The shop around the corner
The days of the old fashioned Christian bookstore seem numbered if current trends continue, but there are things that churches and individuals can do to maintain a high street presence.
The ‘survival of the fittest’ is usually a topic found inside bookstores, not used of them, but Christian literature distributors have warned that, unless stores and the way customers use them evolve, their days as high street concerns are numbered.
In a wide-ranging enquiry from Evangelical Times, booksellers and distributors across the world have highlighted drivers pushing for change. The support of churches for such changes is essential too, unless important outposts for evangelism in our town centres are to become obsolete.
It is obvious that all booksellers, Christian or not, have found it heavy weather over the past few years.
The growth of online booksellers such as Amazon, the recession, higher overheads and a seeming lack of interest among the younger generation in reading physical books has contributed to the demise of many bookstores.
According to Nielsen BookScan, digital sales have taken a huge bite out of the print book market over the first six months of 2012. Spending on printed books was at a 10-year low, down to £624m in the UK — a £51m drop on last year.
Is it a surprise that during the recession the prominent high street name, Borders, was forced to shut up shop, no longer able to compete with the sell-em-cheap and deliver-to-the-door offerings of Amazon?
Publishers too are closing their doors. The Cambridge University Press (CUP), a 400-year-old brand, was bought by MPG Books Group in June. Quoted in the Bookseller, CUP spokesman Peter Davidson said, ‘In the past two years the number of physical books we shipped has declined by two million’.
If secular outlets with their wider marketplace are suffering, is it any surprise that the niche market of Christian booksellers is also squeezed?
The demise of the once-strong Wesley Owen brand was precipitated by a combination of the recession, increased online bookselling and an ill-fated purchase of an expensive computer system by former owner STL just before its busy Christmas period.
Walpole Street in London’s West End, Croydon town centre, Leeds City Centre — all once sported huge Wesley Owen signs. STL found a buyer in 2009 for 14 of its 40 UK stores; CLC International bought six; eight went to Australian company Koorong.
However, only two of the Koorong-owned bookstores have remained ongoing concerns. Speaking to ET, Koorong director Paul Bootes said, ‘We only have two shops left in the UK. We sold a couple to Faith Mission, but sadly had to close four, because we could not keep them as viable business models’.
Small stores outside the population-dense London and South-East have found it heavy going too. On 14 January this year, the Evangelical Movement of Wales closed its Cardiff store.
John Grier is the retiring owner of Belfast-based Evangelical Bookshop, Belfast (see p.23). The shop was started by his father W. J. Grier in 1926. Mr Grier, who is handing the reins over to Colin Campbell, told ET, ‘Simply having the right stock doesn’t always help.
‘There’s competition from online, a recession and, sadly, a sense that the younger generation are more concerned with evangelising the world than getting a good grounding in doctrine’.
Another practical problem affects UK retailers — bureaucracy. Mr Bootes said, ‘High street rates have risen astronomically. It seems some local councils are using tenants as milking cows, even in this tough environment’.
For that reason, he said, only a charitable model of bookshop, with proper charity status and support from local churches and individual Christians will work.
He explained, ‘A charity controlled business can get up to 80 per cent relief on the rates bill, which would be a huge advantage to bookshop owners. Clearly any business that is trying to survive and navigate from physical print media to digital in this economic environment is going to find it harder to cope with the burden of rising tenancy rates.
‘For all those reasons, the future of Christian bookshops in the UK will be in the hands of the charity sector, volunteer-driven and church-driven’.
His views were matched by Mr Grier, who said, ‘The recession does not seem to be knocking down the high rental prices on the high street. So if shops are to continue, they will have to have a close relationship with either a few large churches or groups of churches.
‘Shops need to have their ministry acknowledged and backed by churches that are buying curriculum Bible notes and material through them so they have bread and butter to add on to the walk-in sales’.
However, Phil Burnham, director of CLC UK, said even with charity status, it is hard for the 22 CLC-bookshops in the UK to survive. ‘Nowadays people buy more from the internet. We do have a CLC Internet shop, but there’s a lot of competition and people are not always aware that with CLC they are buying from a charity’.
The world is moving online, but is it possible for Christian bookstores to benefit more from the digital revolution?
‘The dissemination of the gospel has been given a huge global boost by the advent of digital media. In maybe three years, 50 per cent of book sales will be digital’, Mr Bootes said, adding there was no reason why small Christian bookstores could not dive into this market and use it to their advantage.
There are marketing opportunities too, if done correctly. Stores can use the internet as an inexpensive way to communicate with customers, interacting with potential buyers or providing an online purchasing and delivery service.
Mr Grier said, ‘We have spent quite a bit setting up a web site — it is a very competitive field. Some people use it to check a book is in the shop before they come six or seven miles to buy it. Others want the material to be delivered to them, so they shop with us online’.
Being independent helps avoid the sort of problems associated when a big conglomerate fails, but support from local church communities is essential. This has been the experience of the Manna Christian Centre in Streatham, which has maintained its high street presence in an uncertain environment.
Dave Lock, manager, said, ‘The economic climate has affected our shop. Although we have our loyal customers, spending is down this financial year, although we had an exceptional year last and bucked the trend.
‘Trading is very unpredictable from day to day — probably the most unpredictable in the 30-plus years we have been in business. But with so many Christian bookshops closing around us over the past few years, we have picked up more customers’.
To keep them and gain more, however, stores must work harder and develop ways to interact with customers. It is worth considering bespoke selling, developing a web presence or offering something further to the community such as a café.
Mr Grier said, ‘You can give people coffee but you have to think hard about bringing people in. For example, we ran a special on C. S. Lewis on his centenary. Other stores we know offer a photocopy service. It’s about giving people a service they need that they can’t get online’.
Mr Lock said, ‘We have worked hard to retain customer loyalty and introduced a loyalty system. Most customers who do visit us are amazed at the Christian resources we have available.
‘Our unique selling points are our customer service, a warm welcome, a wide variety and the fact we try to meet special orders for customers. Therefore, product knowledge is important’.
Mr Bootes said, ‘Christian bookshops are frontline missions on the high street and we need these. But if punters only want the cheapest price, they may wake up one day and realise there are no more bookshops. So individuals should think about what is really important’.
This is not to discourage the valuable work existing businesses are doing. But it is clear the UK Christian community must wake up to the challenges of the digital age, changing consumer patterns and a recessionary environment.
Shops must evolve to remain viable and provide vital front-line ministry, and Christian customers — churches and individuals — must decide how best to use and support them.