January 2014 was a really strange month for me.
There are three bookshops that I have been deeply involved in that closed their doors for the final time on January 11th. These were the remaining 2 Wesley Owen shops and CLC in Kingston which I opened as Chapter & Verse in 1995.
So for the first time ever in my working life I won’t be directly responsible for a physical retail store, and the first time for nearly 20 years I will not have a Christian bookshop under my wings.
I have deeply mixed feelings, I feel so sad for the staff whose jobs and ministry are ending, I feel for the regular customers, especially those for whom the shop is an important connection point with people and faith. I feel for the town as yet another shop is emptied and I feel for the wider trade as it grapples with a changing world. Yet somehow I don’t feel sad for the business itself.
In this rapidly changing culture and retail environment this type of commercial Christian operation has had its day. We watched an inexorable and irreversible shift in sales, to such an extent that sales in my old shop in Kingston in its last year of trading were lower than in its first year over 15 years ago, and had dropped to a third of its best ever sales. The viable models for physical Christian bookshops have altered, and are based once again around independents, passionate individuals, churches and charities. These models will need to keep adapting and continually change at a good pace.
We live in a world where the major forces for the future in the book trade are companies like Amazon, Google & Apple for whom bookselling is not a primary function, but a side show. Books for them are just one of the ways to connect with consumers to further a wider agenda. However these companies are superb retailers; and they have grown dominant and have utterly and permanently changed the book world. This is retail context that we now live. The UK Christian book trade had its own black swan event in 2009 that altered the structure of the trade and left us even more vulnerable to external forces.
It seems to me there are some questions that need considering, that not only address the challenges of publishing and bookselling, but also begin to re-frame the way we look at how we write, read and learn.
- What role do books now play in the life of the church?
- What role does the church play in the life of books?
- With changing writing formats and new platforms emerging, where do books fit in culture anyway these days?
- Christian leaders still read, but more and more of their congregations don’t, very few church leaders recommend books. Why that disconnect ? And how can that be changed?
- Is physical bookselling a viable standalone option?
- Can the existing trade structure cope with continued decline in overall bookshop sales?
- How does partnership in the trade now work?
- Should bookshops form a co-operative to work together more effectively?
- Should a shop aim to stock a good general range or should they specialise to their local market?
- How can bookshops build viable financial models?
- Where should Christian bookshops be located?
- How can independents capture and use data?
- What differentiates a shop enough that customers are prepared to make the journey to visit?
- Is digital going to push print to a point when it is an add-on luxury?
- How important is being local in social media connected world?
- The nature of social connection has changed, what implications does that have for books?
…and these questions just scratch the surface.
For those involved in books, from authors, publishers, booksellers and readers it is important to consider these questions, not just for the benefit of church and trade but because people’s lives are deeply affected by these changes.
When we packed up our final store I took our managers for a bite to eat and to talk about the final week that we’d just been through. Literally our last supper. We talked about the 50 year history of the shop, we told stories of good times and funny episodes, of the people who worked there and shopped there. When we finished our meal and stood outside, none of us really wanted to be the first to turn away. When we finally said goodbye, I watched a friend and colleague who had spent over 50 years selling Christian books walk slowly off into his retirement.
I was pleased we ended it together as friends, but so aware of the need for still greater change.
It is time to write the next chapter in the life of Christian books and I suspect the plot will take a very different direction.