Monthly Archives: October 2008

Exeter: The Inside (Incomplete) Story: Part 1

Phil Groom writes:

This post is my attempt to pull together the Exeter story. There’s rather a lot of material so this will be in two parts, second part to appear at some point over the weekend. Thanks in particular to Neil Denham, who has kindly given me permission to reuse his old wiblog posts for this; other sources are acknowledged as and when cited. Links in reposted items may be defunct: I’ve marked these [*] where known. Enough preamble, however: let the story begin:

David Chings old SPCK Exeter website

David Ching's old SPCK Exeter website

Once upon a time there was a Christian bookshop in a quaint English town called Exeter. To the people who worked there and to its customers, it was a special place and even now, after the shop’s sad demise in September 2008, its ghost lives on in a dedicated website.

But this is no fairy story: unfortunately the shop’s owners, SPCK, found that they were unable to keep the shop going. It was one of many that they owned, finances had become tight and they couldn’t bring themselves to make a decision over which shops were viable and which weren’t: it had to be all or nothing.

Staff were thrown into turmoil, but salvation was at hand, it seemed, in the form of Wesley Owen, another leading chain of Christian bookshops:

SPCK and Wesley Owen discuss Bookshop Collaboration
The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and the Wesley Owen Retail Group (WORG), the Christian retailing arm within Send The Light Limited (STL), announce today (Friday 17 February) they have begun discussions which may lead to the combining of their bookshop networks during 2006. 

Both organisations emphasised that the discussions are at an initial stage but said that this collaboration would create a network of Christian bookshops in more than 60 major cities throughout the United Kingdom. 

Christian retailing represents a core part of the mission within both SPCK and STL. This collaboration would create a one-stop shop for the Christian community and others seeking Christian resources on their journey through life. 

From: SPCK and Wesley Owen discuss Bookshop Collaboration: Diocese of Exeter, 21/02/2006

But the dream was not to be: the two parties were unable to agree a way forward and the deal fell through. Staff were notified by email, despair was rife, but then, out of the blue, a new rescue package appeared under the auspices of the now infamous Messrs Philip and Mark Brewer. Neil Denham, who worked at the Exeter shop, takes up the story:

…All SPCK Bookshop staff were sent a letter and a press release this morning, regarding the future of the SPCK Bookshop chain.

It was announced yesterday that the entire SPCK bookshops chain will transfer to the Christian Othodox charity St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust as of the 1st November this year.

Full press release here

It is obviously good news that this has happened, as SPCK were unable to support the bookshops themselves, and more closures were certainly in the pipeline. SSG have assured staff that it is their full intention to keep all the shops open using the name SPCK, and they have the vision of making a diversity of Christian materials available which is shared by SPCK.

It is quite a relief that one of my jobs is secure for the time being, and as I was hoping to do more hours there over time perhaps I should become an Orthodox Christian to help my chances of promotion…

From: SPCK Bookshops Press Release…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog, 21/10/2006

Within only a matter of days concerns began to emerge about the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust: these new partners had evidently been less than transparent about their intentions in their overtures to SPCK. Neil continues his tale from the inside:

…After the news about the SPCK bookshops a few days ago there has been a bit of debate about what this means for the future of the chain. Dave has commented Here [*] and Here [*], a commenter who wants to be a priest (or something…) has written a few thoughts Here [*], and there are worried voices appearing all over the net hourly, such as Here.

So do I still feel positive about the “takeover”? I am not sure, when I first looked at the St Stephen foundation website I noticed things like ‘They are persuaded to join “Feel-Good” churches where they are told they will be saved by making a donation and saying a few simple words. Unfortunately, many of these are “feel good” churches are established just to make the management rich’, which I agree is the case, but failed to give proper attention to ‘One hundred and fifty thousand souls convert or revert back to the Roman Catholic faith each year in the USA. In their misguided belief, they assume that this is the true Church of Christ.’ and then going on to say the orthodox church is in fact the only true church.

Now I may be in the awkward situation of having no churchmanship (and so believing there is no such thing as the true church of Christ), but I have always seen SPCK to stand for unity in the wider and extended church, even often embracing groups that may may be termed by some as heretics and certainly but others as liberals. I have also always backed SPCK for its support in promoting things like Peacemakers, an initiative to foster understanding between Christians and Muslims, and one their long term aims has been ‘To encourage Christians from different traditions and cultures to learn from one another.’ Sadly I can see no evidence from the St Stephens site thats they share these aims, although much of the site seems to have changed from when I looked on Saturday morning!

I still hope it is going to be good for the chain, and if need be I will contact the charity myself to talk through any worries I have, and will be talking to my manager tomorrow about the situation as it stands.

From: SPCK Bookshops again…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog, 23/10/2006

There’s a gap in the Exeter records now until May 2007, when Neil continues his story:

…Someone rang me at work yesterday to ask if we are ready for our stocktake on Monday. What stock take? I replied. Seems that they planned a stocktake without telling us, on a week the manager is away and when we are already short staffed. It really is going to be a disaster.

From: Disaster in the making…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 18/05/2007

… Handed in my notice just in time, I have found out that our owners want to run each shop with just one person, and as they presented us with an unsignable (by which I mean only an idiot would sign it, not that it is printed on ink-proof paper) contract they will be lucky if they have enough staff left to run any shops at all. It has nearly been a month since we have been allowed to place a stock order and the shop is running out of stuff. In fact I predict that in a few months the shops won’t exist at all, hundreds of years of bookselling torn apart in one year, very sad.

From: How not to run a bookshop and deal with people…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 29/09/2007

Through October and November 2007, things became more and more unpleasant as the Brewers’ misanthropic management techniques made working for them increasingly difficult. The national media began to pay attention and honesty became an early casualty in the Brewers’ dealings with those outside their organisation, not to mention those within. Neil’s resignation letter hints at the difficulties:

There is something satisfying about the resignation letter, it signifies new starts and hope and a control of individual destiny.

I am writing to you to officially tender my resignation from the Exeter SPCK Bookshop and giving 2 weeks notice.

I enjoyed working for the shop under the management of the SPCK, as I shared their aims and ethos, I have been increasingly uneasy with the aims and direction of the organisation under the management of Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, and would not be happy signing a new contract with them.

I will be accepting a position as _____ with _____. I have worked with the best possible team here and while I will miss my friends here at SPCK, I feel that it is time for a fresh challenge and experience.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

From: Resignation…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 01/10/2007 

Concern rising over SPCK bookshops

I especially like…

However Brewer is quoted in the Church Times article where he claims that “the morale of the SPCK Bookshops could not be better.” It is difficult to verify this statement due to the constraints placed on SPCK Bookshop staff regarding talking to the press.

Wow, what an astounding statement, the morale of all the staff in other shops I have spoken to has never been lower, what world is he living in?

From: SPCK again…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 02/10/2007

As if to prove Neil’s point, the rest of the Exeter staff followed his example:

At work all the staff resigned last week (I know, I am such a trendsetter) and we have mostly been cleaning and tidying the shop ready to hand it over to whoever may be working here next week, if they can or want to get anyone at all to take it on.

From: The week so far…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 10/10/2007

From the Express and Echo in Exeter:

One of Exeter’s oldest shops is facing upheaval after all its staff resigned in a row over new contracts. All seven employees with the SPCK bookshop, in Catherine Street, handed in their notice and are due to work their last day on Saturday.

From: The staff of SPCK Exeter resign: Dave Walker, Cartoon Church, as reposted at ‘Cease & Desist’, 11/10/2007. Dave’s original post is unavailable due to threats of legal action issued by Mark Brewer and the report Dave cites, which appeared in both the Exeter Express and Echo and the Western Morning News, has either been taken down or expired. Ruth Gledhill of The Times and The Bookseller both picked up the story:

The staff at one of the country’s best-known Christian bookshops have resigned en mass in a dispute over new contracts in which they were asked to work on Sundays and do cleaning duties. All seven employees at the SPCK bookshop in Exeter handed in their notice and worked their last day on Saturday. The store, which specialises in Christian literature and has been established for 47 years, is one of 23 in a chain which was last year acquired by the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust…

Staff were told speaking to the press could be a sackable offence. A regular customer of the SPCK shop said the staff were “demoralised”.

“It’s one of the only bookshops in the area that keeps serious theological books. Exeter is going to potentially lose a really valuable resource. It’s a key shop in the city.” A current worker at the shop, who asked not to be named, said: “The shop is not closing. It’s just existing staff who are going. We would like to thank all of our loyal customers. We are sorry to be saying goodbye to them.”

But another staff member said: “I would have had to be mad to sign this new contract. I’m off.” He said he was fortunate to have another job to go to.

From: Christian bookshop staff resign en mass: Ruth Gledhill, Times Online, 15/10/2007. 

I think we can hazard a reasonable guess at who that latter member of staff was. And the bizarre remark, “The shop is not closing. It’s just the existing staff who are going” proved to be correct as Philip Brewer himself stepped into the breach his own folly had created. Dave Walker and Ruth Gledhill continue the story:

SPCK boss Phil Brewer is running the Exeter SPCK shop himself, according to this report in the Exeter Express and Echo website. This is, if you remember, all to do with the fact that the staff all walked out as they were being made to sign contracts that some staff members have described as ‘unsignable’. See the ‘Save the SPCK‘ category on this blog for the whole story over the last year or two.

I know that one or two journalists have been finding it difficult to contact Mr Brewer, the boss of SPCK. Well, here is your chance. Phone up the Exeter shop [*] with an enquiry about the latest brands of incense and it looks as if you might get to speak to the man himself. Actually, you would do well to vary your initial enquiry subjects a bit. Some of you could ask about palm crosses or bulk orders of ‘Two ways to live’.

From: SPCK boss steps in to run the Exeter shop: Dave Walker, Cartoon Church, as reposted at ‘Cease & Desist’, 16/10/2007 (as above, Dave’s original post is unavailable and the Exeter Express and Echo story referred to has either been taken down or expired).

A contributor to my last blog on the sorry doings at SPCK notes that if anyone wants to talk to owner Phil Brewer, they need only go down to the bookshop in Exeter, pictured here. All the staff have resigned, as we reported, after being faced with contracts that demanded they work on Sundays and do some cleaning. And so apparently he is running the show all on his lonesome. So if it is a book you want to order, or some information, or merely just a look, you know where to go…

From: SPCK: one man and his shop: Ruth Gledhill, Times Online, 17/10/2007

If you’ll forgive a Bushism, Ruth’s explanation misunderestimates the true horror of Mr Brewer’s employees experiences: the Exeter exodus was about much more than a spat over cleaning duties and the possibility of Sunday trading. Neil sets the record straight in this response to Ruth’s report:

It is hard to know what to say really, I am glad that the shop is open, for the customers sake (not that they can order anything much, as they are on “stop” with most major Christian publishers). I really hope a Chrstian/theological bookshop survives in Exeter, I really mean that.

I wuould also like to add that te staff resigned over more than just Sunday opening and church cleaning, it went far beyond that and involved factors of how staff were being treated, emails threatening dismissal if we did not follow them immediately and exactly, worries about getting paid, not being able to give good customer service because of the lack of new stock and also impossible ordering procedures, erosion of trust between the shops and the management team and I could go on and on…

The story does indeed go on and on; but at this point I need to come up for air. End of Part 1: to be continued…

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David Keen writes to the Charity Commissioners

Cross-posted from:

Letter to Charity Commissioners about the Society of St. Stephen the Great, and the former SPCK bookshops

Thanks to David for this. As always, comments are welcome here; but please be sure to also post your comments on David’s original post.

Thank you — Phil Groom.

David writes:

With no reply from Mark Brewer after 2 weeks, I have re-sent the original letter from the 498 ‘We Support Dave Walker‘ Facebookers. I will also be putting the following letter in the post later today. I’m not really interested in who gets back to me first, I just want justice.

Re: St. Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (charity no. 1109008, registered 12/4/05, removed 8/8/07)
St. Stephen the Great (charity no 1119839, registered 27/6/07)
St. Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (subsidiary of St. Stephen the Great, registered 19.8.07)

Dear Charity Commissioners,

I have a number of concerns about the charities listed above, and would be grateful if you could look into them.

The St. Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSGCT) has not filed any accounts with you since March 2006, either in its original incarnation as a registered charity, or as a subsidiary of ‘St. Stephen the Great’ (SSG) SSGCT was removed from registration on 8.8.07 and re-registered as a subsidiary of SSG on 19.8.07. It is now over 30 months since any financial records have been submitted. In the meantime the company has attempted to file for bankruptcy in the USA, is subject to 30 claims through employment tribunals in the UK, and employees are reporting that pension contributions have not been kept up to date.

The claim for bankruptcy itself was thrown out by the US courts, on the basis that the main creditors were in the UK, and legal action was promptly begun against the principal SSG trustee for attempting to use the US courts to evade their responsibilities elsewhere.

Saint Stephen the Great is also the name of a trading company, registered at Companies House (Company No. 061105190), whose Directors are the same as the SSG charity Trustees. It was incorporated on 16.2.07 and as yet has filed no accounts, their last return was due in March 2008 and is now more than 7 months overdue.

SSGCT ran a chain of bookshops, which it acquired from the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 2006. In June 2008 the Chairman of SSG and SSGCT emailed shop staff to inform them that:
“SSG (St Stephen the Great – limited liability company) has been terminated as the trading company to operate the bookshops formerly known as SPCK Bookshops…. The bookshops will now be operated by ENC Management Company”
ENC is listed on the Companies House website as Company Number FC028292, and it’s Directors and Secretary are the same 3 people as the St. Stephen the Great charity trustees, and the directors of the St. Stephen the Great trading company.

My concerns are as follows:
1. Your website states: Trustees of charities with income exceeding £10,000 in their last financial year are required to complete and submit an Annual Return and a copy of the trustees’ annual report and accounts. This must be done within 10 months of the end of the charity’s financial year. 

SSG/SSGCT has not done this. In view of the financial situation detailed above, financial transparency would seem to be vital, yet the latest accounts only cover 2005-6. As a private citizen I would be fined if my tax return was submitted more than 9 months after the end of the tax year, but this has now been 30 months and rising. What is happening, and what processes are being followed to make SSG/SSGCT publish its accounts? Many suppliers and staff remain unpaid, and there seem to be pension payments missing as well. It is vital that up to date accounts are published to enable these claims to be properly processed.

2. If the bookshops are now being run by ENC Management Company, which has no formal relationship with any of the SSG charities, then is there a proper process for the transfer of assets from a charity to a private company, and has this been followed?

3. A memo from one of the ENC Directors, Mr Phil Brewer, to shop staff in August 2008 stated: “ On all purchases of 10 GBP or more, offer a 2 GBP discount if a donation of 1 GBP or more is made. They must also fill out a gift aid form.” A scanned copy of this memo is attached, retrieved from https://spckssg.wordpress.com/2008/08/24/philip-brewer-says-immediately-post-this/

However, given that the chain is now being run by ENC Management Company (a registered company) and not SSG (a charity), then is it legitimate to claim gift aid on purchases? If not, what is the legal position of staff who are being asked to do this?

4. The memo also instructs staff (no.5) inform customers that ‘thirdspacebooks’ – a website set up to support the bookshops – ‘supports charity’. However, ordering books through the site (http://thirdspacebooks.com/) merely takes you to Amazon, and there is no indication on the site of which charities it supports.

5. The confusion of names does not help, nor does the fact that Third Space Books, in its photographs of the shops, shows them still trading under the name ‘SPCK’, a name SSG is not entitled to use.

My concern in this is as someone who has used these bookshops, and has become concerned about various aspects of the way this business is run. If you are not already looking into these irregularities, can I please ask you to do so as a matter of urgency. There are 30 former staff, and many more suppliers, who remain unpaid by this organisation, and financial transparency is essential to make sure that people receive what they are owed.

Yours sincerely
Rev David Keen

From Salisbury to York

It’s that advert I’m talking about. The one spotted by Matt Wills in Salisbury, calling for volunteers to join

the UK’s most successful Church and Bookshop Charity. – Saint Stephen the great/SPCK bookshops.

A friend tells me they’re also using it in York, although apparently they’ve at last had the decency to take down the SPCK signage from over the door. 

I still haven’t entirely made up my mind whether the Brewers’ behaviour stems from arrogance, malice or sheer stupidity. Probably an unfortunate combination of all three, but whatever the case, if you’re the praying type, please spare a prayer for any unfortunate souls who may decide to respond to the adverts. I can’t think of a worse way to be introduced to the world of Christian bookselling…

Golden Orb Weaver Spider feasts on a finch

Golden Orb Weaver Spider feasts on a Chestnut-Breasted Mannikin Finch

And I’m sure continuing prayers would be appreciated by those unfortunate enough to be caught up in the tangled web the Brewers have wrapped around Durham Cathedral Bookshop. They’re probably feeling rather like this poor finch that found its way into the press this week.

Quite why the Dean & Chapter of Durham haven’t invoked the termination clause in the lease remains a mystery, but if anyone would like to become more closely involved on the Durham side, they’re still advertising for a new Chapter Clerk; not a bad salary, either…

Back to the tangled web, however:

As for the bird, Dr Atkinson said it probably died of fright, dehydration, or exhaustion from its entrapment, rather than direct spider attack. 

“However, it does appear that the spider has decided that good food shouldn’t go to waste and is therefore attempting to eat the bird, which I find entirely believable,” he said.

Looking at what remains of the bookshops, it seems a remarkably accurate assessment…

Warning to SPCK/SSG Bookshop Customers and Staff: Your Personal Data is At Risk

Pile of rubbish seen through the window

Cambridge, 26 August 2008: Pile of debris seen through the window

Phil Groom writes:

What, exactly, is in these bags and boxes left behind by SSG when this shop was abandoned? Is it merely rubbish?

We will probably never know. But in another shop, now let to new tenants, we found out: amongst other things, personnel records and customer credit card slips.

A former member of staff, who does not wish to be identified, was passing the shop where s/he once worked as the new tenants were moving in. Seeing them clearing out the remains of SSG’s tenancy, s/he asked if s/he could take some of the debris off their hands. “Sure,” they said, and, amongst other things, they handed over a metal filing box that had been left behind.

At home, s/he opened the box and discovered:

… personal material about one staff member who had a disability and was employed with help from […] – there are several of […]’s confidential reports in there. Also included are job applications, staff addresses and phone numbers… there is even a month’s worth of till reconciliations, including the PDQ machine slips, which, if you know anything about the SPCK tills, means that I have a whole batch of credit card details with the full number and start finish dates…

This may be a one-off or it may be more widespread: we have no way of knowing. But if you have shopped in or worked for an SPCK/SSG Bookshop, be aware: your personal data is at risk; identity fraud and credit card scams are a very real possibility. Due diligence on data protection is not being exercised as the former shops are being abandoned.

On Friday I posted about “Two years of horror” – the Brewers’ Legacy to Britain: today, exactly two years on, we begin to see the true colours of that legacy in this act of gross negligence.

Useful Links 

“Two years of horror” – the Brewers’ Legacy to Britain

Watch this video at your own risk

Destroying Britains Christian Heritage: Watch this video at your own risk

Phil Groom writes:

Far from “Rescuing Britain’s Christian Heritage”, the Brewers’ legacy to Britain was summed up yesterday in four much shorter words by Valiant for Truth: Two years of horror. And this coming Monday, 20th October 2008, marks exactly two years since SPCK finalised its disastrous decision to hand the bookshops over to the Brewers:

It was on Friday 20 October 2006 that Shop Managers gathered in London to be told the news of the takeover by St Stephen the Great and to meet Mark Brewer for the first time. Two years of horror. Wouldn’t it be nice if on 20 October 2008 we all learnt that we were to be free again, and able to rise like a phoenix as has happened in Norwich, Cardiff, Leicester. Come on Durham and Chichester especially as it’s in your hands.

Compare and Contrast:

Mark Brewer, The Bookseller, 28 August 2008

“[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.” 

Raymond Witty, Carlisle Branch Manager, Branch Newsletter, November 2006:

We have news! After some months of uncertainty after the collapse of a planned merger with the Wesley Owen network of bookshops, SPCK has found a new partner in the shape of the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, an Othodox Christian charity who have assumed responsibility for the SPCK Bookshops with effect from the 1st November. SSG was founded in 2004 by Mark Brewer, who heads a law firm in Houston, Texas, with an initial aim of restoring redundant churches as Orthodox places of worship and distributing Orthodox Christian literature. We will continue to trade as “SPCK Bookshops” under licence from the Society, with a strong sense of partnership between the two charities illustrated by Bishop Michael Perham (Chairman of SPCK) and Simon Kingston (Senior Executive) joining the trustees of SSG, and a member of SSG joining SPCK’s Governing Body. This development will strengthen and enhance the Bookshops’ mission of distributing Christian literature, helping to secure the network of shops and the breadth of their stock.

That reads like a genuinely optimistic and enthusiastic welcome to me, not resistance. Sadly, of course, it’s too late for Carlisle now; too late for Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter, Lincoln and so many others. But as Valiant for Truth points out, it’s not too late for Durham and Chichester!

Questions about Leases

Most leases contain a break clause: a notice period to terminate the agreement that can be invoked by the landlord. As Valiant for Truth noted back in July, there was certainly a break clause in the lease with SPCK at Durham which came to a close call in 2004 when the Cathedral wanted SPCK out in favour of Jarrolds. It’s hard to believe that the Cathedral authorities would have granted SSG a lease without a similar break clause; so why has it not been invoked? What, exactly, does it take in terms of bringing the Cathedral into disrepute to bring the lease to an end? One of the most recent petitioners, David Baxter, puts it like this:

I think it is astonishing that here should be a business within the cathedral that refuses to pay what it owes to others – staff and businesses – and that letters sent to the cathedral authorities go unanswered. These are not Christian acts.

Once again I call upon anyone reading who has not yet signed the Durham petition to consider doing so; and if you have signed it, please spread the word. And if you have reservations about signing it, please raise them here.

Let’s not allow this two year anniversary to pass in silence.

Good News from Cardiff

Phil Groom writes:

Just discovered this news report in the United Reformed Church of Wales News section. It’s undated, so not sure exactly when it was published, but fairly recent…

A new Christian bookshop is born

A new Christian bookshop has opened at City United Reformed Church in Cardiff. Readers of Reform might know that two years ago Britain’s oldest Christian bookseller, SPCK, turned over its chain of shops to a pair of American brothers who formed St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust to use the shops as a means of promoting the Orthodox communion here in Britain. The agenda failed to impress SPCK’s traditional customers. The religious press joined a community of bloggers in reporting staff reductions and shop closures toward the end of 2007. At the end of March SSG closed its Cardiff shop, located at City URC. In June they declared themselves bankrupt.

Churches Together BookshopCustomers and City Church members joined church leaders across Wales in expressing their concern over the loss of a shop like SPCK, the only Christian bookshop in Wales catering to broad, mainstream ecumenical interests. As City Church had originally taken in the SPCK shop fifteen years before, when they were no longer able to afford rising city centre rents, the church saw the shop as one of its mission responsibilities. The elders appointed the minister and church secretary to explore a way forward for keeping a resource like this available for the churches.

That exploration bore fruit with Churches Together Bookshop opening in late July, and on the first Saturday of September holding its “Grand Opening” celebration with a service of dedication.

Read the full report
Visit the Shop


Being Creative

SS

SPCK SSG Widget

Phil Groom writes:

1. Congratulations and thanks to Matt Wardman on creating this rather splendid SPCK/SSG widget: go grab yourself a live copy from widgetbox to keep your blog up to date with the latest headlines!

2. Congratulations to Pauline Edwards who decided to make a karaoke video. Scroll down and enjoy.

3. Last but not least, of course, congratulations to Mark and Philip Brewer for the inspiration. What can I say to you, gentlemen, that hasn’t already been said? We will, of course, be delighted to Cease and Desist when you:

  1. Pay your workers
  2. Pay your suppliers
  3. Withdraw your threats

Until then, however, all together now with our Pauline: