and finally….. Durham?

David Keen writes

It sounds like the bookshop formerly known as SPCK Chichester is now closed, which leaves only Durham still under the control of the Brewer brothers. Durham Cathedral have already given them notice to quit – by April next year – but the Charity Commissioners may have other views.

If Chichester has been closed because the CC’s deem it to be an asset of the former ‘Society of St. Stephen the Great’ charity, and therefore part of the tribunal settlement with former staff, then logic suggests that they do the same with Durham. Every other remaining shop in the former SPCK chain is already under Charity Commissioners control.

If you’re planning to buy anything from Durham, then you might want to get a move on. The Cathedral want to re-open the shop after they’ve evicted the Brewers, but I can’t see the Commissioners waiting until April 2010. Former staff have been promised full payment of their tribunal settlement within 3 months, so I guess the CC’s will be looking to identify assets during that time frame.

And that will be that: the end of the SPCK bookshop chain in its final incarnation. Several former shops have reopened under new management, and places like Durham will probably be viable under proper management, but there’s wider issues in Christian bookselling, and this isn’t exactly the best time to be starting up a new shop.

Still a stack of ongoing issues:
– If SPCK passed on the shops to the Brewers under a covenant stating that they should continue to operate as Christian bookshops, does that still stand now the Charity Commissioners have taken possession?
– If so, will we have a government agency running a chain of Christian bookshops? (!!??!)
– SPCK themselves have been very quiet for much of the last 2 years, possibly for legal reasons. But having made the decision to hand the bookshops over to Mark and Phil Brewer, there has to be some kind of review of that decision, and some learning of lessons.
– There are other untraced monies, like pension contributions.
– At what point will Phil and Mark Brewer be brought to justice, rather than simply be forced by the courts to cough up what they already owe?

…And so on…. please pray for all the folk caught up in this, it’s deeply sad, and bookshop staff are caught in an incredibly difficult position. However if a stocktake (of the orthodox sort) in Durham is on the cards, then that might be of some help to the Charity Commissioners.

cross posted from St. Aidan to Abbey Manor

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10 responses to “and finally….. Durham?

  1. That’s the best summary of the situation by far.

  2. Yes, good summary: thanks David; and thanks for linking through to the Day of Prayer announcement — Christian retailing here in the UK is in dire straits…

  3. Valiant for Truth

    As take overs of bookshops seems to be back in fashion, fortunately organised by experienced Christian retailers with a UK track record, it is important that lessons are learnt from this whole episode so that we do not lose anymore shops unless it is totally unavoidable. One also has to hope that the CC complete their task quickly and effectively with scope for people who are capable of taking over former SPCK shops to do so.

  4. Brief discussions at Greenbelt yesterday centred on the challenge posed by the internet – a UK track record only counts at the moment if there’s an ability to make a success of bookselling in competition with Amazon, Eden and the other online suppliers. It’s much tougher than it was even 5 years ago.

    Having said that, it’s going to be much easier to take over former SPCK shops if things move quickly, so that the customer base isn’t lost, so VfT I hope you’re optimism is proved right!

    asingleblog: I’m sure there’s much competition on that front. No doubt a new summary will be needed in a couple of days, once mine becomes outdated!!

  5. Phelim McIntyre

    When it comes to the Chichester shop who ever takes over will need to have DEEP pockets. When I was there the electrics were condemned and the electricians refused to have anything more to do with them. The damp problem was so bad parts of the roof leaked, rain came in windows (yes stock has been damaged), large parts of plaster had come of the wall, roof beams had huge cracks. We had pushed SPCK for years to do something – the building was rent free but they took the equivalent amount for rent and could not give an explanation of where that money went (a decent landlord uses money to repair the building). Could SSG be worse? You bet. I mentioned the problems to Phil Brewer and he told me not to worry as that was “part of the charm of working in such an old building”. I replied something about it was until someone got seriously injured. Then came a very wet bank holiday (just before I had my nervous breakdown – I bet this contributed). I arrived on the Wednesday (my day off was Tuesday). I noticed there was no vacuum where it normally lived. I was told later that day that the rain had come in the roof and filled “Henry” (the make of cleaner). My colleague had switched on the cleaner to hoover round for water to come shooting out and sparks to fly everywhere. Henry needed major surgery at the electricians, my colleague only suffered shock (not the electrical kind). Her guardian angel was really looking over her that day as she could have easily been killed. It was reported to the Brewers and Simon MacKay. Simon wanted us to do something to get things sorted so the building was safe, but it was only when I threatened the Brewers with the Health and Safety Executive that something was done, but only then to the office rather than anything else. I would advise anyone looking at taking over any of the buildings to get surveyors, electricians and other experts in as the problems could be serious.

  6. Just one or two points here:
    1) As well as internet suppliers such as Amazon and Eden, there is also the second hand book trade that has taken off big style with Oxfam over recent months. In a university city such as Durham, where students only need their text books for 2-3yrs, such trade is now flourishing and potential customers of the proposed shop are being lost.
    2) As regards the takeover of premises and possible closure of the shop by the Charities Commission, the picture at Durham is not as simple as elsewhere. There are two businesses and some maintenance workers using the same entrance. To close the bookshop totally – locked doors, notices, etc – would be denying legal access to both the Architects and to the Cathedral electricians who need to go in and out of the place.

  7. Valiant for Truth

    Yes, David, times are indeed hard. I have many friends in the Christian book trade so am aware of the struggles. It’s a viscious circle and the closure of 23 SPCK shops was a real damaging factor, as Publishers lost income, some had to make serious cutabcks etc and they couldn’t offer such favourable terms to customers, hence the struggles now experienced by booksellers and why Keith Danby has said what he has said recently. I echo Phelim’s concerns re Chichester as, let’s face it. old churches are always challenging re maintenance. In Durham things could be slightly easier because as a shop it has always done the things referred to in recent issues of “The Bookseller” – sold cards and gifts with a better margin. Visiting the Durham shop was always part of the heritage experience of visiting Durham Cathedral, a World Heritage Site. A lot of the product on offer was unique to the site and a foreign tourist or child on a school visit would make that impulse purchase that they couldn’t get anywhere else. The shop is also only yards away from its potential student customers, and there are still plenty of students who find it a pain to have to trail to a post office to collect undelivered items ordered on the internet. There are also still some large academic publishers who aren’t discounted on Amazon. The new Durham shop will have to be a lean, mean machine as it will be a direct part of the income gathering for a large historic building, but it should have a chance if properly managed.

  8. Thanks indeed for the summary. Speaking as a former supplier to SPCK and other Christian Bookshops, let’s pray that we can continue with a Christian presence on our high streets and for the wonderful unique selection that you can browse there in person. I would hate to lose our identity and always encourage customers to shop in a local bookshop or indeed a Christian one where possible. Thanks for all your support so far. I would love to supply Durham Cathedral once more, if only to send items to The Great Kitchen address again! I miss it 😦

  9. Durham is not sacrosanct. There might not be notices on doors but the stock belongs to the CC. The commissioners have the power to stop trade. It would be interesting to see how the CC sells off the assets. Surely those shops will have to re-open so that the stock can be sold. Will those freehold properties then revert to the Brewers? Posted a picture of the Chichester shop door and notice over on asingleblog.

  10. >Will those freehold properties then revert to the Brewers?

    The freeholds should be in the SSG charity, so become assets for settling remaining debts such as Caritas Music.

    The USDAW settlement will probably only take a minority of the value of the shop freeholds. I am *estimating* that because 65% could be paid immediately from liquid assets and we are only aware of one freehold out of 4 being sold (i.e., 3 are still owned by SSG if I am right).

    The implication is that there may be the best part of £500k-£1m in bookshop freeholds there now (Bradford and the other two), only a small part of which will go to the remaining part of the USDAW settlement.

    That is even without recovering assets which have been juggled/smuggled into “Brewer Bank”.

    Don’t hold up any hope for SSG assets going into supporting new bookshops. Imho in law and natural justice those should go to creditors of SSG.

    I’m not sure on the position of bookshops which are still part of SPCK assets (e.g., the freeholds which were die to be transferred after 7 years).

    I’d call for something to be done with those to support Christian bookselling, perhaps via support for new shops in locations where they have been Brewer-destroyed – that could be a traditional SPCK “book mission” type project.

    I think that would be a more appropriate use of SPCK retained bookshop chain assets than putting them into the general pool.

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