SPCK threatens to abandon all its 24 bookshops

02 November 2006

THE whole chain of 24 SPCK bookshops was facing possible closure this week, after the collapse of a merger deal with the Evangelical company Send the Light (STL).

Staff at SPCK shops were told on Friday by email that the deal with STL, which owns the 40 Wesley Owen bookshops, had fallen through. As a consequence, the email said, SPCK would be proceeding with "its alternative plan to close all bookshops over the coming months".

The line softened on Tuesday, when a further email from SPCK's chairman "regretted" the original email, and promised to look at the fate of each bookshop individually.

The first email came from the office of the charity's general secretary, Graeme King. A spokeswoman this week said he was unavailable for comment, as he is now on holiday. The statement released on Tuesday from Clive Wright, the chairman of SPCK's governing body, said: "We are sorry to say that it has not been possible to reach agreement between SPCK and STL (Wesley Owen) on the proposed combination of our shops. This is most disappointing."

Some staff at the bookshops have described the treatment - being informed by email - as unacceptable, although they had been aware the bookshops had not been making money for some time, and believed this may have influenced STL's decision not to go ahead.

In February, it was announced that discussions were under way between SPCK and the Wesley Owen Retail Group for a merger of the bookshops ( News, 24 February). The plan had been to create a Christian Resource Network by combining the shops, but publishers and other interested parties had expressed concerns that this would lead to narrower range of Christian books being available ( Letters, 17 March). SPCK has traditionally sold a broad spectrum of books, whereas Wesley Owen has sold mainly Evangelical mass-market titles.

One independent Christian bookshop manager said: "Everyone was astounded, not so much that the merger was off, but the way it was handled." He added that many shared the relief that STL would not be taking over the SPCK shops.

An editorial in the April edition of Christian Marketplace, published when the merger was still going ahead, said: "There is a danger that the trade will become ever more unbalanced unless there is stronger competition from the independent sector."

The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) is the oldest Anglican mission agency, founded in 1698, and works in three areas: funding mission projects throughout the world, publishing, and bookshops in Britain.

A former employee, who had been in touch with a number of the managers, said that they all felt the treatment was "unacceptable, even unforgivable". He explained that the shop chain as a whole had been making a loss for a number of years, but that a few branches were profitable. For several years, there had been no one experienced in the book trade running the overall organisation of the shops, he explained.

"There used to be someone in that position, but cuts were made, and the role was handed over to someone who was experienced in finance, not bookshops. To be honest, some of the shops started to lose a lot of money."

One shop manager said that there was the possibility that individual shops might be bought. Of the 24 shops, spread across England from Truro to Newcastle, with one in Cardiff, many are in prime locations, and a number either in or adjoining cathedrals, such as those at Durham and Liverpool. SPCK owns about half of its retail premises.

Brendan Walsh, editorial director of Darton, Longman & Todd and a former employee of SPCK publishing, said he echoed the feelings of many publishers in his deep disappointment at SPCK's decision to abandon bookselling.

"What a shame SPCK couldn't make a fist of running a chain of bookshops. But my hope is that others will realise the potential of many of these shops and their staff, and offer to take them over."

A spokesman for STL said on Monday that the charity was under a confidentiality agreement with SPCK, and could not comment.

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