Monthly Archives: September 2008

SPCK/SSG Roundups: Christian Marketplace and DMK

Phil Groom writes:

October’s Christian Marketplace, out now, and David Keen (DMK) both offer good roundups of recent developments on the SPCK/SSG front.

Christian Marketplace‘s Industry News section, p.6, opens with “SSG Bankruptcy filed ‘in bad faith’”:

Attempts by the owners of UK bookshop chain SSG (formerly SPCK) to enjoy the protection of Chapter 7 bankruptcy have been thrown out by a US court. In a further setback Randy W Williams, the Trustee in Bankruptcy appointed by the Bankruptcy Court, submitted a Motion for Sanctions against SSG Chairman, J Mark Brewer, seeking a number of sanctions including, ‘reimbursement of the time and expenses spent by the Trustee’ and that ‘Mr Brewer be required to complete 20 hours of continuing legal education in the area of legal ethics over the next year’.

The article goes on to note Brewer’s apology to the court but continues:

Whilst Brewer has apologized to the Court he has not offered any apology to former employees or other creditors of the failed business. 

This, I think, is one of the points that has irked those commenting here — myself included — leading to David closing his round up with this observation:

Since the attempt to get SSG declared bankrupt in the US was thrown out, comments on these various threads seem to be getting a bit bolder/harsher depending on how you look at it. There is a lot of anger and distress, which is understandable, but I hope there can be some room left for repentance and change.

Let’s hope so: repentance and change. At the moment all we have from Brewer are fine sounding words addressed to those who are in a position to do him some serious damage, the US courts. But to those whom he has trampled underfoot he continues to show nothing but contempt. 

So once again, a personal note for J Mark Brewer — apologies would be a step in the right direction, Mark, but actions speak louder than words. If you’d like to see some less harsh reporting and comments, if you’d like me to ‘Cease and Desist’, please:

  • Pay your workers — Lindsey Stokes in particular
  • Pay your suppliers
  • Withdraw your threats of legal action against Dave Walker, Sam Norton, myself and the others you have similarly threatened 


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Empathising with the Enemy

Phil Groom writes:

I have no enemies: only friends I haven’t won over yet.

I don’t know who first said those words: probably someone with their back to the wall, facing a firing squad; but it strikes me as an incredibly enlightened attitude, possibly as wise as Jesus’ “Love your enemies” — something akin to Paul’s “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Whatever you make of that, I personally would prefer to have the Brewers as friends rather than enemies — but without a sea-change in their attitudes, I can’t see much hope for that anytime soon. My reason for raising this, however, is that in private conversation and from the odd comment here & there I keep running into people who are beginning to feel sorry for the Brewers.

I can relate to that: for anyone new to the story, looking in from the outside, it might well look as though we’re dealing with a pair of well-meaning but ultimately incompetent enthusiasts — two guys with a heart for mission who simply got in too deep with a team of recalcitrant staff. That’s certainly the impression J Mark Brewer seems to want to give us:

Mark Brewer said that he “unintentionally” alienated staff with a new buying policy, which included a discontinuation of selling the Koran and an increase in the number of Orthodox materials sold. “[Staff] actively worked to prevent implementation of anything to do with change until the chain’s finances were too far gone for any change to have worked,” he said.

“I certainly share fault for this, mainly because I failed to muster the necessary support of the senior staff.”

From The Bookseller, 28/08/2008

But is that true? The statement that staff “actively worked to prevent implementation of anything to do with change” is a serious allegation, and one that on the basis of my own experience simply doesn’t hold water. On the contrary, staff were well aware that changes were needed and wanted to see the shops thrive: let’s face it, it was their livelihoods that were at stake. The Brewers, on the other hand, having been gifted the entire chain, had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

What they did, however, was throw that opportunity away by treating staff with contempt, taking away local buying powers and attempting to implement a centralised buying policy without doing the necessary research into their customers’ interests. I’m not against central buying per se: it clearly has its place in a well thought out business strategy; but I have seen no evidence of such a strategy from the Brewers. What we have, instead, is a series of bizarre head office memos lambasting the staff for perceived failures in their duties. The first of these to make it into public records did so via Ruth Gledhill’s now well known blog post, If you go down to an SPCK bookshop today. Here’s a brief excerpt that sets the tone:

Additionally, there should be no square centimeter that is within our shops (anywhere) or on the space outside our shops (sidewalks, etc.) that is not ALWAYS tidy and spotless.  I do not  care if the windows were washed ten seconds ago, if they are dirty again, then they need immediate attention.  If the shop floor was vacuumed (Hoover’d, Henry’d, etc) 30 seconds earlier, if there is dust or dirt on the floor, then it is the responsibility of the shop manager to ensure that this is promptly remedied.  Again, this does not matter if the manager is on or off duty. Failure here means a failure to properly manage.

“I failed to muster the necessary support of the senior staff,” says Mark Brewer. Hardly surprising if that’s the way you go about it…

The next memo, less well known, was left anonymously in a response to Ruth’s post on 22/06/2007. I cite it in full here:

Dear Shop managers and assistants.

Greetings. After a great three days in Swanwick, I feel very confident and gratified at your participation.

I congratulate you on a marvelous time.

Effective immediately:

Due to the installation of BACS and BATCH for our accounting and payments, and due to the nature of the installation of Booksolve.net, there is an immediate BAN on all purchases by all the shops for any reason without my specific approval. No purchases made by you effective today onwards will be honored or paid for by Saint Stephen the Great. This ban is expected to be removed when these issues are fully dealt with, and then only on an extremely limited basis. 

Customer orders will only be allowed on the following basis:

If the customer agrees to the carrying charges (where applicable), and pays for the order in advance.

(This ban is confidential and shall not be read or posted in any way. Any violations of this, or any discussion of this with any one outside the management team will be considered gross misconduct. Should this need to be discussed, please direct them to me only. Area managers are free to discuss this with your shop managers and if necessary, you may discuss them with me or their behalf.) 

Again, I thank you for your team work and your diligence in our joint efforts to raise funds for our work and Charity, Saint Stephen the Great Trust.

Phil Brewer,
President, Saint Stephen the Great/SPCK Bookshops
— 
Philip W Brewer
US 520-906-6866
UK (0)79-62646035

Dear Managers and assistants

Thank you all for the many queries I have received about central purchasing. I am pleased to see that you all want to join me in making this work. For the most part I am trying to deal with all of these and get back to you. However, I simply do not have the time today to sit and answer all of these emails and telephone messages. All I can do is request that you read through the original email and if you need further clarification please cc Mr Phil Brewer or Ms Kirsty Smith as they will be able to deal with it if I can not do so first. 

I wish to re-emphasise the following points.

* No buying without approval – This means that if you need to get something in stock other than a customer order or account order please email this to Phil and myself for approval. There is always the time!
* Process all customer and account orders – get payment in advance including delivery where applicable
* do not tell anyone about our new buying procedures. This does not and will not cause any problems. If you think that someone needs a call about this then let m,e know and I will do it.

This should cover the main things for mow. Let me know if not.

Please speak to your manager about central purchasing. This must work and I want us all to be involved.

Thank you

Simon

Again, I have no problem with the concept of a central buying policy, if it is intelligently implemented. Here, however, it was introduced as a blunt instrument, without warning or discussion, followed up by fobbing off those who raised questions with, “I simply do not have the time today to sit and answer all of these emails and telephone messages” followed contradictorily by, “please email this to Phil and myself for approval. There is always the time!” … all further exacerbated by the arrogant insistence that not telling anyone about the new buying procedures would not cause any problems. And quite what “the installation of BACS and BATCH” has to do with imposing a ban on shops processing their own orders passes me by completely…

But I’ll allow another of Ruth’s respondents, Pax Vobiscum, who also comments here fairly frequently, to summarise how things went downhill from there, comment dated 12/10/2007 — my emphasis at the end:

SSG were right, the bookshops did need a radical shake up – the business model being used was not versatile enough to deal with shifting customer buying habits. The shops had been chronically underfunded for years because SPCK as a charity simply didn’t have the money for investment. At the takeover by SSG staff were hugely demoralised after a year of aborted deals and threats of imminent closure.

What assets the shops had lay chiefly in those staff who were often to be found working evenings and days-off resourcing conferences and church events. Many of the most knowledgeable, dedicated and highly regarded booksellers in the Christian trade worked for SPCK. The shops also carried some of the deepest and most widely ranging theological stock in the country. SSG rightly picked up on the low staff morale, which often manifested itself in poor front-of-house management – messy displays, untidy shop-floors and sometimes ambivalent interaction with customers. And they saw that inadequate stock control was causing the breadth to be confused with volume and was costing far too much.

Then they threw it all away, as you have seen, with a series of unsubtle memos (and much more) which created a climate of fear and distrust among a stressed, but still dedicated staff network. There was no possibility for open and honest debate. Any staff member who stood up and used the weight of their experience to point out some of the deficiencies in the new strategies was, by implication at least, accused of disloyalty and in several cases their positions made so uncomfortable that they left their jobs. The initially correct attention to tidiness became nigh on an obsession at the cost of the more urgent reform of stock control. Which has led to the situation where the shops have been banned from buying any stock, but no workable central-purchasing system has been put in place. They have had virtually no new stock in the last two months and have completely missed out on all new titles during the key academic seasons and the start of the run up to Christmas.

At the managers’ conference in June SSG admitted that they didn’t believe they could afford to have experienced managers in the shops and they felt that they did not need their knowledge and skills. 

“I failed to muster the necessary support of the senior staff,” says Mark Brewer. The truth of the matter, I think, is far less subtle: senior staff — indeed, all paid staff — were put in impossible positions with dubious contracts on offer in what is difficult to read as anything other than a deliberate attempt to alienate them, forcing them out to make way for “missionary” volunteers…

J. Mark Brewer: you are an embarrassment to the Orthodox Church

Phil Groom writes:

So writes Tikhon, in response to yesterday’s Lies, Damned Lies and St Stephen the Great:

Speaking as a lay Orthodox Christian, I need to remind Mr. Brewer that he has absolutely no right to be involved in any kind of “missionary work” here without the blessing of the canonical Orthodox Bishops present in the U.K.

It goes without saying that anyone involved in any business seeking to promote Orthodoxy in the U.K. will have to display a scrupulous attention to the welfare of staff employed, as well as compliance with all relevant laws, and conduct the business in a honest way – which includes paying suppliers and not misleading a regulator or a Court. That should all be fairly basic, but Mr. Brewer seems not to grasp it.

As Mr. J. Mark Brewer reads this blog, let me say to him, and to the members of his family concerned, each and every one of them : you are an embarrassment to the Orthodox Church. Please wind up your involvement with SSG and leave the Orthodox in the U.K. alone. We can develop our Church with God’s help and without yours, thank you. And please do this NOW.

Tikhon is far from the first person from the Orthodox community to express such displeasure with the Brewers. Steve Hayes, a USA based [1] South African Orthodox blogger, wrote a longish post entitled How NOT to do mission back on 5th August this year. I’ve drawn attention to this before, but here are his opening paragraphs:

I came across this textbook example about how not to do mission on the Elizaphanian blog recently. If you want to see a compendium of missiological errors, it’s almost all here — arrogance, condescension, cultural insensitivity and rank injustice.

What saddened me especially was that this particular example, the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, claims to be linked with the Orthodox Church.

The SSG Trust is apparently buying redundant churches in Britain and turning them into Orthodox Churches. But this has apparently caused problems for some Orthodox congregations, as reported by the OrthodoxWiki site:

St Osmund’s Church in Poole, acquired by the SSG in 2005, became mired in controversy in August 2007, when the Orthodox congregation there, led by Fr Chrysostom MacDonnell, walked out of the Church and decamped over to St Edmund Campion Roman Catholic Church in Bournemouth. Fr MacDonnell stated “We parted company with Mr Brewer and his organisation, as we found that the way in which they operated was contrary to our deanery statutes regarding the control of parishes.”

Even worse, however, was their takeover of the SPCK bookshops in England, and then attempting to foist employment contracts on the staff that would have made Mr Gradgrind look like a saint. Many of the staff were fired, and the bookshops were allowed to run down and many of them were closed.

It’s well worth reading the rest of that post and Steve’s follow-up article, Avoiding mistakes in mission.

Looking back even further, on 15 December 2007, Father Gregory Hallam posted at Ship of Fools about the situation in Poole:

Brewer engineered a change of bishop effectively depriving us of the building. In this he consulted neither the community, its priest nor our Dean. 

He claimed that our bishop (who died shortly afterwards) agreed to this. Strange that, since our bishop sought to get an explanation of this development from the other bishop concerned after we alerted him to this. 

Why would have tried to do this if he had already agreed to the arrangement? Is it conceivable that he would have transferred one of his own parishes to another bishop without informing or consulting the people concerned? Why would he do that? I am at a loss to understand, (since we all knew our bishop and his integrity). Unfortunately our bishop died before any of us could find out any more.

Sound familiar?

Let’s put it this way. Orthodox in this country now would rather see a redundant church become a warehouse than be acquired by this Trust. [my emphasis – PG]

 More from Father Gregory here. Hopefully this and the excerpt from OrthodoxWiki should more or less answer yesterday’s query from asingleblog; the Brewers may own the building, but they don’t own the church.

Mark Brewer: not long ago, when you attempted to file SSG for bankruptcy, you wrote:

Now that SSG is in liquidation, you and your most of your readers must be elated . . . except whatever will you find to write about and who will you now slander?

I’m sorry to say that it’s proving no problem whatsoever to find things to write about, and to the best of my knowledge we have not slandered anyone: the truth isn’t slander, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

But I would like to echo your question, as you seem so fond of doing: you’ve brought Christian bookselling into disrepute; you’ve brought Durham Cathedral into disrepute; you’re still bringing SPCK into disrepute; the Bankruptcy Courts in Texas; and the Orthodox Church. Who else will you now bring into disrepute?

Lies, Damned Lies and St Stephen the Great

Phil Groom writes:

Or perhaps that should be “St Stephen the Grate”, because it’s a name that’s really beginning to grate on my ears…

The last time I used that headline, I put a question mark on the end. Today, judging from Matt Wills’ posting of the notice below, which he spotted in the window of the Salisbury shop this week, it’s clear that there’s no question whatsoever — we are dealing with blatant lies:

'Make it happen...'

SSG Salisbury: Make it happen...

Make it happen – volunteer with the UK’s most successful Church and Bookshop Charity. – Saint Stephen the great/SPCK bookshops. 

Looking for an exciting and interesting way to make a difference in promoting Christian Knowledge and the saving of our Christian heritage within our Churches? Whatever your interests or skills, we would love to have you be involved..

Learn new skills, meet new people, and work right at the heart of amazing buildings and locations. And not only work, but be involved in missionary work right in your own back yard.. Just imagine what you could do

Indeed. Just imagine what you could do. You could follow the company’s instructions to lie to your customers: you could use Third Space Books to process customer orders in direct violation of Amazon’s terms for affiliates: you could turn what few books you have in stock face-out on the shelves in an attempt to hide the gaps because you can’t actually order anything: you could offer customers discounts if they’ll fill in gift aid forms: you could work single-handed without being allowed to sit down whilst on duty: you could get an email telling you that SSG has been dissolved but, since you’re a volunteer, that won’t worry you… oh, yes, and you could try cleaning the windows: Philip Brewer’s pretty hot on window cleaning, and if Matt’s photo is anything to go by (zoom in here) those windows in Salisbury could certainly do with it… and, of course, you could pretend that you’re working for SPCK.

Yes, fantastic opportunity: if you’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing. But please don’t help the Brewers bring Christian bookselling or the church into any further disrepute: they’re doing a fine enough job of that in Durham.

Mark Brewer: I’m sure you’ll read this in due course. That may not be your fingerprint embedded in that blob of blu-tack holding that notice in the window. But your fingerprints are all over this sorry mess that you’ve made of the SPCK bookshops. Yes, we know they weren’t perfect, that changes were needed; the staff knew that and they knew that their jobs were on the line if they didn’t pull it together. But you and your brother went in like bulls into a china shop, completely clueless about even the basics of bookselling, completely lacking in anything even remotely resembling people skills — and you dare to call other people to serve as ‘missionaries’?? On behalf of Orthodoxy???

A while back you threatened me with legal action if I didn’t take down that earlier report bearing this report’s title. It’s tempting, very tempting, to hit back with similar threats in response to the allegations you made against me in that correspondence. But instead, I offer you some simple advice: take down that silly notice.

And hand the shop over to someone capable of running it rather than ruining it. Give it to them as it was given to you.

Thank you.

“all i did was work for them”

Phil Groom writes:

So writes Lindsey Stokes, another ex-SPCK/SSG worker who hasn’t received her pay despite Mark Brewer’s insistence that he has paid her:

i did loads of overtime so i could afford to go on holiday and then had the shock when the Brewers didn’t pay me so i then had to go into debt and use my credit card so i could go. I contacted acas about my wages and got a letter back from Mark Brewer saying that he had paid me when he hadn’t, now im going to have to send all my bank statements as prove that i haven’t been paid. I’m fed up of the Brewers messing me about all i did was work for them i don’t deserve this.

What Lindsey does deserve, of course, is her wages. The amount due to her is £625.60. If she has been paid, that’s great: another small step in the right direction — thanks and kudos to Mark Brewer. The delay in payment going through may, like Pauline’s, be due to the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. Maybe someone could check and let us know, please?

Nonetheless the fact remains that a letter, dated September 8th 2008, has been sent confirming the payment. If enough time has gone by for ACAS to receive and review that letter and ask Lindsey for her bank statements, then surely enough time has gone by for a bank transfer to go through as well, even given the current state of the financial markets?

It’s tempting to compare Lindsey’s outstanding £625.60 with Mark Brewer’s own $75,000 fee for providing legal services to his own company… but let’s not go down that road. I’ll make a suggestion instead: it’s a matter of public record now that Brewer’s legal services rendered to SSG with respect to the bankruptcy filing were substandard. Perhaps a refund is due? That $75,000 would go quite a way towards those outstanding wage bills…

.

Update, 8pm, 25/09/2008: When I prepared this report yesterday, I gave Mark Brewer the benefit of the doubt, allowing the possibility that the delay in Lindsey’s payment might be due to Hurricane Ike. Further research makes me sceptical: Mark Brewer’s letter confirming payment was dated September 8th; Hurricane Ike didn’t hit Texas until September 13th, five days later. Definitely more than enough time for a bank payment to have gone through…

Durham Cathedral Bookshop: Mark Brewer Responds

Sign the Petition
Just sign it: you know you want to. Already signed it? Talk about it. The petition remains open until the Brewers are no longer in control of the Cathedral bookshop and will be resubmitted to the Dean at each multiple of 50 signatures. Yesterday, September 23rd, we passed another milestone at 250 signatures…

Phil Groom writes:

I have mixed feelings over this. On the one hand, I’m delighted to receive confirmation that Mark Brewer has found our petition. On the other, I’m appalled by his response. Read on and I think you’ll understand the problem. He’s taken to writing to people signing it; to at least one person anyway:

Subject: RE: In memoriam
Date: Wed, 10 Sep 2008 16:25:37 -0500
From: Brewer@bplaw.com
To: jacqui smith

Dear Ms. Smith,

I’m trying really hard to understand you. You signed a petition blog to stop a Christian bookshop in Durham cathedral. Can this be right?

From the subject line, you could be forgiven for thinking that Mark is preparing an epitaph ready for the shop’s inevitable demise. The truth, unfortunately, is far more sobering than that: Mark’s enquiry about the petition is a follow-up to some earlier correspondence with Jacqui, but whilst he changed the subject, he didn’t change the subject line:

From: jacqui smith 
Sent: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 3:57 PM
To: Mark Brewer
Subject: RE: In memoriam

Dear Mr Brewer
 
I’m trying really hard to understand you. You stopped a blog with a page dedicated to Steve Jeynes. Can this be right?
 
Jacqui

Jacqui is, of course, referring to Mark Brewer’s threat of legal action against Dave Walker, the now well known ‘Cease and Desist’ demand sent on July 22 which Dave felt left him with no option but to take down all of his SPCK related material, including the page of tributes to Steve Jeynes. Brewer’s parroting of Jacqui’s message to him seems rather like a re-run of his parroting of MadPriest’s “I am Dave Walker”. MadPriest filed that under lame. No doubt it’s supposed to be clever, but I’m filing this under outrageous (for the record, I should point out that Mark did send an earlier reply to Jacqui’s enquiry, in which he denies any responsibility for the removal of the tributes page; that, too, I find outrageous).

Mark, if you happen to be reading this, I’d like to take this opportunity to help you understand: it is not, as you put it, a petition “to stop a Christian bookshop in Durham cathedral” — it is, rather, a petition to save the Christian bookshop in Durham Cathedral, to rescue it from those who are ruining it. From you, Mark, and your brother, Philip. If that’s not clear enough for you, perhaps the following quote from justflyingkites will do the trick. It’s a little blunt, unfortunately, but it expresses exactly how an increasing number of people are feeling:

Mark Brewer can you get it into your skull that people are mad at you because of what you have done to Christian Bookselling. Stop looking for somebody else to blame. You have refused to take advice from booksellers in your shops. You insist on knowing what everyone needs and when shoppers leave in their droves you find somebody else to blame.

As I said yesterday, Mark, it really is time to call it day. But if you won’t listen to me or to those commenting here, please listen to the voices of the prospective customers you’re alienating in Durham. More than 250 people have signed the petition now. These comments are from two of the most recent signatories:

As a tutor at Cranmer Hall, Durham for the past ten years I have relied on the Cathedral bookshop to supply good quality texts for myself and our students. I am deeply saddened by the loss of this resource and by the treatment of the staff. I wish to support the Chapter in moving speedily to a positve resolution.

— Revd Dr Gavin Wakefield, 23rd Sept 2008

As a P/T Anglican ordinand doing the MATM course, now in my third year, I have been greatly distressed by the marked deterioration in the stock held by the Durham Cathedral Bookshop over the past year. As a result I have been buying many books through Amazon which, in the past, I would have bought in the Bookshop.

— Dr Caroline Friswell, 23rd Sept 2008

J Mark Brewer, I salute you again – but still briefly

Phil Groom writes:

Yes, still briefly, but nonetheless, as I said last timecredit where it’s due: this time, at long last, to Pauline Edwards. In her own words:

I HAVE BEEN PAID,
A great big THANK YOU to Phil Groom, Asingleblog, and everybody else who has stood by me. The one good thing that has come out of this is, this is not just a blog, it has become like a family, and I am still standing by everyone else, who are still waiting for there wages. A big THANK YOU to this blog, without this blog, I never would of known of what was going on. Mr Brewer, I am a women of my word, and I will let Acas know I have been paid, and will drop the case. Mr Brewer can you pay all my fellow brothers and sisters as well?

I’d love to offer you a longer lasting sign of respect, Mark, but as Pauline herself points out there’s the question of all her “fellow brothers and sisters as well”. Phelim McIntyre poses much the same question:

Hurray! A small victory but a victory at least. Now what about all the other employees owed wages/holiday pay and goodness knows whatever else financially? What about all the suppliers owed money? What about the landlords who are owed rent? What about other bodies owed money? Any chance of Mr Brewer paying them?

Your call, Mark. Your opportunity to salvage something of your reputation and, perhaps, the reputation of Brewer and Pritchard, PC, which you’ve been taking down with you…

I’ve said this before but I think it bears repeating: there are three main things I’m looking for out of this fiasco:

  1. Payment for your workers
  2. Payment for your suppliers
  3. Withdrawal of your threats of legal action against Dave Walker, myself and the various other people to whom you’ve sent ‘Cease and Desist’ messages

Another thing I’d like to see, of course, would be for you to recognise that you and your brother, Philip, simply don’t have the appropriate business acumen or people skills to manage a chain of Christian Bookshops. Once you acknowledge that, the way is clear to start giving (yes, giving) the remaining shops and stock to people who do have the expertise needed.

And let’s face it, running a chain of Christian Bookshops was never really what you wanted, was it? You wanted to establish a series of outposts for your Orthodox mission movement: the bookshops and their staff never actually had a chance, did they?

Do me a favour, please, Mark: face up to the truth and make me redundant. Make this blog redundant. Make the poverty of your workers and suppliers history.

Finally, for now, a special note of appreciation and thanks to ‘a concerned party’ for letting us know that Pauline’s payment was on the way despite the trauma and nightmare of facing Hurricane Ike. May all who read this spare a moment to think of and/or pray for all those affected by that tragedy.