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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2 responses to “Exeter: The Inside (Incomplete) Story: Part 1

  1. I’m waiting for Part 2. Neil’s wiblog makes fascinating reading. I remember Mark Brewer saying that the Exeter shop would remain open no matter what. He didn’t mention jewellery then.

  2. Pingback: Exeter: The Inside (Incomplete) Story: Part 2 « SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

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