Whither Christian Bookselling?

Historical context

The Christian booktrade has been a subset of bookselling in this country for many years now. Time was when it was the pioneering branch of bookselling – when, back in 1698 Thomas Bray founded SPCK as a means of providing Christian resources to local communities, equipping poor ministers with Christian libraries and enabling the Scriptures to be translated into indigenous languages.

Since then the divisions between the sacred and the secular have grown and Christian Bookshops and Christian Publishing have become the largest specialist branch but one which has, in many instances, been divorced almost totally from the general trade.

More books, fewer sales

While reading and the churches flourished so did the Christian booktrade. But in recent years, with declining numbers of Christians in this country, with a generation of ministers being raised who do not see the need to recommend books to their flock, with the rise of the internet’s capacity for offering instant access to reference material and the decline in our ability to take in more than bite-sized chunks of information, Christian bookshops have suffered heavily.

SPCK, Wesley Owen, St Andrews and others have found trading to be so difficult that they have either wholly or partly pulled out of this aspect of ministry-on-the-high-street. Many independents have also had to face up to this struggle. So what is the future for Christian bookselling in this country? Is it still viable? Is it still necessary? My quick answer to those three questions would be: constant change, possibly and definitely, maybe.

Personal bias

Now, let’s look a little deeper, and we will start with my own bias. I’ve been a bookseller for 20 years, and a specialist in the Christian booktrade for much of that time. What has been most important to me has been being able to sell the widest range of resources to the widest range of people. It has been making academic theology available to everyone. It has been providing access to deep and penetrating biblical studies. It has been taking part in events and conferences which challenge and stimulate people to grow in their faith and being able to supply them with the resources which make this possible. It has been enabling the bookshop to be a resource centre, a meeting point, a melting pot, where people of all stages of faith can explore and grow.

If I’m just selling Bill Johnson, Joyce Meyer and The Shack then, no matter what the quantities are, I’m not doing my job properly, even if that is all my customers are asking for and these big name authors mean that I’m hitting my sales targets. I would rather sell 50 different titles than 50 copies of the same book. It might be harder work but it is matching up people’s individual needs instead of a ‘one-size fits all’ policy and it helps publishers to be diverse, to look for new angles, new ways of reaching out to people, to invest in new authors with daring, controversial things to say which help the whole faith to grow and our knowledge of God to expand.

Open for all

A comment was recently made on one of the internet sites supporting the Wesley Owen shops stating that their closure was God’s punishment on them for stocking Catholic books and material supporting interfaith dialogue. If people still have such an exclusivist view of the faith then I think that Christian Bookshops still have a big job to do. For me they exist as the place where people of all faiths and none, of all Christian denominations and none, can safely study many aspects of the faith which they wouldn’t find in their own churches, homes or workplaces. I feel that a good Christian bookshop is one where all sides of the arguments on gender issues, creationism, authority, scriptural interpretation and ecumenism can be explored. It is a place where anyone who finds going to church difficult, or intimidating can come in and find helpful advice and suitable material. It is a place of prayer, of witness, of practical help, but above all it is a place of inspiration. Inspiration – being filled with the breath of God.

The Word – in what format?

The resources people need are changing rapidly. Are books still the best way to communicate deep thought? Is it still ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ or are we now, with Rob Lacey, in the era of: before anything ‘the Voice was there’? If it is the written word – then do we still need bookshops full of printed matter? If it is ‘the Voice’ then is that via CD and DVD or is it podcasts and downloads? How is that saleable through a physical rather than virtual bookshop?

How much longer will physical bookshops be needed? If Christian bookshops are much more than places which sell specialist material then what, exactly are those other vital elements of our ministry? How can we make them grow? How can we make best use of our almost unique position as Christian centres embedded in the heart of the secular shopping culture? Perhaps, as others have said, the age of bookshop chains is over and what is required are community owned resource centres – some working as local collectives – where the loyalty of the local Christian community is guaranteed as it is that community which owns the shop. The shops become network churches, growing their own faith communities and feeding members back into the wider diversity of local churches. Is there a willingness from churches to involve themselves in such excursions beyond their own doorways? Do they have the personnel, the finances, the energy and the foresight to be encouraged down this route? What’s in it for them?

Wasted words

But part of the situation we find ourselves in has been caused by the profligate debasement of the word. Put simply there are far too many books about. Far too many poor books saying little new or fresh or genuinely helpful. I was first struck by this as a fiction buyer for the Dillons chain in the early 1990s. Publishers threw truckloads of new titles and new authors at the buyers to see what would stick. It felt like a fairly indiscriminate process. One which new technologies only exacerbate – print on demand, self-publishing, do-it-yourself vanity publishing all pander to the mantra that everyone has a book in them. But not everyone has a worthwhile book in them, not everyone has a reader and there are simply not enough trees to go round. I mean, this was fiction – entertainment, not literature – a way of creating a private world, not something which had much value in building community.

However, the same can be applied to Christian publishing. Look at the ever expanding ‘Christian Living’ sections of most Christian bookshops. How many of those books are actually saying anything important enough to warrant their existence? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on our Biblical Studies sections – encouraging people to read Scripture more deeply, to be better informed about the nature of what they are reading and to learn more about the richness, the many layered meanings of our scared text?

Words are all over us 24 hours a day – they bombard us through all the media channels. But the more words we hear the less we feel we can take in. Books are too long for many people. They require too much investment of time and thought and money. They take up space – in your bag, on your shelf, in your mind.

And we expect words to be clinical – to define precisely, to pin down exactly whatever it is that we need, or are looking for. But doing that impoverishes our lives – it certainly impoverishes our reading of Scripture. The Reformation was right, Scripture should be in the language of the people because the Word pitched his tent among us and came to dwell in the midst of his people. But the Reformation was utterly wrong in giving us our liturgies in the vernacular – liturgy should be in Latin, or Sanskrit, or Klingon, or whatever language is predominately alien to us because it is about much more than words which we can define or twist as we see fit. It is about symbols – full of intangible meaning that is tangibly felt, that illuminate the mystery of the Trinitarian God, that bind a deeper relationship between humanity and creation, that thin the veil between earth and heaven. We’ve lost the ability to read the ancient symbols handed down to us and to appropriate new ones that are meaningful to our contemporary situation. Losing our sense of the symbolic only aggravates our itch to discover the ‘literal truth’ in everything we read.

(Which is a digression, but an important one. Because ceremony binds and builds a community and for centuries the Church was the repository for those ceremonies which hit the spot for societies, communities, nations, in their seasonal cycles and their times of need. Today that seems to have been largely lost. Perhaps Christian bookshops still have a role in encouraging Christian practitioners to evolve culturally savvy ceremonies. Or perhaps that is wishful thinking on my part.)

A Gospel revolution in the high street

So, I am left passionately believing that Christian centres at the heart of the secular high street are still a vital and much needed tool in our endeavour to live the Gospel and to promote the Gospel in our contemporary world. But, despite all that I have invested in books – as a bookseller, as a book-collector and as a priest with a house full of books – I am left no longer convinced that bookshops are actually necessary in today’s culture. A bolder model than the combination of bookshop and coffee shop is required. We need a model which combines space for discussion, space for study, space for intelligent shopping (assisted by knowledgeable, caring staff), space for a variety of visual media, for prayer and perhaps – if bookshops are ever to become meaningful churches – space for ceremony. Now, that’s a challenge.

Richard Greatrex

4 thoughts on “Whither Christian Bookselling?

  1. Richard – I found this post excellent and insightful. You have managed to capture the heart of the debate and I am with you all the way. If nothing else comes of all this, it will at least have made us think through some of the issues and try to reach conclusions for a viable future. Eddie

  2. Pingback: A Future and a Hope for the UK’s Christian Bookshops « UKCBD: The Christian Bookshops Blog

  3. Well said, Richard. Ultimately, UK shops must confront the same obstacle that are keeping the US Christian bookshops from breaking out. That is, that the rank and file, pew-sitting Christian doesn’t perceive that Christian bookstores have product that is relevant to everyday lives. So they don’t visit them or visit them often enough.

    The US market differs from the UK in that Christians are in big supply and US Christian publishers are milling books like there’s no tomorrow. So much so, that general market booksellers have become quite good at selecting product and managing Christian sections. And the Christian specialists actually don’t offer much more in the way of trade books, though they excel at gifts and educational products—somewhat.

    Online booksellers are gaining in popularity in every market because they offer related product knowledge, author’s other products, and a buying opportunity WITHOUT leaving home or office.

    Christian retailers hoping to succeed in the long run, must have solutions to at least the 1) perceived lack of relevance on the part of the consumer, and 2) helping existing customers find more products along the lines current interest.

    A chronic UK problem, is there doesn’t seem to be way of retreat. There aren’t near enough shops now. So a reduction of 30% in shops can leave communities without any Christian store. Online is the only way for persons to buy product.

    There’s more to this topic. Eventually, I may address it on my blog.

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