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.

21 thoughts on “Christian bookshops — the key part of the local church?

  1. While reading your post, I was remembering my past experiences with Christian bookstores. Those operating as chain stores were usually run by Christians who knew retail business but much less of writers or their writings. Conversely, independent shops were a wealth of information, not just of books, but of the Christian community as well.

    And perhaps there is a cultural difference at work here as well: England versus Midwest U.S. We tend to be an independent lot.

  2. Hi Roger.

    I think what you are saying is particularly apposite – today, in Cardiff, the Evangelical Movement of Wales are closing their main bookshop in Cardiff, after many years of trading. It has not made money for quite some time.

    It is difficult to know how to bridge the gap between some kind of commerciality on the one hand, and the need to find a way of getting Christian people to read books. One routinely encounters (younger) Christians who have never read a Christian book – and attempts to get reading clubs off the ground tend to struggle to advance people beyond a diet of pap.

    Unfortunately, local prices are often something of a challenge to loyalty. Faced with the prospect of buying a given book in my Christian bookshop for £23.95 when I know I can purchase the identical volume on Amazon for £16.00 does force one to confront the economic dilemma. None of us are made of money.

    A useful comment!

  3. Hi Kevin,

    Yes, I heard about the Cardiff closure. Sad news indeed.

    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? In the process Christians lose a bit of their self-identity.

    The other problem is the loss of the centre of the local Christian community. I’ve been very blessed by my local bookshop in the last week.

    Most books are less than a tenner; and once you take into account postage, the difference is not too large. The inconvenience of waiting is also a problem — I could get the book I have just ordered by Monday from Amazon; or it will be next Thursday from the bookshop.

    But I have no answers. Subsidy is always suspect, but may be necessary. Trouble is, at the moment, most retailers of any kind are struggling, which will distort data about whether *our* shops are viable.

    It’s telling, considering all the gibes about Christians being anti-intellectual, that we Christians are such a *bookish* bunch! That our identity is centred around the local bookshop! Long may it be so.

    Let’s bring this to the Lord. May I ask anyone reading this to shoot an arrow prayer to Him, asking for His grace and guidance and help. Amen.

  4. Well said, Roger, and thank you: wonderfully encouraging to find someone speaking out for Christian bookshops. I run the UK Christian Bookshops Directory and it’s been terribly disheartening over the last few years to see so many shops closing down. With your permission, please, I’d like to reproduce this on the UKCBD blog…

  5. I should point out, by the way, that Christian bookshops have been around for much longer than since the 60s & 70s – search Google for ‘oldest Christian bookshop’ and you’ll find a 1996 press release about Family Books, Belfast, which began trading in 1862; now, alas, ceased trading after the meltdown of Wesley Owen and the Living Oasis fiasco; and the SPCK Bookshops (now also ceased trading, but once a nationwide chain) were established in the 1930s.

  6. I don’t have any answers either. I use a Christian bookshop but far less often than I used to because of Amazon and the fact that the bookshop is 15 miles away. All bookshops are struggling, not only Christian ones. I’ve always had a slight unease about Christians having to use specifically Christian bookshops to buy Christian books. I would like to see far more Christian books being sold through mainstream bookshops. These shops seem to be stocking more and more books in the ‘body,mind and spirit’sections so the hunger for things spiritual must be there. There’s usually a Bible or two, but very little else to help a seeker wanting to explore Christianity but who wouldn’t be seen dead in a church.

  7. Hi nancy

    you make an interesting point about distance but then sort of answer it straight away

    yes – your bookshop is 15 miles away but amazon is probably 100’s of miles away

    your christian bookshop will not only post your item to you (and may even take the hit on postage) but they will also minister to you, share with you, pray for you, encourage you and indeed help you with your book choices – Amazon CANNOT and most certainly WILL NOT do any of that.

    please continue to support your bookshop – in these uneasy times the high street ministry has never more been needed

    blessings
    mike

  8. Hi Roger,
    You make some interesting comments – and I agree with your insight that a christian bookshop can act as much more than a place to buy books (or indeed all the other things they stock…). It was my experience in the 8 years I worked in that trade that many people went away from the shop with much more than a carrier bag with some items inside. I remember conversations where I was able to introduce two separate customers to one another, leading to God knows what in kingdom terms. Then there were those occasions when I was a link in the chain (more than once) that led to a person getting a book published. Some of the best moments were when I persuaded customers NOT to buy anything: one person was trying to “convert” a muslim friend and wanted to give them a book that would achieve this – my suggestion was to be that book by befriending and talking about their faith. Then there were those incredibly moving times when I found myself in the corner of the shop with a customer pouring their heart out – and being able to pray with them.
    Yes they serve so many functions but, when all’s said and done, they need to make money to pay the wages/rent etc.
    Maybe the model of volunteer-run outlets is the only one that will be sustainable – but let’s try, somehow, to keep them open. God bless all who are still in the trade – especially those who are having to make difficult decisions to try and continue.

  9. Having worked in libraries and bookshops all of my life, including owning my own bookshop for awhile, I am fully aware of the struggles of trying to keep going. I’m now Secretary to the Goodbookstall website, so while no longer employed in the Trade, I am in communication with it on a daily basis. In both secular and Christian shops, the two key factors are stock knowledge and engaging with your customers and potential customers. Better communication within the Trade also helps so that suppliers really provide a speedy and efficient service so shops can truly compete with on-line, and so that bookshops can learn from each other to save time and money. Our website is one of the free tools to help readers, shops and suppliers achieve this.

  10. These are all interesting points — thank you.

    I don’t think we should try to lay a moral duty on people to support a Christian bookshop. God doesn’t lay on us pressures to do this or that. People with little money to spend may need to get books from Amazon or go without. Christian books are usually a luxury, tho.

    But a Christian bookshop is a good thing. The pastoral ministry is something many never experience, but it can be very powerful. It’s a link of people together. Wouldn’t we try to start one, if it didn’t exist? So I will try to support my local one myself.

    It would be good if Christian books were sold in Waterstones; but I think that is a separate issue. And they never will be, not in the way we want, if the last 30 years is any guide.

  11. The first SPCK Bookshops were actually opened in the 19th century. Richard Greatrex will possibly know but I think it was Bristol in the 1860’s. SPCK also had Bible depots locally before the shops.

  12. Interesting. But I don’t think we could really say that modern Christian bookshops have any real connection with older efforts at literature distribution, such as the SPCK back then. They’re really a 60’s phenomenon, perhaps, although drawing on the same, consistent problem?

  13. Hi Roger
    Thanks for your comments about Christian bookshops being more than just bookshops. This was exactly the point I made to local churches as Wesley Owen closed in 2010: you can get the books on the Internet but where will you get the advice, prayer, listening ear, chat…? Our shop was a church to many people, and we were in the high street open 6 days per week. As Pete Slee says, it was a privelege to pray with people. It was great to be able to introduce two or three local ministers, to be part of a theological debate, to make the connections – so much more went on than just bookselling.
    But how to fund all this? Volunteers are part of the answer, but for continuity and consistency of service you need paid staff. There isn’t enough margin and turnover in books alone. A coffee shop may help but as Living Oasis found, this is not a quick and easy answer.
    Local churches need to cooperate to help support their local Christian bookshops, but they are short of cash these days, too. We are all tied in to the General Economic Situation whether we like it or not.
    Yes we need to pray to God for an answer. I think churches and bookshops are going to have to take a hard look at where society is at and make some brave changes in the way they operate. Preferably together.

  14. Roger, been reflecting on this issue and I suppose you may be begging the bigger question of how “The Church” sees mission. Where local christians work together to be good news in their locality, it could be that a christian centre on the high street providing a retail, refreshment and resource element might be a key vehicle for reaching out/welcoming. I’m sure there are examples of this around – but Dominic’s point that paid staff may be needed often makes them less viable and therefore vulnerable to the changing visions of local churches. I wonder whether Living Oasis shops failed, in part, because they were expecting churches to capture an existing vision – whereas it may be that if the idea comes from the churches there may be more general support?

  15. Thank you Dominic and Peter.

    Yes, I’m wary of the coffeeshop model. To be viable in the days of Cafe Nero, such a place needs to be central and expensive-looking. That takes us straight back to the basic viability problem.

    I also agree about paid staff. Christians have a bit of a tendency to underpay people who should be paid, which is wrong and unscriptural.

    God knows the answer, and we have to ask him.

  16. And today I go into the Christian bookshop, to be greeted by the lady who helped me, who is holding a print-out of the repost of the article at christianbookshopsblog.org.uk! Thus the story comes full circle.

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