In many ways, the history of Eastbourne’s Christian Resource Center mirrors the history of Christian bookstores in many cities. The business started in 1949 when a Jewish colporteur began selling Bibles behind his shop and grew and prospered through the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Six days a week, a steady stream of Bibles, hymnbooks, Sunday School materials, and tapes and CDs of worship music flew off the shelves. But then a slow but steady decline set in. Staff and volunteers began to retire with no one to replace them. Customers went online to buy their resources. And two years of ongoing Covid lockdowns dealt the final deathblow. In January, the town center closed its doors for good, just a short walk from Eastbourne’s historic Victorian Pier.
A similar story could be told in dozens of cities across Britain. What was once a small but thriving industry has been shrinking and stagnant for years. Some fear that not only is the heyday of Christian bookstores long gone, but that their very existence is threatened in every way. Like all book retailers, they face online competition, although most consumers find it easier and cheaper to order their books, calendars, music and resources online. “Even though we’re a specialty store, we found fewer and fewer people coming into the store,” said Bob Clark, a former manager of the Eastbourne store. “They chose to shop online or get it direct from the publishers, or their Bibles, or their Christian books, or their music.” What were once fantastic high street locations have become millstones around the necks of some businesses as the Visitor frequency is falling while prices and rents are rising. Even shops that seem to be doing well feel a cool wind on their backs. “I’m quite concerned,” said Aude Pasquier, manager of Church House Bookshop in central London. “I think it’s obvious that the last two years have made it even more precarious when it wasn’t going that strong before.”
This isn’t just a job sold over the counter. There is something much deeper.
And it’s not just the independent stores struggling to stay afloat. There are also hardly any Christian bookstore chains left. SPCK and Wesley Owen both once had large networks of stores, but in the early 2000s both found conditions difficult. After a proposed merger fell through, SPCK’s stores were sold to a new company, which in turn collapsed in bitter bitterness a few years later amid allegations of dubious business practices and contractual gimmicks. Most of the chain eventually closed. Wesley Owen continued to hobble until it came under administration in 2009. Eight of the remaining stores were bought by an Australian company, but by 2012 they too decided to go online and shut down the brick-and-mortar store.
Perhaps the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin of an already precarious industry. Three separate lockdowns resulted in major roads being abandoned and businesses closing for months into 2020 and 2021. And when normalcy finally returned, many bookstore owners found their customers didn’t. Bradley Smith, the manager of St Olav’s in Chichester, said the most significant impact of Covid was that those with no prior experience or interest in online shopping had become very confident. Clark said exactly the same thing: “The silver surfers, the over 50s, had discovered the internet during Covid. They used it for church, to chat with their relatives in Australia, or to shop online. Our target audience of over 50s, who still enjoyed shopping and choosing their Christian books and materials, didn’t come into play.”
The Decline of Reading
Many in the industry believe that the amount of Christian books consumed by the average believer has decreased from generation to generation. How can bookstores thrive if congregations aren’t regularly encouraged to read — and told what to read — asked Steve Barnett, director of the St. Bookstore. It wasn’t just that churches, which once had hundreds of hymnbooks now simply project song lyrics onto a screen, but they have also “stopped promoting books and reading,” he lamented. That’s short-sighted, he argued. A Christian who reads widely and deeply is a Christian who also prays, serves and gives financially, Barnett said, citing SPCK research years ago that found a correlation between churches with book-reading cultures and spiritual maturity.
But the decline of the Christian bookstore isn’t just about money and falling sales, some argue. The stores that were truly unprofitable have mostly fallen by the wayside, and so those that are closing today owe their demise more to staff than to finance. In many cases, a longtime manager or owner reaches retirement age or wants to move on and just can’t find anyone to take over the business, even though it can still be profitable, Barnett said. Pasquier said most booksellers tend to be in their 50s or older, and many are passionate about their business. She knew several owners, including a couple in Preston who closed their business last year and just couldn’t find anyone to sell their profitable businesses to. While both managers were aware of the challenges, they were adamant that there would be a market for Christian bookstores provided their operators were able to act as nimble and creative entrepreneurs and worked hard to explore the opportunities maximize.
the conversion of soon-to-be-discontinued bookstores as outposts for social action could be a net gain for the gospel
But others are now wondering if the slow death of the Christian bookstore presents a different kind of opportunity. Could the location of these high street shops be put to better use for the kingdom? Given that there’s no shortage of online businesses dedicated to providing an unprecedented range of Christian books, music and other resources, perhaps the brick-and-mortar infrastructure scattered across the UK could better serve people outside the Serve Church as Believers Only? This is the future Eastbourne has chosen. Clark explained that just three days after the trustees decided to close their business permanently, they discovered that a local charity, the Kingdom Way Trust (KWT), needed new premises for their homeless shelter. Agreement was quickly reached and when the bookshop finally closed in January, it was handed over to KWT as the new company headquarters. “When we looked at their website, their mission statement was pretty much the same as ours — to be Jesus on the street,” Clark recalled. “So you have an open door for the gospel seven days a week. We’re very excited.” Clark said he knew anecdotally of similar stories across the country, in places as far flung as Aberdeen and Blackpool. A similar switch has taken place in Oxford, where a Christian bookshop that was closed during the pandemic has now reopened as the site of the city’s Christian homeless shelter. Some suggest repurposing soon-to-be-discontinued bookstores as outposts for social action would be a net gain for the gospel by shifting the church’s footprint from inward ministry to those already saved, back toward working with the least, the last, and the last would get lost.
But not everyone is convinced. While it is true that Christian resources are plentiful online, physical bookstores offer something that cyberspace will never offer. “What we can offer that the internet can’t provide is face-to-face contact, connecting with people, remembering them, recognizing them, being able to advise them,” Smith said. Barnett agreed, citing the important curatorial role of bookstore staff in selecting and promoting which books are actually worth reading from the thousands published each year. “You wouldn’t want to base all of your discipleship growth in your life on podcasts or TED Talks,” he added, in a dig at millennials’ lack of interest in reading at all. Pasquier agreed, noting that bookstores already served as a form of service. When she ran the SPCK bookstore in York in the 1990s, many of her customers saw the space as a kind of church where they could meet other Christians, ask questions about faith and find fellowship. Smith said much the same thing. “This isn’t just a job sold over a counter. There’s something much deeper there.” Many of his clients come because they are looking for something spiritual but don’t want to go to a real church. “They pour out their hearts because they feel vulnerable or scared, alone, betrayed,” he said.
It seems that despite the many problems facing their industry, many Christian booksellers are not yet ready to throw in the towel. But for those whose bookstores have reached the end of the road, it is exciting that a different, gospel-centered future awaits them. “A lot of our customers were like, ‘Oh, isn’t it sad that the bookstore is closing,'” said Mr. Clark. “And we’d tell them, ‘Well, that’s not the end of the book, it’s just another chapter.'”