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SPCK takeover creates more questions than it answers

Cartoon courtesy of cartoonchurch.com

SPCK have announced that their entire bookshop chain is being sold to St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), continuing to operate as SPCK Bookshops (under licence) by SSG, with a commitment to maintenance of their breadth in stock-holding.

2006 has pretty much been an annus horribilis for the SPCK bookshop chain. The year started with the announcement that SPCK had entered into talks with Send The Light (STL) regarding a merger.

That potential marriage ended in disaster when the talks were called off in April and the resulting hasty announcement from the SPCK management that all the bookshops were to close. I commented via this blog on the situation at the time.

The manager concerned who made the announcement of closure was promptly cut adrift by his board and is no longer with SPCK. Apparently, they have been busying themselves finding an alternative buyer and now SSG have emerged from what I doubt was much of a pack.

I am sure that SPCK staff everywhere have welcomed the news of a buyer but perhaps with some nervousness for what the future holds. Personally, I share that nervousness much as I welcome a potential light at the end of their tunnel. As I commented before, SPCK are often the only Christian presence in our town shopping areas and the Christian ‘scene’ in this country would be significantly different if they were to disappear.

Ultimately, this takeover announcement raises more questions for me than it answers:

Just who are The St. Stephen’s Trust?

The St. Stephen’s Trust was unknown to me before this weekend and I’m sure unknown to many of us. The SSG website makes clear that they are an organisation based in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, relatively recently established (2003) with the aim of carrying out missionary work in the UK.

What follows is conjecture and should not be taken as ‘gospel fact’ and I will happily update this article if anything proves to be mistaken. However, behind the SSG seems to be the St. Stephen’s Foundation which is apparently based in Houston, Texas where Mark Brewer, a lawyer, is the President.

That all seems pretty clear. I may be putting two and two together and making five but I am thinking – recently established charity, presumably very rich laywer in charge, USA base must equal oodles of cash. Whether that is true or otherwise, I’m still intrigued and want to know more about who this bunch are.

What are SSG’s motivations?

Again, I am guessing but I will suggest that SSG will have two main motivations. Firstly, to support the communication and propagation of the Christian faith in this country. Whether you like the stock range or even the general look of the existing shops or not, Christian bookshops are an important public face for our faith in this country. The press release makes clear both SSG and SPCK have that goal in mind and I have no reason to doubt them.

I would guess that their second motivation is to get their own particular Eastern Orthodox agenda across. SSG appear to be a mission committed to planting churches and building Eastern Orthodox spirituality in this country. I am sure that by owning these shops, they think they are giving themselves a chance to give a higher profile to such material – whether it be books, music, icons or whatever.

However, I am still not convinced that owning these shops is their absolutely best bet for conducting such missionary activity… so the question for me remains… why are they up for this?

What will SSG want to stock?

Over on Dave Walker’s (always excellent) Cartoon Church website, a commenter has drawn attention to the website of the SSG Foundation where a page entitled ‘Christian Orthodoxy‘ makes some pretty inflammatory comments about other branches of the Christian church. While it does beg the obvious question about what sort of material SPCK may be asked to stock in future (or not stock as the case maybe), I personally don’t see that as a major concern – unhelpful as I may find their views.

If SPCK is to survive, those in control will need to act commercially and no bookshop manager or chain director worth their salt is going to stop selling Anglican, Roman Catholic or any other kind of material if they hope to continue in business. Another commenter on Dave’s blog, who obviously has seen the introductory pack sent to employees, has confirmed that SSG has signed an agreement that ties them into maintaining breadth. A binding contract in the first place and secondly the need to sell books should ensure that SSG’s views on the validity of our non-orthodox faith remains a red herring.

However, if I was a betting man, I would lay money on some changes in the stock-holding coming SPCK’s way and a higher profile for Eastern Orthodox material.

What controls do SPCK now have over their own name?

The press release makes clear that SSG will be the owners but will continue to brand the bookshops as SPCK under licence from SPCK. It also infers (although I may be mis-reading the press release) that SSG will operate the website at spckonline.com.

SPCK are giving up a tremendous amount of power over their own identity in such a move. It’s not unheard of – the Archbishops’ Council did exactly the same in their sale of Church House Bookshop to SCM-Canterbury Press. However, unlike that sale, SSG are something of an unknown quantity and their inflammatory views on their website would suggest there is reason for concern.

What if SSG decide to start using the shops to propagate a highly exclusivist Eastern Orthodox line… perhaps not in the books they sell (a broad range of which which they are now contractually bound to sell), but in the books they promote, the events that take place in the shops, statements and book reviews that they might publish on the website etc?

The publishing arm of SPCK (which remains solely in SPCK’s control) could find themselves saddled with a tarnished image because the average person in the street doesn’t realise that there is any difference between SPCK bookshops and SPCK publishing when they take exception to something occurring in the bookshops.

Of course, the actual licence tells everything here and we have no way to know what is in it. I would hope that SPCK have enough protections to ensure that, should they need to, they can withdraw the use of the name at the first sign of trouble. However, if I was high up in SPCK, it would be an issue of concern to me that they have even ‘lent’ the name to someone else.

What do SSG know about bookselling?

Here is where my big questions lie. Having worked in the Christian book trade for seven years, I was aware (as are most in that industry) that SPCK were in financial trouble. Christian publishing isn’t something you do to make money and their bookshops had been struggling for a very long time. It was only the fact that SPCK are sitting on some very large legacies from their previous history as a long-established ‘mission’ that they were able to bankroll the losses year after year.
Apparently, they have reached a point where the SPCK trustees are not prepared to continue sustaining such losses – hence the various flirtations this year and the eventual sale to SSG.

But does this solve the problems? As far as I can tell, SSG have no commercial background in bookselling so what do they bring to SPCK other than serious cash (if indeed that is what they bring)? In terms of the modus operandi for the shops, what it will probably mean is that SSG simply ask the existing SPCK management structures to continue to manage the chain on their behalf. SSG won’t have anything new to bring to the show that will make a significant difference commercially.

That really worries me for the future health of SPCK. I’d be wanting to see new owners coming in who know what they are doing. I’d want to see people who can shake things up, work out where efficiencies can be found, ultimately get the chain to be profitable… a Waterstones or Amazon or Cambridge University Press. Even one of the more successful Christian outfits like STL, CHB/CHP or SCM-Canterbury Press would be preferable, although they all have their struggles in what is always a tough Christian market.

There are some excellent bookshop managers in the SPCK chain. There are also some terrible ones and, in particular, the central SPCK management has already proved quite thoroughly and consistently that they don’t know how to turn a profit in bookselling so what has really changed? In two years time, will the SPCK shops still be in financial trouble just under different ownership?

Of course, that prophecy of doom may turn out to be true and absolutely not a problem. If SSG do have oodles of cash and just want to support Christian mission in the UK, they may not care whether SPCK can wash its face financially or not. They may be happy to bankroll losses year after year to ensure those bookshops continue to fulfill their task and propagate the ‘message’ (including a probably higher profile for Eastern Orthodox spirituality) of Christ.

I truly hope and pray that the SPCK chain flourishes under new management. Our witness as a national Church is the better for all Christian bookshops in rude health, regardless of where our own particular loyalties may lie. I just hope there is someone somewhere within this whole business addressing the real problems properly and not just re-arranging the chairs and the headed paper.

Cartoon courtesy of cartoonchurch.com

Comments

Joseph Hostetler
Reply

I have been following with interest the plight of SPCK and, now, its acquisition by an Orthodox trust. The position of the Orthodox Church regarding itself being the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church confessed in the Nicene Creed is not new, even if it is put in stark, curt or even insulting terms. I don’t see why we should be all that surprised by SSG’s comments on this. On the other hand, the Orthodox have always been known to be gracious in their dealings with other Christians and other religions, insomuch as they have never engaged in the kind of hard ball proselytism, even warfare, known to Western Christians. The Orthodox Church may be new to England (in the 20th century) but it is very old and venerable and was well respected by the older generation in the CoE. Certainly, it should be expected that SSG will promote Orthodox Christianity. This also should be no surprise to us. But neither should we be threatened by it. From my experience of Eastern Orthodoxy there is great depth and even breadth there – and much to offer spiritually. And, most importantly, for SPCK, there is great stability and endurance among the Orthodox, who have lived through a Turkish enslavement and a Communist crucifixion in our own century. All in all, this is good news for SPCK.

David
Reply

Thanks for commenting Joseph. I don’t disagree with you and while I’ve not had much contact with the Eastern Orthodox church before, the presence of their students in some of my lectures here as part of the Cambridge Theological Federation is enriching the discussion. As I say, I think the concerns about their statements are a bit of a red herring and the biggest issue of all is – do SSG know anything about bookselling? If they don’t, then I don’t know if this good news for SPCK or not – regardless of whether the churchmanship of their owners enriches our experience or otherwise.

Joseph Hostetler
Reply

You make a good point, David. My first thought is: well, can they be any worse than SPCK as of late? It was, after all, SPCK and their book selling approach and philosophy, in part, that led to this sale and agreement. Also, Orthodoxy is purported to be one of the fasting growing Christian groups in the UK, even if the numbers over all are small. So, if it is true that they will introduce more Orthodox material into SPCK on-line and locally, perhaps this will help overall sales. But, we also have to face the fact that the UK and the West in general is in a post-Christian era and things are likely to get worse before they get better – and I am not sure any bookseller will change that.

Frank S
Reply

It would be hard to find anyone to run SPCK bookshops who is less knowledgeable and competent than SPCK’s London group. Not only is the evidence overwhelming on this point, but even the trustees and senior management resoundingly have agreed. I understand that Saint Stephen the Great have put together a talented management group with a depth of experience and a clear vision for the future — neither of which has existed in SPCK Bookshops for a long time.

Jim
Reply

>I understand that Saint Stephen the Great have put >together a talented management group with a depth of >experience and a clear vision for the future — neither of >which has existed in SPCK Bookshops for a long time.

Could you tell us a little more, what is their ”experience” and what is their ”clear vision for the future”???

[…] I hate to say that I told you so, but I did ask some very big questions back in October 2006 when all this first kicked off and SSG first acquired the chain that have […]

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