Reflections from Roger Pearse: Christian bookshops – the key part of the local church?

MY THANKS to Roger Pearse for kind permission to reproduce this thought provoking and challenging post from his blog, all the more challenging given the number of bookshop closures we’ve seen over the last year or so. Roger’s observations echo many of the conversations we’ve had here over the years, going right back to my Christian Bookshops — who needs them? (2008) and The Future Shape of Christian Bookselling (2009) amongst others; but it’s a conversation that is far from over and, if we’re to find a way through the present crisis, it needs to continue — with even more urgency than we’ve pursued it before.

All comments and feedback welcome here, as always, but don’t miss the discussion emerging over on Roger’s original post…

Christian bookshops – the key part of the local church?

I did something unusual today. I didn’t buy a book from Amazon.

Not that I buy a book every day from Amazon: I mean that I decided to buy a book, but to order it in from my local Christian bookshop.

Almost certainly it will cost more. But the Christian bookshop is a funny thing. That’s because it isn’t really just a bookshop.

A friend gave me the name of the manager of my local one at Christmas, and I’ve popped in and introduced myself. Suddenly I find myself connected to a network of people who know people, or know of someone. Today I wanted to learn of someone connected to me who was working in the church in a town in the south of England, in order to help someone. The lady knew of someone. For the managers of these places effectively function as an information exchange.

The pastoral role of the Christian bookshop is invisible unless you know that it is there. Yet this too is critical — you can go in, and find people to talk to. The churches themselves — I mean real churches — are lamentably bad at working together in a single small town, and the common need of their members for books means that the bookshop acts as a centre, a place where notices are displayed and people congregate.

Some bookshops take it a step further and add on a coffee shop. St Aldates bookshop in Oxford ca. 1980 did just that. It was very cramped, but then students don’t mind that at all. I often went there as a convenient place to meet.

Christian bookshops came into being in the 60′s and 70′s because bookshops and news agents would not stock popular Christian paperback books or publications. You could order them, but this involved a long wait, no chance of browsing and often was frankly a faff.

Consequently the publishers started to set up retail outlets where their wares could be displayed. Since Christians always wanted the books of Michael Green or David Watson, they naturally became information exchanges.

The convenience of internet shopping means that it will usually be quicker and cheaper to buy a book at Amazon. That was not the case back in the day, since the Net Book Agreement standardised book prices anyway.

So the problem is that the modern Christian bookshop has no real economic basis. The publishers are finding them unviable. They can now sell their books through Amazon.

Yet the bookshop is needed. Indeed if you want some advice on books to buy — as I did today — what use is Amazon?

I don’t know what the answer is, I admit. Let us pray that God finds a way around this. Change is inevitable; but not at the price of wiping out the bookshop.

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15 thoughts on “Reflections from Roger Pearse: Christian bookshops – the key part of the local church?

  1. Having seen this post in its original form, what caught my attention was one of Roger’s comments on his own post, where he says ‘The trouble with online buying is that it works for a while. You know the authors that you want. But you can’t browse online. So after a while, you start wondering who to buy. Yes the prices are good; but what does that matter, when you never hear about the book in the first place?’

    It did make me wonder whether online buying loses its allure after a while. I can already think of many ripostes to this line of argument – not least the fact that many books are starting to exist in ‘online’ form only, i.e. e-books – but I wonder to what extent a desire to browse ‘physically’, in a dedicated space, resurfaces in time? And what role the bookshop as a ‘community’, plays in this? And what do we lose – as many communities are doubtless already finding out – when this is suddenly gone?

  2. There has been talk since last year’s riots about communities generally going. Certainly my local town centre is less and less enticing to shop in with mainly multiple outlets and few independents. There is an article in the current “Bookseller” about the need for beautifully produced hardbacks which people will want to buy and value. I’ve certainly heard many people say they bought on-line then when the books arrived found they weren’t what they expected or wanted. I also feel there’s an element of everyone being in a hurry for whatever reason and aslo wanting the quick and easy way out.

  3. In my view, the key here is the phrase ‘the modern Christian bookshop has no real economic basis’. The ability to stay afloat financially has been gradually undermined by a multitude of factors. We somehow have to improve the viability of these shops. Being ‘an information centre’ and offering ‘pastoral care’ doesn’t pay the bills and sadly, these services are not valued or missed by a local community until they have gone. There are serious issues to be addressed in each locality if we are to keep a High Street prescence.

    • I largely agree with what you are saying Eddie.
      It is indeed a case of needing to improve the viability of the shops, it is a need of education and an important local/national/global situation that must be dealt with both locally and nationally – let’s remember the high street degradation is not just a Christian Bookshop or even a Bookshop issue, it’s a serious and wide hitting problem across the UK effecting not only indie businesses but national chains too – Hence the Portas report. It’s a community issue and as the singers say – ‘you don’t know what you lost till it’s gone’.

      However as Christians aren’t we meant to be community people? If we lose (and to me it seems we are wholeheartedly) this then we have lost what it is to be Christian at heart. We become no more than merely dry bones I think. If we put money and convenience before anything else then aren’t we already lost? how many stories in the NT or the OT put the guarding of money before the guarding of people in a favourable light?

      (and yes, where we choose to buy and how we choose to buy is a money before people issue because those local jobs that go, those national chain jobs that go – they are your neighbours, brothers, sisters, they are real people effected by our choices.
      Sorry if you want to see that as guilting people into buying from their local Christian Bookshop or local physical community – it’s not a guilt thing but if you feel that way then maybe you should ask the question why you feel that way?
      Christianity was never meant to be about easy answers and easy choices and feel good effortless faith – just look at the questions Jesus asked of his followers, his family, his generation and his political and religious leaders!!)

      I value being an information centre, I value being able to offer a pastoral component, I want to be at the heart of my community in the many intangible ways but I can’t run and sustain my business solely on that as Eddie pointed out.

      So given this then perhaps what we need to do is be honest and to stretch out – if the community that should, our community, the community of believers,can’t or more really won’t support us – then we reach past that community, we reach to where we should be anyway, after all we are supposed to be reaching the lost! So we reach into our larger community, the general community.

      In this way we truly become Modern Christian Bookshops and not just traditional christian bookshops!

      Because I dont think the problem is that ‘the modern christian bookshop has no economic basis’. I think we have to take the word ‘modern’ out and replace it with ‘traditional’ in that sentence and then I think it would be a more accurate statement and one I’d probably very much agree with.

      However if we use modern in it’s rightful context – ie of relating to the present – then I’m going to argue with that statement of ‘no real economic basis’ on the point that I’m still going and relatively stable in the current economy.
      Oh don’t get me wrong it’s much harder work than it was, it is for all retailers let alone in some ways for booksellers in particular for the last few years due to a rapidly changing style of industry, but even here we are not alone! the music industry too has gone through this culture shift, the electronics industry is also facing it, but this said there are still shoots of hope, businesses still going, still shifts and changes that enable survival – still changes made by them to counter and react and that’s what we need to think on.

      However I’m the first to admit that my shops not a traditional Christian Bookshop. However it’s still a Christian Bookshop just, I like to think, a modern one with a touch of the tradional bookseller about it and there are a few more out there I believe that have gone a Modern route and are still making a living.

      Lets face it if our basis is from the 60’s/70’s or even 80’s then that’s not modern, that’s about as Retro or traditional as you can get these days – what’s needed is a culture shift, a changing outlook and education across the board.

      When we truly address these issues we will see our christian bookshops flourish and bloom and grow. I’m holding fast to that, I believe it to be a promise and I am convinced that there is yet growth, new shoots and a future for Christian Bookselling in the High Streets, Back Streets, Markets and Shopping Centres of our cities and towns yet – we just have to make the change.

      Eek – and when I started this I thought I didn’t have much to say! – oops mea culpe to those that have heard the speakers corner bit before! 😀

      • So I take it you don’t buy from supermarkets but rather local butchers, fruit & Veg places and corner stores that may cost a lot more than the supermarkets?

        You’d rather buy your stock from a local – if more expensive- distributor than an overseas owned one?

        You always take your car to a local mechanic instead of a chain?

        Etc Etc

        • Hey Gary – if you’ve been following Melanie’s comments for any length of time you’ll find she’s your No.1 Shop Local spokesperson, so I think you’ll find her answer’s going to be resounding yes to supporting other small traders, not just bookshops. But she’s not averse to taking advantage of supermarket offers: next to Amazon, they’re good wholesalers…

          As for me, I work in a local supermarket; they were the ones who gave me a job when the faraway bookshop I worked in made me redundant, so shopping in the supermarket is shopping local, as well as supporting local employment opportunities.

          … and my wife always takes her car to the village garage for servicing and MOTs…

        • Gary,
          I dont have a car, I cycle or use public transport – however my dad only uses the local independent mechanic as he says he’s always been cheaper than the ‘names’ and does a more than fine job every time.
          I buy my meat,from the butchers in the market, I get better portions for the same price and no foamy containers to dispose of, same with my fruit n veggies.
          Andjohn the cake n staple packeys man on the market is never more than the supermarket price and caroline on healthfoods has a much better range of the glutenfree food we need for our ceoliac than any supermarket yet 😉
          But yes, as phil says I do go to the supermarket at least twice a month , for books mostly because yes they do make great wholesalers, and also sadly for the things I really can no longer get locally.
          But Gary it really is a fallacy that
          supermarkets or even online shops
          really are so much cheaper than local indie alternatives on most things.
          Tesco ably demonstrated that with their half price turkeys and the prices they charged before hand, and there are lots of other
          instances too that have shown supermarket prices and locally
          purchased shopping often works out within only a few pounds of each
          other.
          the same is true with indie tradesmen against national chains.
          And yes in reality even indie bookshops might well be at times cheaper than the chains – a few months ago I demonstrated that in at least 7 out of 10 times the books on my shops shelves were cheaper, or the same price, as Amazons – and no they were not sale or promo items.
          This is demonstrated and shown time after time and i’m sure in your community you will find the same holds true, give it an honest and open minded try amd I’m sure you’ll be surprised 😉

  4. http://www.freshexpressions.org.uk/e-xpressions/jan12

    I have this morning recieved this and on reading it found this to very much be apropos for this discussion too, even though it is in no way about Christian bookshops or retailing 😉
    Read the whole article – it is quite illuminating.

    ‘Consumer choice is not the same as contextual mission!’

    ‘Two questions lie at the heart of the listening process through which they are planted: who will never be reached if we only do what we are accustomed to doing and which aspects of society will remain untransformed and unchallenged if we do not plant?
    We who have encountered the grace of God in Jesus owe it to others, we cannot just plan for more of the same, and hope that ‘they’ will come. Contextual mission involves going and incarnational planting. But even that is insufficient.
    The church does not exist for its own sake, nor is it primarily an evangelistic agency. It serves the kingdom of God. The proclamation of salvation is a call to the kingdom. To be evangelized is to be reconciled to God and drawn into a community of disciples which serves God’s purposes in its locality. The church is the community of the kingdom of God for its locality – whether neighbourhood, network or a combination of the two. This is the calling of fresh expressions as much as of inherited models of church.’

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