Exeter: The Inside (Incomplete) Story: Part 2

Phil Groom writes:

At the end of Part 1 we left Philip Brewer, having successfully driven out his entire staff team, attempting to run the Exeter shop by himself. The situation had to be good for something, and it was: for Neil’s blog stats:

…this blog is about to have more vistors this month than any other month since its conception!

I am sure this is partly to do with the SPCK postings, and the press coverage that a mass resignation gets. I can confirm that the craziness continues at SPCK, but I won’t say anything on here to protect my sources, some of whom still work in the shops, and some of whom are (or rather were, but no doubt hope to be again)suppliers to the shops. I have not actually been into the Exeter shop since I left, but might make a little trip up there next week.

From: Record breaking…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 27/10/2007

Naturally it didn’t take the Brewers long to realise that if they were going to keep the shops open they would need to recruit some staff. They advertised on the Orthodox Jobs website, singling out York and Exeter as examples of where vacancies existed:

Team Members (Bookshop Staff)
Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust – Westminster, London, England

There are several job openings in Cathedral cities such as York and Exeter at the SPCK Bookshops. Staff is needed to operate the retail bookshops: greet and assist customers; operate the cash registers; open and close the shop; and maintain specified stock levels and content.

While the positions are paid, this is a Christian charity and its work is missionary in the true sense of the word…

From: Team Members (Bookshop Staff) : OrthodoxJobs.com, November 2007

One can only speculate on what “the true sense of the word” ‘missionary’ might mean to the Brewers: presumably if the example of their patron St Stephen the Great is anything to go by, it would be some sort of convert-or-die policy. One can also only wonder at what point they planned to explain to would-be recruits how the current vacancies had arisen. Such explanations probably weren’t needed, however, and nor was a missionary commitment, since in the end Exeter was staffed with agency workers:

Very glad to be out of the whole SPCK situation, popped in there earlier this week, shelves are empty, the shop looks a mess and talking to one of the staff there the place is being run by agency staff who don’t know one end of a bible from another. My annoyance with “St Stephen the Great” has died down now, I have realised they are just religious fundamentalists who will never be able to see other peoples point of view and any opposition they get will be seen as fuel to keep what they are doing. The blame really lays firmly at the door of SPCK, who made the transfer possible in the first place, then failed to provide support to their former staff. Anyway, certainly the ex-staff down here all seem to have moved on, and these things have a habit of working together for the best. Tonight we are all meeting up for a drink, we may not work in the shop any more, but friendships will long continue.

From: Christmas looming…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 08/12/2007

The situation in Exeter continued to attract snippets of media attention and was eventually picked up by the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Programme, partially transcribed by Dave Walker. Neil comments again on the issue of staff departures:

Good to hear so many friends such as Aude, Dave and Richard being interviewed, just a shame about the reason they were being interviewed. Brilliantly and eloquently put guys!

There was a lot of rubbish too, such as Phil saying they had “Increased the variety of their stock…” Not the impression I get from going to the Exeter shop and seeing all the empty shelves, also he makes it sound like we left just over management style, but that was just one factor amongst many for people leaving, although he seems to deny that people have left because of them. Staff were not poached by bigger companies, we desperately looked for other jobs to get away from the bookshops! I also found it interesting that no one from SPCK would comment because of ongoing legal proceedings.

[Edited to add that this was my resignation letter, and that Phil received scores like it from our shop and others (I saw them). How he can say that people left for retirement or been “recruited away” is beyond me, they simply take only the bits that suit them, and live in a world far far from reality]

From: Radio 4 again…: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 16/12/2007

After this things were quiet on the Exeter front until February 2008:

The whole SPCK saga has had a few developments, a few shops suddenly closed with sackings by email. In Exeter there has been another resignation (she posted a note on Facebook today) and opening hours have been vastly cut (ironically they are shutting Sundays… I am speechless!) and stock is still very very low with no new titles on display (apart from a handful of scary anti-Islamic books). 

From: Time Flies: Neil’s Slightly Random Wiblog: 07/02/2008

In April 2008 news emerged of plans to sell off four shops, including Exeter:

Beleaguered Christian bookseller St Stephen the Great is to sell four of its stores in an auction next month. Freeholds for the Bradford, Canterbury, Exeter and York shops will be auctioned off by real estate company Colliers Cre on 13th May.

From: SSG to sell four shops: Graeme Neill, Bookseller, 21/04/2008

THE US Orthodox charity St Stephen the Great (SSG) has put four of its former SPCK bookshops up for sale. A number of its other bookshops have been closed, including the Westminster branch at Faith House.

The Bradford, Canterbury, Exeter, and York shops are to be auctioned by Colliers CRE in London on 13 May. These properties are believed to be four of the five that SSG owns freehold. They were given to SSG in October 2006 by SPCK, the Anglican publisher and mission agency, complete with fixtures, fittings, and stock.

From: Former SPCK shops to be auctioned: Dave Walker, Church Times, 25/04/2008

Exeter For Auction

Exeter (Not) For Auction

Colliers listed the Exeter shop with a guide price of £500,000 and advertised it as a freehold with vacant possession (screenshot opposite). One can, again, only speculate at what the Brewers intended to do with the proceeds, as one can only wonder at SPCK’s apparent folly in giving the freehold away. The sale, however, was not to be: the Brewers seemed to have forgotten their covenanted obligation to maintain the store as a Christian bookshop:

THE four former SPCK shops that were due to be auctioned by their new owners, the troubled bookshop chain, the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG) (News, 25 April), have been withdrawn from sale. 

The freehold shops, in Bradford, Canterbury, Exeter, and York, were to have been auctioned in London on 13 May. Estimates ranged from £500,000 for the Exeter shop to £150,000 for the Bradford shop.

There are thought to be two reasons for the halt. One is that the transfer of ownership to SSG has not been completed. The other is that the Brewer brothers, who run SSG, have been reminded of a seven-year restrictive covenant that accompanied the transfer of all the freeholds from SPCK in October 2006. This states that the shops can be used only as Christian multi-denominational bookshops. The covenant would apply to any prospective purchaser.

From: Bookshops withdrawn from sale: Church Times, 09/05/2008

The four shops SSG Bookshops due to be auctioned by Colliers CRE in London on 13th May were withdrawn from the sale a week before. It is believed the shops were withdrawn due to covenants in the deeds for each freehold restricting the use of the buildings in Bradford, Canterbury, Exeter and York.

Simon Kingston, General Secretary and CEO of SPCK Publishing, told Christian Marketplace, “I am surprised that these freeholds were publicly being offered for sale now, since very recently the Land Registry still didn’t show that SSG had yet registered the transfer of the freeholds to St Stephen the Great. That is no doubt in process, though.”

He added that any sale would not “represent any immediate loss to Christian bookselling” confirming in the process that there was indeed “a covenant on the freeholds limiting their use for some time to that of Christian bookselling with a broad multi-denominational stockholding.”

From: SSG Shops pulled from auction: Christian Marketplace, June 2008

Exeter - reopening soon

Exeter - reopening soon

June 2008 also saw a notice appear in the window at Exeter:

The shop is due to re-open soon. Please watch this space for further information.

From: Former SPCK bookshop closures: Dave Walker, Cartoon Church, as reposted at ‘Cease & Desist’, 11/06/2008

The shop opened sporadically after this. Neil posted a photo and some brief comments in July:

Last Saturday though I did meet up with some of the guys who I used to work with at the former SPCK bookshop in Exeter, 3 previous managers came along as well and we had a nice time catching up with the SPCK news (the Exeter shop is as good as closed now) and what we have been doing since we left. For those interested in what became of the shop there is a blog (https://spckssg.wordpress.com/) that gives up to date news, but warning, some of the commenters are very bitter and it does not make very happy reading!

From: SPCK Exeter and the rain: Neil Denham, Exeblog, 06/07/2008

SPCK Exeter RIP

SPCK Exeter RIP

What looked like the shop’s final demise came in September:

It looks like the shop that I spent many years working in, and was much loved by its staff and customers over the years has finally closed closed down.

Of course it was only a shell of a business in the last few years anyway, with no new stock and terrible mismanagement and sporadic opening hours (and weeks on end of being closed), but still, it is a sad sight to see it stripped bare of stock. I hope my former colleague won’t mind me quoting from an email she sent me yesterday (edited to take some names and local context out).

“I saw a notice declaring a Closing Down Sale with an offer of 40% off all stock. However, whatever staff they had employed were told this morning that the shop was closing today… later there were two men there and cartons (presumably of books) stacked waiting to be loaded. They said they had had instructions to clear everything… the entire stock was being transferred to York.”

She goes on to say how upsetting she found the sight, and I have to agree (as I sure you can from the pictures) that seeing the shop looking this way, when it was once a thriving hub of activity in the Cathedral area and wider community in Exeter is very sad.

From: SPCK Bookshop Exeter – R.I.P.: Neil Denham, Exeblog, 19/09/2008

An advertisement in the Bookseller for the shop’s fittings and fixtures looked like the final nail in the coffin — but the story wasn’t quite over: a passer-by, seeing the shop being refitted, asked what was happening and was told that it was to become a jewellers, prompting a flurry of questions from asingleblog:

Turned into a jewellery shop? Owned by who? And with what money?

The covenant restricting use of the premises as a Christian bookshop is, as far as we know, still in place: Exeter – a jewellery shop? 

Thanks to asingleblog for this final photo — what’s going on behind those whitewashed windows? Watch this space…

SPCK Exeter - watch this space...

SPCK Exeter - watch this space...

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

  1. The back page of the Church Times usually asks who you would be locked up in a church with. David Ching is brilliant.

  2. Valiant for Truth

    Wonder whether when Phil Brewer was running the Exeter shop on his own whether he also slept in the shop as this was common place for both brothers and they recommended staff sent from other shops to assist also did the same thing, even though it was illegal in accordance with the planning regulations for the shops and the cities they were in. This was because they were so mean about over night expenses, and the amount of cash available would barely pay for a doss house. The ladies who were asked to stay over night often refused to accept the low expenses allowance for safety reasons.

  3. That, VfT, is truly outrageous! Did that issue ever get taken to Usdaw? Would be interested to know how they responded if so…

    But I can’t really imagine PhiBre leading by example: wasn’t it him that wanted a helipad on top of one of the shops so that he could drop in and out more conveniently? Or was that just a rumour?

  4. I`ve been perplexed by the tines of comments but it occurs to me that Phil Groom isn`t auditioning as the next Dr Who. It`s just that his blog is still on BST.
    This could account, then for PhiBre`s muddled thinking. While he is physically present in a plane attempting to land on the tower on a Cathedral, without all the hassle of climbing the stairs, his brain is hibernating in some mid-American time zone and takes a while to catch up with the UK world???
    nOW WOULDN`T THAT MAKE A NICE CARTOON?

  5. Sorry about that, Mousey. One of the things that WordPress has yet to automate for us: you can read all about it here if you’re curious. Time now corrected, I hope: we’ll see what time this comment gets flagged as. My computer’s clock says 13.58…

  6. Magic, eh? Now I am Dr Who: I post a comment after Mousey and it appears before

    You, O Mighty Mousey, are out there in the future, way ahead of the rest of us…

  7. Phelim McIntyre

    OK, how do you do it? Especially as the recent comments bit at the side has Mousey before Phil G’s comments.

    But may be that’s who we need to ask to sort out this mess – the Doctor. After dealing with Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans the Brewers would, I hope, be easy.

  8. No, no… the Brewers are far worse than any of those, Phelim. Those guys are aliens and all-round obnoxious nasties: we expect them to treat human beings like dirt and we blast ’em to smithereens. The Brewers are supposed to be fellow-Christians… you kinda hope for some sort of common values…

  9. I know of a recent worker who had to leave home at ridiculous hours to get to whatever shop the Brewers decided he should be in. Because the Brewers continually complained about allowances he was unable to use even the cheapest doss house so he made his way home at equally ridiculous hours. Nobody should be surprised by what the Brewers do to their workers. I’ve said it before, they treat their workers like plantation slaves.

  10. That well, eh? Not quite the Servant leadership style of Jesus, then…

  11. Servant leadership and the Brewers? Is there A Part of Speech for such a comparison? Steve’s Orthodoxy is way beyond the Brewer’s comprehension.

  12. I understand that a bookseller who was sent from the north of england to work at the norwich shop( with the understanding that mr p brewer would sort out accomodation.)Was left stranded
    After getting up early,travelling to norwich and doind a full days/ evening work they asked about where they were sleeping only to be told it was in the shop! – stranded miles from home they had no option!
    Pastoral care??!!

  13. Another worker was asked to spend two weeks in Norwich…plantation slaves?

  14. I ended up sleeping in Victoria Coach Station in London on a freezing night, after shipping out Westminster shop, and I had to head up to Bradford the next morning to receive it all again!
    I’m not fishing for sympathy, honest! But when I look back, some crazy things have happened, and to think it was all for that ‘mission’ we hear about, but never see…

    Was anyone in touch with the teenage girl who ran exeter shop for 2 weeks before it shut? i never managed to get back in contact with her.

  15. Asingleblog – the term you want is Oxymoron.

  16. Phelim my teacher always tried to tell me how to spell that one. I kept writing Oxomoron.

  17. Has anyone heard about Exeter changing hands?, i’ve heard…things.

  18. All we know is that it is going to be a jewellery shop. The Brewers have been sending jewellery to the shops so I assumed they still owned the Exeter shop.

  19. Valiant for Truth

    I’d assumed that as Exeter was one of the shops put up for sale then withdrawn because it was still registered at the Land Registry as belonging to SPCK, plus it had a covenant attched that it could only be sold as a Christian bookshop, that it was still owned by SPCK. We need someone (SPCK?) to tell us whether this is the case.

  20. I asked the SPCK about Exeter. They didn’t answer.

  21. I suspect everything’s strictly sub judice — until the lawyers have finished hammering things out between themselves (and no doubt charging a small fortune for the privilege) no one’s going to say anything for fear of upsetting the legal process…

  22. Hope there is someone out there with a camera when the new shop opens.

  23. Hello. I ran the exeter shop for three weeks. I went there when it was changing into a jewellery shop, they said they would open in a months time but that was two months ago. I wonder if they’re having trouble considering the shop is meant to remain a Christian bookshop…
    Also I haven’t managed to find another job after SPCK.

  24. Maddy they are having trouble. Lots of it. It is the only kind of comfort I can offer.

  25. Hi Maddy and welcome – thanks for taking time out to join in the discussions here. The Exeter shop is now open and trading as GemStar Jewellery and Gifts.

    Re. Also I haven’t managed to find another job after SPCK. — first, to say I’m sorry to hear that and I hope you find something soon; but second, to point out that I think you’ll find that you never actually worked for SPCK. If your employers (you mentioned CEA, Newcastle) told you that you’d be working for SPCK then they gave you incorrect information: SPCK ceased bookselling in Exeter back in 2006 when the shop was given to SSG, whose licence to trade as SPCK was withdrawn in 2007.

  26. Hi, sorry have not replied before now.
    I did know it was not SPCK, but it was slightly confusing as the shop had SPCK on the window and most of the customers seemed to think of it as being an SPCK bookshop. So it was easier to call it that. Especially when they seem to have so many names.
    The jewellery shop does look good, and you cant blame them for buying a shop there.

  27. Hi Maddy and welcome. I don’t think anyone blames the jewellers for taking advantage of the opportunity to trade there: the blame lies with SPCK and the Brewers — SPCK for failing to monitor/enforce the covenant, and the Brewers for betraying SPCK’s trust.

    In some respects it’s difficult to work out which of the two — SPCK or the Brewers — is most culpable; but ultimately I think it has to be the Brewers with their flagrant disregard for the covenant and their contemptuous treatment of the bookshop staff.

    Putting it bluntly, the entire business stinks: on Sept 11th 2008, Brewer admitted to being a prize plonker in attempting his spurious bankruptcy filing, accepted that he needed to go back to law school, then less than two weeks later, on Sept 24th — whilst the Texas Bankruptcy Courts were still working out exactly what penalties to impose — he neatly pocketed £507,000 from the sale of this shop.

    No doubt he’s still laughing at how easy it’s been for him to scam the UK; and what’s worse, so far he seems to be getting away with it. The man is a complete and utter reprobate.

  28. Not sure whether I am riding to SPCK’s defence or not but nothing would surprise me if the first thing SPCK knew about the Exeter shop being sold was the story appearing on this blog. Why could this be the case – because M + P B seem to have an amazing ability of not telling people facts.

    If they can not inform the Charity Commission or Companies House of change of address/operating name why should they be worried about a covenant and having to inform SPCK?

  29. I have a letter from the SPCK showing that they are aware of the Exeter situation. There is confirmation “that many other matters concerning SSGCT are a matter of considerable attention and activity for SPCK on a continuing basis”.

    I’m not letting SPCK off the hook. They need to police the covenant. The person we spoke to at the land registry office said that the SPCK needs to have the bottle to police the covenant. In the final analysis, I feel sorry for the people who run the jewellery shop. They might not know about the covenant and are locked into a lease for the next five years – not to the Brewers but to the new landlord who would have known about the covenant.

    In the meantime the reprobates continue to squat in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral.

  30. Phelim is probably right. I got the letter from SPCK after the shop was sold.

  31. What is really galling here is that, if we were talking about a car or a piece of jewellery having been sold by someone without the title to it, as the B****** have with the Exeter shop, then it would be theft and, as theft, the purchaser would have no claim to the item.

    Come on SPCK – pull your finger out and get in there.

  32. One cant help feeling that the shop is better off in some ways not being owned by the Brewers any longer. Even though it was a lovely shop.

  33. As you say, Maddy; and for those who wish to remember the way it was: A Brief History…

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