Friday, 5 May 2006

Comment from an SPCK employee

Father Richard, an SPCK employee has commented on my original post about the SPCK bookshops. I thought the comment well worth drawing to your attention:

Perhaps it is time for an SPCK employee to add a few comments. Firstly, thank you for this initiative, and for the chance to hear what people think of us. Yes, the SPCK Bookshops are an imperfect bunch, with their own idiosyncracies. We don't see ourselves as a chain because each branch is so different - it exists to respond to the needs of the local community. We all buy our own stock based on how we perceive that need. So it is hard to generalise about what SPCK keeps on its shelves.

One of the reasons that WO eventually realised that a merger was not going to work was probably because we were all so determined to keep both our breadth of stock and our ability to control our own buying. We exist to promote Christian knowledge in its rich diversity.

Yes, Amazon is hurting our business (although we also sell some of the more unusual secondhand stock on Amazon as well), but the time has passed to moan about that. The biggest problem SPCK has had has been that it simply doesn't have the money necessary to invest in developing the shops.

Yes, too many mediocre books are published - as shops we have to do some of the work editing out the dross without restricting our customers opportunities to find what they need. There are also too many Christian bookshops competing in a dwindling market. If SPCK is to survive then it must be because it is offering what is really needed.

I take issue with those who see us as just stocking populist titles on spiritual warfare. I've never stocked anything like that (we have a WO on the same street we can refer people to), but promote the likes of Robert Beckford, Gordon Lynch, Callum Brown, Timothy Radcliffe, Leonard Sweet, Hans Urs von Balthasar, John Shelby Spong, Tina Beattie and Elizabeth Stuart. The strength of a shop over the internet should be the ability to browse, to try something different and, hopefully to mix with other people with similar interests and differing views.

What worries me, as a bookseller and as a parish priest, is how much harder it is becoming to engage people in thinking about their faith, in exploring it, pushing at the boundaries, growing a deeper knowledge of Christ. Sales of good quality Biblical commentaries are minimal. Hardly anyone wants to really get to know the Bible in depth. All the stuff on 'new ways of being church' has stiffed as much as anything because many people aren't prepared to accept that the world has moved on. DVD material, with the honourable exception of the Nooma series, has been risible in its content. And the trouble with Greenbelt is that is only once a year!

Finally, the problems SPCK are having reflect wider problems in the churches. Too many of us are still stuck looking inwards. Yes, we have a big responsibility to our Christian communities but if we don't work hard on bringing the Word to the rest of the high street then we are not doing justice to the Gospel.

There is also a comment from Clive Wright, chairman of the governing body of SPCK in today's Church Times. I can't type it out in full as I need to do some work, but it includes:

May I make it clear that the trustee Governing Body of SPCK has taken no decisions about the future of its shops; the Society is a charity with a modest income that is insufficient to meet large operating deficits. We must therefore consider carefully the future of each shop, endeavouring to take account of our responsibilities to our staff, or mission and the wider Christian community. Our aim will be to preserve as many outlets as possible consistent with our limited resources.

See also Save the SPCK! and the SPCK song.

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