Staff representatives from SPCK bookshops, which are now owned by the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), are to meet management this month to discuss concerns about the treatment of staff and working practices.
The Trust, which is run by Eastern Orthodox Christians, took over the 24 SPCK shops in October 2006 (News, 27 October). They were running at a loss, and SSG promised to “enhance and broaden its mission of distributing Christian literature”, and promised a “vigorous marketing strategy”.
Mark Brewer, an Orthodox Christian and a lawyer from Texas, who is the chairman of the Trust, in partnership with his brother Philip, described the shops “as places where all people, Christian or otherwise, are welcome, and given the chance to widen their spiritual horizons”.
Nearly a year later, 11 of the shops are without a manager, and no job vacancies have been advertised on its website; the sale of the Qur’an has been banned (News, 1 December); and strict guidelines have been issued about working practices, including stock-ordering. Staff have been told that speaking to the press can be a sackable offence. One manager was allegedly dismissed for speaking of his concerns with a senior cleric who was visiting the shop.
The business-development manager, Simon Mackay, who was appointed in December, is leaving this month to work for Foyles bookshops. Publishing houses have expressed concerns that one of the leading distributors of religious books to SPCK shops encountered a serious payment problem earlier this year.
SSG announced in the summer that the bookshops would open on Sundays (News, 8 June), but, after staff consultation, this has not become a blanket policy.
Supporters and regular users of SPCK bookshops who were contacted this week by the Church Times described staff morale as being at an all-time low. They questioned the principles on which the chain was being run. Staff said that their main point of contact with the Brewers was through email.
Mr Brewer said this week: “The morale of the SPCK Bookshops could not be better.” He described Mr Mackay’s departure after less than a year as an “endorsement of the management of SPCK Bookshops”.
As a trustee, it would be inappropriate to comment on any personnel action, he said. He could not confirm or deny that a manager had been sacked for speaking to the press. He stressed, however, that the Trust expected all staff to support its charitable objectives, “and we would accordingly expect them to not express negative opinions about SPCK bookshops or the charity.”
On the question of the breadth of stock, Mr Brewer said that a central ordering scheme had been “slowly and gradually instituted” since January. As a result: “Our local shops’ role in reordering has, of necessity, evolved and adapted somewhat.”
Mr Brewer confirmed that there was a meeting with staff later this month, but denied that all contact was through email. “In my efforts to stem the losses and make the shops sufficiently profitable to keep them open, I have eschewed further shop closures (as in the past), and instead laboured to find areas where cost-cutting and more efficient utilisation of resources could go hand-in-hand with better economic performance and customer service.”
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, and the SPCK General Secretary, Simon Kingston, who are both listed as trustees of SSG, said on Tuesday that while trustees are not involved in the management of the shops day-to-day, “certain matters for discussion” had been raised at a trustees meeting a month ago, and that they were continuing in discussion with other trustees.
They said that, although an American management style would inevitably lead to some contrasts with past ways: “We are certainly seeking to ensure that the staff are treated appropriately for a Christian organisation.” Referring to the meeting with staff, they continued: “We would earnestly hope that this would take a positive turn.”