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Almost Nearly Famous January 18, 2010

Posted by Phil Groom in Christian Book Trade.
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The Times, Saturday 16 Jan 2010 - The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street

The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street

It’s true: I’m almost nearly famous. Quoted in no less a paper than Saturday’s Times, p.100, in an article about the state of the UK Christian book trade, The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street:

Phil Groom writes a blog on the future of the Christian bookshop. He runs one himself at the London School of Theology which, despite having a guaranteed customer base, is still struggling. He believes the only future is for shops to be run in partnership with local churches as community hubs.

“Shops have got to be much more than just bookshops. They have to be destinations for community,” he says.

“We could ham up the guilt for Christians or local churches to get them to support us, but that would only work for so long. They have to realise that they need to work more closely with shops if they want to keep them.”

The article gives a good overview of the state of the trade just over two weeks into a new decade, looking back briefly at the SPCK/SSG bookshops debacle, then in more detail at the current crisis facing the branches of Wesley Owen left out in the cold when IBS-STL UK went into administration:

An online petition is hoping to save a store in Edinburgh, and in South Woodford, London, pledges of £31,000 have already been received to keep the shop open.

The manager of Wesley Owen in South Woodford, Dominic Stinchcombe, is in no doubt that even if his supporters can find the other £30,000, the trade as a whole faces a bleak future without radical action.

“If it was just keeping the bookshop going I wouldn’t bother,” he says, “but it’s the Christian ministry side of it. Many people use us as a kind of church. We are here Monday to Saturday. It might be new Christians moving into the area, or someone at the end of their tether who doesn’t know where to turn. We listen and pray with them all if they ask for it.”

Stinchcombe’s campaign has been lifted by direct support from the pulpit of local churches. The Rev Steve Clark, vicar of St Andrew’s with All Saints, issued a rallying cry during his Sunday sermon for people to support the “ministry” of the South Woodford shop near by.

“It’s not just a shop,” says Clark. “Often you can walk in and find staff praying with somebody. I wasn’t asking people to feel guilty about not using the bookshop, just asking them if they would like to support the vision. And the next day the first person walked in and laid down £1,000.”

People in the trade talk a lot about their shops as a ministry and a Christian presence on the high street. But the hard facts are that, like every other bookshop, Christian booksellers have been hit by the power of Amazon.

Stinchcombe insists that Christians will soon realise what they are missing: “You might be able to buy your books on the internet, but you can’t buy ministry on the internet.”

What we can find on the internet, of course, is an ability to campaign, connect and co-operate via blogs, facebook and twitter: Amazon might have cornered the online marketplace, but they haven’t captured the human spirit; and it’s that spirit — together with God’s Spirit — that drives us on.

You’ll find the petition to save the Edinburgh branch here: Save Wesley Owen Edinburgh; go on, sign it; and keep an eye on their facebook page for latest news.

More reflections on the trade’s future over on t’other blog: A Future and a Hope for the UK’s Christian Bookshops and The Future Shape of Christian Bookselling.

Christian Bookshops Blog: Wesley Owen Pages

Wesley Owen and the Mystery of the Missing Bookshop December 22, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in Bookshop Ramblings, Knockabout.
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Yesterday evening I decided I’d better get on with updating UKCBD with details of the new shop ownerships that have emerged over the last few days. It proved a tad more complicated than I’d expected because, despite counting and re-counting, I couldn’t get the list of branches to tally.

Here’s where I’ve got to:

Branches in Administration
(or status uncertain)
South Woodford
Branches Taken Over
by CLC

Branches Taken Over
by Koorong


Looks fairly straightforward, doesn’t it? Until you start counting … and discover not 40 but 41 branches, not 26 but 27 either in administration or status uncertain (I say ‘status uncertain’ advisedly because one, presumably, isn’t in administration).

I went back to the press releases, to November and yesterday: definitely 40 branches, 14 sold and 26 remaining — evidently, I’d miscounted: Biblica’s senior management surely know how many branches of Wesley Owen they’ve been trying to dispose of.

I checked my copy of the Booksellers Association Directory of Members: 41 branches there too. Must be out of date, even though the online version concurs (screenshot of search result). Where better to check, then, than Wesley Owen’s own shop finder? Alas, too late: they’d beat me to it and removed all the non-Koorang acquired branches. No worries, mate: Google cache to the rescue – as cached 11th Dec 2009 (pdf, 258kb):

Wesley Owen Store Finder, as at 11 Dec 2009

Wesley Owen Store Finder, as at 11 Dec 2009

With apologies to the good folks from Oz, but tie me kangaroo down, sport — would you look at that: 41 branches!

So if there’s anyone out there who can tell me which of the 27 remaining branches has somehow quietly disappeared during the last couple of weeks, please, I’d be most grateful so that I can update my records…

Now, what was that someone said about getting the facts right?? In all seriousness: is it any wonder that an organisation that can’t keep track of its own shops can’t manage its finances?

Of course, I could be wrong: maybe a branch really did close down and we all managed to miss it, in which case I apologise to the branch staff concerned for not updating UKCBD at the time… but in the meantime: don’t tell the administrators: someone might be about to acquire a shop free of charge!

Biblica and STL UK: A Strange Way to Attract Investors? December 6, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in Bookshop Ramblings, Watching and Waiting.
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If you’ve been following my other blogs, UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog and SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info, then it won’t have escaped your notice that the Christian book trade here in the UK has been going through a wee bit of a crisis over the last couple of years.

On the former SPCK bookshops front, things seem to be approaching a sort of resolution as Peter Gotham, the Interim Manager appointed by the Charity Commission, has seized control of most of the shops (Durham being the most obvious exception) and is now advertising for the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust’s creditors — amongst others, the people whose goods Mssrs J Mark and Philip W Brewer failed to pay for — to submit their claims against the organisation. If that’s you, you need to pull your finger out because, as things stand, you only have until the close of business on 16 December 2009 to get your claims in.

By a bizarre coincidence of timing, that’s also about the time that we can expect to hear what’s likely to happen to the struggling IBS-STL UK empire — STL Distribution, the Wesley Owen bookshops and Authentic Media/Paternoster Press. According to Keith Danby’s latest trade update, the negotiations with Biblica’s “preferred bidders” are expected to “take us into the week commencing 14th December” and we can expect a further announcement “when the sale process comes to a conclusion”.

It’s a welcome update that has been largely hailed as good news: to quote the Church Mouse,

The vital part of that is that the offers are ‘covering all aspects of the business’. This is very encouraging. Book selling in the UK is a tough market for anyone, evidenced not just by STL’s experience, but also by Borders going into administration. Some had thought that Wesley Owen’s chances of redemption were low, but it seems there is hope.

A more disturbing note, however, is sounded by the following statement from Danby which appeared in Toby Cohen’s Religious Intelligence report, Financial disaster hits British media player, published last week, Thursday, 3rd December 2009:

We are not being forced to make this decision by any bank. We came to the decision after struggling on for 12/13 months that now was the time to give the opportunity for new investors, new thinking and leadership to do what was best for the continuity of the ministry and all of the stakeholders.

To me there seems to be more than a whiff of something peculiar here. Even looking at this in the best possible light, pulling the plug on your UK operations and telling not only your staff but also your business and ministry partners that if buyers are not found within a few weeks then the entire enterprise will go into administration seems a rather strange way to attract new investors.

Introducing this level of uncertainty into people’s lives and livelihoods during the most critical time of year for businesses — and what is often one of the most stressful times of year for families — is hardly the way to help to ensure continuity of ministry, let alone to offer reassurance to “the stakeholders”.

If providing “the opportunity for new investors, new thinking and leadership” to take things forward was the primary concern, then surely the way to proceed would have been to seek to sell IBS-STL UK as a going concern, not as a business that was for sale or bust?

If there was no pressure from the charity’s bankers, then why was it deemed appropriate to subject either the staff or the rest of the UK Christian book trade to the trauma that they and we have gone through since November 16th?

I do not for one moment dispute the immense effort that has been put into finding a buyer or buyers, or into securing the futures of as many of STL UK’s 490 employees as possible; but I do not believe that Biblica’s decision to pull out of its UK operations was made with the best interests of the UK Christian book trade — or even its own UK division — in mind. No doubt new investment, new thinking and new leadership will emerge: but for that we will owe no debt of gratitude to Biblica, only rather to those who have shown the courage and entrepreneurial spirit to pick up the pieces afterwards.

From Dream to Nightmare to – where do we go from here? November 19, 2009

Posted by Phil Groom in News.
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It seems only a short while ago that I posted about daring to dream. But sometimes dreams turn to nightmares and the whole world comes crashing in.

It’s not my dream I’m talking about this time: it’s the hopes and dreams of my friends and colleagues in the Christian book trade, particularly those working for STL, Wesley Owen and Authentic Media. Because everything fell apart around their ears this week as their parent company, Biblica, decided to pull the plug on their UK operations.

The announcement was made on Monday and you can read it in full over on the UKCBD blog as well as a whole host of other places including Christian Marketplace, the Church Times blog and STL’s own blog. It’s a sad story of incompetence in high places as some buffoons — they called them “IT consultants” — took STL UK on a one-way journey into a new software system called SAP back in October last year. Unfortunately it didn’t work and everything went pear-shaped in the warehouses, shops weren’t being supplied with goods, customers walked away and cash flow trickled down to … well, not quite zilch, but to the point where they couldn’t pay their suppliers so their suppliers stopped supplying which meant more bookshops weren’t being supplied … and I think you can see where this is going. Very, very sad: add a downturn in the economy and crunch, down comes the entire edifice.

The plan  is to find a buyer “within the next few weeks”, otherwise things start closing down. Unpleasant for all concerned, to put it mildly.

I’m spearheading a blog campaign to stage a trade/community buyout which has generated a certain amount of interest, but whether or not the level of interest will be sufficient remains to be seen. At the moment I’m waiting for the latest accounts and financial reports from the company, which I requested on Tuesday. No response yet from either Biblica or Baker Tilly, the company contracted to handle negotiations.

So time will tell. We watch and wait. Please pray, please take a look at the discussions so far, throw in your own ideas, pray some more, think about whether or not you’d like to become part of a buyers’ consortium — let me know as soon as possible if so, please — then pray some more.

Some interesting ideas over at Clayboy’s place: head across and throw in your own thoughts there too, please; and watch this space…

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