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Ex-SPCK shops close branches and cut staff and hours

07 February 2008

by Rachel Harden

Further closures and staff cuts were announced this week at the former SPCK bookshop chain, now owned by a US-based Orthodox charity, St Stephen the Great (SSG), which is run by the Brewer brothers from Texas.

Staff at a number of shops received notice by email that their contracts were being terminated, and that they had to leave that day. In Norwich, SSG staff were told in an email to leave after work on Tuesday, and to put up a notice saying the shop would be closed until 18 February. They were informed that they were no longer employed.

Staff in Lincoln and Sheffield were given similar instructions terminating their employment. In Sheffield, the Dean and Chapter contacted the Brewers last year to say that they were unable to commend the shop, situated in the cathedral, because they did not agree with the aims of SSG or its limited stock.

Mark Brewer, the American lawyer who chairs SSG, replied that because of their actions, SSG could not rule out closing the shop — which it did this week.

At Bristol, opening hours and staff coverage have been reduced, so that the shop will open only from Wednesday to Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., starting later this month.

At Salisbury, staff were informed on Monday that they had to introduce shorter working hours by the following day, and that the shop would be closed on Mondays.

The shops in Cambridge and Canterbury are also to be temporarily closed. One member of staff said that there was no guarantee that they would be reopened.

Many of the staff have contacted their union Usdaw, whose general secretary this week wrote to the Church Times: “We are very concerned that many of them will lose their jobs or be forced into jobs which offer fewer rights.” He called on readers to support the staff, as they continued to struggle to protect their employment rights.

Mr Brewer said this week: “As we move into the second month of 2008, some of the SSG bookshops have experienced the same reduced footfall and sales as most every other bookseller and high-street retailers. In some of our locations, for the good of the overall chain, we have taken the decision of cost-cutting.

“We therefore have temporarily closed Canterbury and Cambridge and intend to reopen both after re-fitting and re-stocking these shops. We have other locations slated either for reduced operating hours, temporary closure or permanent closure.”

At the time of going to press, he could not be contacted about the further closures.

SSG acquired the chain of 23 SPCK bookshops 18 months ago, after they had been running at a loss (News, 27 October 2006). Since the acquisition, however, there has been a series of complaints about staff morale, working practices, censorship on stock control — the sale of the Qur’an was banned within a month of the takeover (News, 1 December 2006) — and new contracts (News, 14 September).

One former employee rang the Church Times this week to say that when he spoke out about the conditions of work last year, he was “hounded” by the Brewer brothers, and eventually left his post through ill-health. “When the handover was done by SPCK, I really do feel not enough research was done into who was taking over the shops,” he said.

Publisher’s sales rise.
SPCK Publishing announced this week that this January was the best ever for sales at this time of year. “Sales for the month have exceeded the record for a single month set in 2002,” the charity said.




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