Sunday, 16 December 2007

SPCK/SSG bookshops on the Radio 4 Sunday programme

[Welcome to anyone who has found this blog from the Radio 4 programme. The posts on the SPCK / SSG story can be found in the 'Save the SPCK' category]

You can now listen to the programme again here: Radio 4: Sunday programme. The SPCK item is 25 minutes and 15 seconds in.

In summary, the programme contained the following:

• Introduction to the bookshops and the crisis
• Me talking about my surprise at statements found on the original SSG website
• Sections of text from the SSG video
• Gregory Hallam talking about Orthodoxy and Islam
• Mark Brewer
• Aude Pasquier, speaking form a publishers perspective
• Mike Ford vistits the Chester shop and comments on what is and isn't on display
• Richard Greatrex, former Bristol manager
• Christina, another former manager
• Jane Mcgarry (?) USDAW
• Interview with Phil Brewer

Some of text from the programme transcribed via hefty use of the pause button (see 'Editor's note' below):

Presenter: A little over a year ago a small charity called St Stephen the Great took over the running of Britain's most famous religious bookshop chain, SPCK. The chain was said to be on the verge of financial ruin and the staff were worried about their jobs. At the time of the takeover SPCK's 23 bookshops employed a staff of 200, but since then the staff have left in droves complaining about the style of the new management, as well as changes to their contracts and working conditions. Publishers say new books aren't appearing on the shelves. St Stephen the Great (SSG) now a limited company is run by the Brewer family in Texas who describe themselves as lay Orthodox Christians whose aim is to spread the Orthodox message by acquiring redundant Anglican churches. Mike Ford has this special report.

Mike Ford: Set in the normally genteel world of religious bookselling the saga might well have come straight from the pages of a novel by Barbara Pym. SPCK was traditionally one of the most respected chains in the business. Some of its shops had been trading since the early 1800s stocking a broad selection of theological books and supplying churches with communion wine wafers and candles. But in more recent times the chain had faced desperate financial problems and had difficulty securing a buyer. So when the Brewer brothers from Texas agreed to take over it seemed like manna from heaven.

Dave Walker: I think when SPCK wanted to get rid of the shops they wanted a solution that would involve as few redundancies as possible and I think they saw St Stephen the Great as being the best option in the circumstances.

Mike Ford: Dave Walker is a cartoonist for the Church Times who has been following the story on his blog.

Dave Walker: I was very surprised when I went onto the SSG website that some of the statements that were on the site at the time didn't strike me as being particularly compatable with the more open minded stance of the SPCK shops.

Audio from SSG video: I'm Mark Brewer, chairman of the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust. Who was St Stephen the Great? He was a man who lived in the fifteenth century who fought some 47 battles against the Muslim Turks who were invading Eastern Europe at that time.

Mike Ford: Mark Brewer and his brother Philip describe themselves as lay orthodox Christians. They named their charity after a Saint who built a church after each of his 47 battles against the Muslims. The brothers want to follow in that spirit by acquiring 47 redundant churches from the church of England and turning them over to Orthodox use. Posters in their shops use the slogan 'Buy a book - Save a church'.

Audio from SSG video: The second major project of the Trust is a lovely old Victorian church in the city of Bradford. Known as Saint Mary Magdalene, the abandoned building would most likely have become an Islamic centre as it is only two blocks from what is already the second largest mosque in Europe. Now, thanks to (fades)

Mike Ford: Many Orthodox Christians have been alarmed by this video. Father Gregory Hallam, an Orthodox priest in Manchester thinks it could suggest that the Orthodox church has a confrontational attitude towards Islam.

Father Gregory Hallam: I belong to a church in the Middle East that has lived alongside Islam for over 1400 years, and some of Mr Brewers statements about Islam strike us as being very un-Orthodox in the sense of not being consistent really with our whole approach to interfaith relations. We in the Orthodox church regard all religions as being an indication of God's graciousness to mankind.

Mike Ford: The staff at SPCK became increasingly unhappy about the changes the Brewers were making. They related to the range of stock, the way it was ordered and the working conditions. The new management style didn't go down well either. The staff voted with their feet. More than two thirds of managers have left along with scores of others. In Exeter the entire team walked out. But the chairman of SSG, Mark Brewer, said the new measures had to be taken.

Mark Brewer: We came into the bookshops a year and a month ago facing mounting losses on the trading operations and set about the very difficult and sometimes unpopular task of trying to make the shops profitable enough to at least pay their own way while continuing to spread the word of God through the printed material as well as of course church requisites and some religious articles of one kind and another.

Mike Ford: It was understood from the start that the shops would continue to sell a range of materials, but according to staff in some shops the stock is narrower and they aren't receiving supplies. Aude Pasquier, sales and marketing director for a London publishing house says the changes are posing serious challenges to religious publishers.

Aude Pasquier: Basically I think the range of books is not being carried any longer. Potential customers can't find the range of books that they used to be able to find in the SPCK bookshops. Writers have been coming to us asking why - how come I cannot find my books on the shelves of the SPCK bookshops. For publishers it means that we have lost 23 shops in 23 different locations where we had clearly a good customer base and we have to be able to reach those customers by some other means from now on.

In summary: I felt it gave a good summary of the situation. The nature of such programmes is that each person's contribution is reduced to one or two sentences, but I think a good number of points were made nevertheless. I'd have liked what was said on to have gone further - for example the various Anglican dioceses who have said nothing about the fate of their local SPCK shop escaped without mention - it wasn't for a lack of talking about it on my part. Phil Brewer's responses in the final interview will, I'm sure, be the topic of some debate. As Richard
has said in the comments below he misrepresented the reason that many of the staff left, avoided the Islamophobia issue and his comments about 'broadening the stock' are just not born out by reality.

Thanks to the BBC for running this story and for the producers for ensuring that such a wide variety of voices was heard. If you have comments on the programme then do of course post them below, but you can also comment on the Sunday programme website.

Other comments on the programme:
Neil: Radio 4 again
The Need to Maintain Critical Dialogue Between Religions: SPCK / SSG Bookshops | The Wardman Wire
Madame Arcati: St Stephen's bookshops fight the Muslim heathen!
Posters on the Ship of Fools bulletin board give their reactions
Room515 | SPCK: The fight club continues

Other links not directly about the programme:
• A pro-SSG Anglican priest - de cura animarum: St. Stephen's Trust: Restoring Britain's Christian Heritage
[Editor's note (Sunday pm): I need to get on with work, so the transcript of the programme is incomplete. If anyone else wanted to do any more transcribing (from 31 minutes) that really would be marvellous - I know that you can listen to the programme but it would be good to have a written record.]

Update: a comment by Richard Greatrex has been added to the Sunday programme site:
Re: The takeover of the SPCK Bookshops by St Stephen the Great.Many of the points made by Phil Brewer need challenging. Go into your local SPCK/SSG Bookshop and look for any of the new titles published since August by the major Christian publishing houses in the UK - SPCK, DLT, Church House, Kevin Mayhew, etc. I doubt whether you will find more than 5%. The range has radically diminished and not got broader, as Phil Brewer said. In some cases even the range of Orthodox material is less than before the takeover. Phil Brewer states that many of the staff left because they couldn't cope with attempts to modernise business practice. But most of us welcomed this with opened arms, we were willing to work hard to remodel the shops in a more businesslike way. We left because we and our colleagues were treated in most unbusiness-like and unchristian ways.

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