem especially hard hit. There is yet another closure of an independent bookshop every couple of months, accompanied by the regular chorus of concern about the ‘loss of a witness on the high street’. There is no doubt that the High Street is changing. A recent BBC survey shows that whereas vacant shops are on the increase, the only sectors showing a reduction in the number of shops are travel agents and off-licences (although bookshops are rolled in with art suppliers and stationers which may be masking a decline). There is no written or unwritten rule that says that the high street needs to stay the same, and the excellent TV series Turn Back Time: The High Street has shown how even whilst mourning the loss of dedicated retailers, the public will still shop with their wallet or purse at the forefront of their buying decisions.

This leads to the question I have been really pondering:

Is a Bookshop the Best Witness on the High Street?

What I mean by this is: whether it is, in the end, worth all the expense, heartache, effort, cajoling and tears to keep a Christian bookshop open; or is there a more effective way of bringing the light of Christ to our towns and cities?

Shrewsbury Covered Market, photograph by Ian Matthews

Shrewsbury Covered Market

I have recently taken some office space in the town centre of the town in which I live as I have outgrown the office in the back garden, and needed somewhere else to work. As I looked around I did something I hadn’t done for a while, and took a walk through our local covered market. When I first moved here this was a thriving market selling meat, veg, household supplies etc, but went into a shocking decline about ten years ago. I had stopped going by and didn’t go near for a few years. However, I did look in when exploring space and was amazed at the change in the last few years. The main market floor was now populated by bakers, butchers, delicatessens, organic greengrocers, secondhand bookstores etc. The upper gallery of fixed units had a printer, an art collective, a secondhand vinyl shop, more books, hats etc.

What struck me is that here was a place where the community was coming together, but there was no observable Christian presence. But I also asked a second question: would a Christian bookshop be the right thing to put in here? (We already have a Christian bookshop in the town anyway). I wanted to start thinking creatively about how Christian witness might work here. Obviously the mixed mainstream/Christian product can work (as Unicorn Tree Books in Lincoln has shown), but I wanted to think about what else might be effective.

Bookshops, coffee shops, quiet spaces, gift & craft shops, a Christian equivalent to the ‘new age’ centres you find in many tourist towns?

Two baptist churches recently merged. Their town centre building was demolished and in its place a local property developer is building a new commercial/residential building with a ground floor space for use by the church. However, their worship centre is in the other building, located in a residential area. But, like the market, they get thousands of people passing by every day (including, again like the market, 1500 sixth-formers from the nearby college), and want to use it in a way that will draw people in, and provide a service and space for people.

These are still questions without answers, but I found the prospect exciting and would love to hear from others as to what possibilities might exist…

Ian Matthews has worked in Christian publishing and communications for 13 years, before which he worked in retail management for a number of years. He is currently Director of International Partnerships for EthnoGraphic Media, a non-profit documentary production organisation. Their current film is Little Town of Bethlehem (www.littletownofbethlehem.org) which follows the growing nonviolence movement in Israel and Palestine, and is currently being screened in churches and university campuses around the world. It is available on retail release through Kingsway in the UK.

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24 thoughts on “Christianity on the High Street: is there a better way?

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Christianity on the High Street: is there a better way? « The Christian Bookshops Blog -- Topsy.com

  2. Just a quick note to say keep a guy called Dougie Hobson in your prayers. Dougie managed the SU shop in Dun Loughaire, Ireland and following discussions has recently taken it on as an independent shop. He believes Ireland needs Christian bookshops. Brave guy, Godly guy, now it’s our job to back him with our prayers!

  3. OK, so apparently we need to think about new centres of witness for our towns and cities. The thing is, we already have organisations which are dedicated to providing a Christian witness in our towns and cities, and it’s kind of bizarre that Ian hasn’t mentioned them. Bit of an old-fashioned idea, I know, but there are these things called “churches”.

    Now the reason why we think we need bookshops to be an additional visible presence in the town is because we think the churches aren’t doing their job particularly well. But if your local churches aren’t doing this well, then what kind of Christian community is a bookshop going to point people towards?

    (Unless you set up bookshop-as-church, which I think would be a very cool thing to do, but I don’t think that’s what people are suggesting.)

    Conversely, if the churches do their witness well, Christian bookshops get better business.

    Help the churches to be living, missional communities, reaching out visibly on the high street, and everyone wins.

    • Maybe Ian’s reference to the two baptist churches merging touches on this? Must admit I’ve been puzzling over this as well, though: time was when the village/town church was the centre of the community — but is that just a hangover from the old Christendom, when Christianity dominated society instead of serving it, when everyone in Britain was ‘Christian’ by default, and heaven help any dissenters!?

      There’s been a lot of protest (most notably from and amongst evangelicals, who seem to think they’ve inherited the ‘Divine Right’ or something) about Christians being marginalised — but aren’t the margins precisely where the followers of Jesus belong?

      Shouldn’t we be seeking to be lights shining in the darkness rather than adding our presence to the bright lights of capitalism that are steadily eroding our society?

  4. I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of moving into covered markets and think they are a wonderful venue for towns and cities without or unable to sustain a traditional style (or even new style) christian bookshop.

    The whole idea of an indoor/covered market is at root a community concept and so totally sympathetic with outreach aims I would hope, however being in an indoor market it must be said that there was/is an initial reaction of some as to having to come in a market of all places! luckily with the right stock and attitude and pointing out that Jesus had no problems mixing with the underclass as it were, these eventually taper off and acclimatisation happens 🙂

    I do think that the idea of being more than just a christian bookshop is a good idea as it helps spread the weight of making a living and having things that a larger percentage of people may want to buy.

    For me there is still hope here in high street, city/town centre christian retailing – I don’t think it’s time to pack up and go home, there’s much we can still do and must do because it’s the seed we are sowing and we won’t see the harvest but perhaps we can already see the weeds trying to grow into the patches of unattended areas.

    This is not to negate any other form of city centre outreach – our Street Pastors do a phenomenal job of witness and caring, Our City Centre Church Coffee Shop & Cafe (new life) is certainly second to none, The City Centre Churches and their programmes of activity, creche’s, groups and social based work are amazing in scope, outreach and diversity.

    These do a wonderful and amazing things that build up Church and Community, that outreach into our cities and towns – but they do not negate the real need for a Christian retailing presence here in the heart of the shopping area too because there are many people that pass through here in times of grief, anguish or joy that are looking for something to give or help at a time they think of God that wouldn’t go to the church to buy the bible, the card etc – and I would rather that we had places that are open and accesible that will have these things – I want there to be real physical places where people can browse books and maybe fall in love with theology or be intrigued by the idea of prayer or pastoral care and I don’t think these are likely to be the local Waterstones and in the end if they aren’t somwhere in a shop for those initial impulse buys or intrigued selection then the chances of them finding and buying them on Amazon are pretty slim really – I want to build a local community where there’s a place for all of us and the only way that happens is if it starts with me and moves onto you, that’s why I think we have to be here, but I do think that the here might not always be exactly where we traditionally thought of it was, after all a manger in a stable was not where the wise men thought a saviour king would be!

    And as to the WE that are Christian bookshops – again perhaps that isn’t exactly what it always was or we thought it should be, after all that saviour king came for his ‘other sheep’ as well, so perhaps the mixed media bookshop with, as Ian puts it, ‘a Christian equivalent to the ‘new age’ centres’ feel may well be a way to go for a few more indeed.

    • On the “Christian equivalent to the ‘new age’ centres” concept — a great example of that was Jeni Paul’s The Ocracy in the Metro Centre, Gateshead:

      Very early on we realised that because of our location our customer base would be predominantly those with no church connection and to be overtly Christian in appearance would be off-putting. Without much effort the overall look and sound of the shop became new-age, enhanced by Jeni padding around bare footed with masses of frizzy hair and hippy clothes. This was purely cosmetic and at no time have we compromised on the Christian content of our stock. The result has been almost daily opportunities to talk to new-agers, spiritualists and occultists of our faith, and to give away literature. We know of at least six people becoming Christians through this approach.

      From: History of The Ocracy

      Sadly the shop was forced into closure by the Metro Centre’s owners back in January 2004: Farewell to The Ocracy, Gateshead. Ironically enough, the Metro Centre was once entirely owned by the C of E’s Church Commissioners, who even now retain a 10% interest…

      • oh now that is one shop I wish I could have seen in action – for me this is the kind of thinking and action I love the sound of.
        Reaching out to people where they are not where we are if that makes sense – and for me here in the market with my odd mixture of mixed niche books, units and outlook it’s what I kind of hope i’m doing a little of too.

        • i don’t know if this will find anyone but i’ve only just found this post. we’ve been closed 11 years now and i’ve missed it every day since. we closed at the height of success, able to pay over the minimum wage to permanent staff, and trained nearly 100 young people. it worked……it would still work……if my health allowed i would do it all over again. jeni paul

  5. If I take Shrewsbury as an example, there is only one church actually in the town centre now – the local civic Parish church. As mentioned, the Baptist church’s main worship centre is in the suburbs (with no indication what the future is for the other building (and it will be measured in years before it is completed); the methodist church closed down, as has the congregational and the welsh presbyterian.

    The Newfrontiers church relocated to a suburb just outside the town centre over a decade ago, and the rest of the churches are all suburban. The fact is that many churches go where the residents are (especially families), and until the last couple of years people were moving out of town/city centre living (and this is still true for families and social housing).

    As such, there isn’t a church on the high street here, and I am sure this is true for many towns and cities.

    However, what of the people who won’t go into a church (or even a Christian bookshop)?

    • Wow Ian,
      I, and the rest of Lincoln, are truly blessed as there are 8 city centre churches within a 10 minute walk from where I am here.

      I guess though that’s perhaps a city thing as Lincoln, although a small and rural city by urban standards, is still very much a city with a lot of local housing around it.

      For me the fact that we have towns without many open/active churches in the centres actaully makes the need for the Christian Bookshop even greater and not lesser – it is a place where people can gather if need be, a hub to spin around (passing nod there to luke and family at Walsall for their apt naming of their indie venture). Indeed here I distribute tickets for local church events, for the theological society meets etc so that those working can come in on their lunch hours and get them.

      The point is that at the end of the day it is about community (and community at the end of the day is frequently larger than we think it would be, and if we don’t get this we are for my mind really missing the mark by a mile) and the city/town centre is as much part of that community as the suburbs – indeed lets face it for some of us the towns we work in are almost more our local community than the suburbs we live in due to the amount of time we spend in work, the number of people in work and in the shops/cafes we talk to and know on a daily basis etc so this is not something we should be overlooking at all to my mind.

      The truth is outreach shouldn’t just be something we do from our churches or even that we consider to be just under the jurisdiction of our churches. It should be something we do, we as me and you, as individuals living our day to day life, something we do in the workplace, in the coffee shop, in the pub, something we do that doesn’t proselytise but outreaches to help, comfort and guide perhaps – something that involves a small but real measure of sacrifice and commitment that in the end costs nothing and feels like nothing other than doing what we should and want to do finally.

      This is where the real connection is made and for me that’s here at Unicorn Tree and the community I work in that surrounds it, as well as at home and the community that surrounds that.

      Lol – and if you can’t tell i’ve been reading some excellent books by Shane Claiborne and friends on such things as being an ordinary radical and becoming the answer to our prayers etc over christmas & new year, not much different than what I already knew and believed because for me it’s all about community! but just written so well and in such an easy to read style!

      As to what about those that don’t come in the churches and christian bookshops – well if we are outreaching and living the community life daily then perhaps they won’t need to come into the church building so often because we are the church active, but they may want to come into the christian bookshop more often to get bits and pieces to read or to share and encourage, and in so doing may well cause the church to be even more alive and active on every street corner and in every local community and our church buildings might again overflow!

      Wishful thinking? maybe… maybe not…

      (Cue sesame street theme song music..This broadcast was brought to you by the passage Deuteronomy 6 & the works of Shane Claiborne etc and finally the lyrics of South Pacific’s Happy Talk!)

    • Well, let’s think about this a bit more and follow some of these ideas through.

      So churches aren’t on the high street, but they’re going where people are. That’s a good thing, and exactly what they should be doing. But it also suggests that they don’t think that high street presence is important – otherwise they would be doing something about this. Either they know something we don’t, and they’re right about this (in which case, bookshops etc. really are a waste of time) or we know something they don’t and they’re wrong (in which case, they need their minds changed in order to be missionally effective). So any action still needs to be done at the church level.

      Second, you say “what of the people who won’t go into a church?” The obvious question is, why wouldn’t they? Because church isn’t interesting for them? The implication here is that we need some kind of gateway drug in order to get people into something that actually they don’t like and don’t want. In which case, the underlying problem is again that the church isn’t able to connect with where people are. Fix this problem, and mission will flourish, and bookshops along with it.

      But once again, if real, attractive Christian community isn’t available, then what are bookshops (or whatever) going to point people towards?

      I’m not against parachurch evangelism – I’m a church planter with a parachurch organisation myself – but I really don’t think that a bookshop or coffee shop or anything else makes sense unless it can key into live Christian community.

      I think all of this shows that we need new forms of church which can connect with where people are, which do offer community and which value Christians sharing their faith in the high street and the suburbs. If we don’t have that, then we’re just trying to put a plaster on a broken leg.

      • I think the point is that some people are not going to go into a church, and that is the wrong way to think about it.

        Malcolm Duncan likes to say that we make a mistake when our ecclesiology shapes our missiology, but that our missiology needs to shape our ecclesiology. Maybe some people will never come into Church as we know it, but a mission on the high street creates a fresh expression of church – and there are plenty of people there in the town centres – workers, shoppers and a newer resident (mainly young couples, singles and retirees).

      • hmm, picking up on something here, Simon, and I accept my view may not be the traditional or standard christian bookshop one (so standard disclaimer type blurb – these are my views only and are as likely to be right as wrong because I’m not there yet and still working things through here on earth with the help of God!), but you keep referencing to there being no point for the Christian Bookshop if we can’t ‘key into live Christian community’ and even say ‘if real, attractive Christian community isn’t available, then what are bookshops (or whatever) going to point people towards?’

        You see here’s the thing, I get what you’re saying on one level and appreciate the points you make, however… it’s not my job to point people to ‘a church’, any church, unless it’s the corporate community of believers!

        I can, will and do tell them of all the churches I know about, I can pass them my leaflet on the churches in our area and their styles/denominations but I Wont favour one over the other – that’s not my role or my job, it’s not my mission and it’s not to my mind community friendly.

        You see I believe my shop IS a live christian presence, is a part of a real Christian community – one that’s made of many different people across many different traditions and that they each are active in their churches, community networks and in their lives – the church is one body with many parts and my small shop is one of those parts, probably just a little finger knuckle or something even smaller, maybe one of the many small bones that make up our feet!

        I provide, I hope!, seed that can be sown and maybe flourish, I provide a space for idea’s to percolate, for questions to be asked and maybe answered, for tools to be found and for a light (small and dim as it may seem sometimes but there nontheless) to be passed on perhaps – thats my mission and it’s real and alive and it’s active 6 days a week, indeed on the 7th I rest and focus on some of my other communities needs and works 😉

        You see for me Church is the people not the place, wherever 2 or more are… and sometimes it’s even allowed for us to be just one when we go into our private places to pray…

        So you know that thing you said about Bookshops being Church – lol, well I guess maybe some of us are kind of advocating that, just not quite in the same way as you might think though!

        Like I say, I do get what you are saying and I pray for our churches to increase and grow, to become places of plenty where living streams flow into and out of them but for me that’s all the churches, all the traditions, all the parts of the whole – and do we need fresh expressions for this time? yes of course we do but maybe that expression isn’t in the buildings maybe it’s in the shopping centres, in the streets, in the slums, in the places where we meet, where me meets you and we pass it on possibly even with just a pleasant smile, a thank you, god bless and have a good day, oh and here’s your change 🙂

  6. Speaking on behalf of The Goodbookstall website, this was set up ten years ago as a continuation of Guy Taylor’s work of many years to produce a newsletter full of reviews and information to help bookshops and their book agents, as well as individual Christians. Book Agents took stock on a sale or return basis at a discount from their local Christian bookshop, to sell in their Church to spread the promotion of Christian literature. Speaking to people recently I discover that for a number of reasons, Book Agents are now few and far between, so what does this say about active, church-going Christians and their reading habits?

    • Lol Carole – not lessening the question and certainly not the rather excellent work that is the Goodookstall and it’s aim and service, but the decline in bookagents and church going christians reading & book buying from a church bookstall really just shows that they are about on par for the national average when it comes to reading for pleasure and enjoyment!

      It’s a declining average with an estimate now at just under 20% of people reading for pleasure – the 20% that do are generally quite ardent and avid but the sheer mass are just not readers these days, then tie this into a smaller collective sample such as a church congregation and that % is likely to be even smaller in probability if the collective is average (whatever that term means!). So bookagents decrease in line with the standard of the value placed on the books as things of interest – next add in factors such as price & selection and well yep, it’s pretty sad.

      However I have found that offering to let churches be Card & Gift Agents does work better! I don’t tend to get many cards back and even sometimes get top up runs, but I do tend to see books come back sadly – however Christian Marketplace and other such reading lists, brochures and magazines can make a handy tool here for the Card Agents to have on the table for people to flick through and take orders from – oh and also asking them to take a big showcard with the shops website address and business cards with the webby address on for the congregation to take home and be encouraged to use our site when they do their online shopping if at all possible.

      Again it’s a case of a change in focus and then finding a way to work around the changing society in a way that might just work that’s where we need to be I think.

      • lol – couple of excellent books on just that sort of subject matter that I read over Christmas/new year (ohh it was a wonderful break 4 whole days and then 3 whole days!)

        Future Minds – How the Digital Age is changing our minds, why this matters and what we can do about it – by Richard Watson.
        The Shallows – by Nicholas Carr.

        Of the two I think the first was my preference but both very good books and most interesting.

        A little tangent (and one I didn’t read at Christmas!) but still in keeping with the subject of your Phil’s response and well worth the read if anyone hasn’t is,
        The Church of Facebook by Jesse Rice.

  7. We have changed our shop’s title from Christian Bookshop, to Christian Shop, reflecting that we sell much more than books. But, in our Bishop Auckland branch, we have diversified. We are also a Wool & Crafts shop, a Computer shop, & repair Epson printers. Perhaps this is the way forward, look for other lines to draw customers in. We often have the opportunity to witness to our customers who want a ink cart or some wool, etc. After all, we are emulating what the Supermarkets do, when did you last visit one that sold food only?

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