Category Archives: Bookshops

Chichester Bookshop Reopens

Matt Wardman writes:

A crowd of 60-70 people squeezed into St Olav Christian bookstore at 10:00 am on Saturday 12 December for the opening service led by the Rural Dean for Chichester, Richard Hunt.  The picture shows the crowd beginning to gather, at about 9:55.

Read it all.

“Former-SPCK” Creditors: Letters to Church Times, The Bookseller

Matt Wardman writes:

I mentioned in a previous posting that we had written to a number of outlets to publicise the call for Creditors of the former-SPCK bookshop chain, and to raise a number of concerns about the way the brevity of the deadline, and the narrowness of the subset of creditors likely to see a notice placed only in The Bookseller.

Edited versions of our letters have been published in both the Church Times and the Church of England Newspaper, and the full letter in The Bookseller. Christian Marketplace has also carried an article on their website about the Call for Creditors.

We hope, in particular, to start a wider debate in the Book Trade about the nefarious activities of the Messrs Brewer over the last several years, which is long overdue.

In our view, and based on published and unpublished information, a criminal investigation is more than merited.

The Church Times edited out the bits about the deceptive 2008 Bankruptcy attempt in Texas. We are grateful to all publications which carried the letter.

This is the full text of our letter to The Bookseller:

Call for Creditors of Saint Stephen the Great Trust to come forward

Dear Sir

We write as the editors of the SPCK-SSG News Blog (spckssg.wordpress.com). We have been working, with many others, to scrutinise the management of the former-SPCK bookshop chain for 2 years now.

The chain of bookshops was taken over in October/November 2006 by a charity controlled by J Mark Brewer and Philip Brewer, and has been gradually run down since that date.

At least 7 different corporate entities have been used to in managing the chain. These comprise 3 charities (1119839, 1119839-1 and 1109008), 3 private companies (FC028292, FC028290, FC028291), and a Company Limited by Guarantee (06110519); some have similar or identical names, and all were controlled at the outset by various permutations of Brewer family members.

After complaints in 2008, and after a Charity Commission “Section 8” investigation (case ref WTF 1119839/685451), in April this year an “Interim Manager” was appointed to oversee the Saint Stephen the Great charity (1119839), and the Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust ( 1119839-1).

Last week The Bookseller included a notice from the Interim Manager, suggesting that “Creditors who believe that they have a valid claim against the Trustees of St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust incurred before 1 July 2007, should write to the Interim Manager at Begbies Traynor (Central) LLP, 32 Cornhill, London EC3V 3BT under ref S8703 before the close of business on 16 December 2009.” This notice causes us several concerns.

As far as we are aware the notice has only been published in The Bookseller, while the SPCK chain was a business with worldwide links. SPCK creditors may include English Cathedrals, communion wine suppliers, development charities, craft businesses, religious communities in the UK and overseas and others. How can such a range of creditors can be realistically expected to respond to a notice with a 3 week deadline in a booktrade magazine, posted up to 3 years after the relevant debts were incurred?

In summer 2008, J Mark Brewer attempted to take an organisation, which he called “St Stephen the Great, LLC”, into bankruptcy in the South Texas Bankruptcy Court (case 08-33689-H1). His court submission failed to identify the UK bookshops under his control, but did provide a substantially accurate listing of unpaid debts which had arisen over the previous 12 months. This included several hundred creditors, and more than £1m of debts. This case was subsequently dismissed “with prejudice”, and Mr Brewer – himself a lawyer and former Congressional Candidate – required to pay a penalty and take remedial education in the area of Legal Ethics. Under the quoted cutoff date of July 2007, many debts identified in these court submissions may be ruled out of a possible settlement.

We encourage all potential creditors to get in touch with the Interim Manager using the contact details in the notice, and/or those given on the Charity Commission site; these are stsgct@gothamerskine.co.uk via email, or by phone on 020 7490 1880.

We also hope that specific contact will be made with creditors identified in the Court Documents, who are potential creditors even within the restricted period, and that the deadline for responses will be extended to a more realistic date.

Yours etc

Phil Groom. Editor, UK Christian Bookshops Directory, christianbookshops.org.uk
Matt Wardman, SPCK-SSG News Blog, spckssg.wordpress.com


And our letter to the Church Times:

Call for Creditors of Saint Stephen the Great Trust to come forward

Dear Sir

First of all we must thank the Interim Manager appointed to oversee the Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust, and Saint Stephen the Great, charities for his work in “stopping the rot” in the former-SPCK bookshop chain, and recovering the shops (Durham Cathedral Bookshop excepted) from Philip and J Mark Brewer. At least we are now on the way *out* of the woods.

However, we note that last week The Bookseller trade magazine included a notice from the Interim Manager of the Saint Stephen the Great Trust, suggesting that “Creditors who believe that they have a valid claim against the Trustees of St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust incurred before 1 July 2007, should write to the Interim Manager at Begbies Traynor (Central) LLP, 32 Cornhill, London EC3V 3BT under ref S8703 before the close of business on 16 December 2009.” This causes us some concerns.

We have been working to scrutinise the mismanagement of the former-SPCK bookshop chain for more than 2 years now, and we are concerned by several aspects of the statement made by the Interim Manager.

The Interim Manager is completely right that this whole affair has been made fearsomely complex by the use by J Mark and Philip Brewer of at least 7 different corporate entities to obfuscate their actions over the last 3 years. These comprise 3 charities (1119839, 1119839-1 and 1109008), 3 private companies (FC028292, FC028290, FC028291), and a Company Limited by Guarantee (06110519), some of which have similar or identical names, and all controlled by various permutations of Brewer family members. There was also an 8th alleged corporate entity, SSG LLC, which appeared in J Mark Brewer’s sworn submissions to the South Texas Bankruptcy Court in summer 2008, but which turned out to exist only in his imagination.

The USDAW Employment Tribunal action, which was settled out of court earlier this year, was impeded by this complexity, and a lack of clarity as to which entity J Mark and Philip Brewer were acting on behalf of at different times, whether their actions at each point were legal or not, and their peculiar reluctance to keep written records. In the end USDAW had to name three separate bodies as respondents because it was not clear which entity employed and managed different members of staff at different points in time. If the Interim Manager had not commendably reached a negotiated settlement, this Tribunal would be going round in ever-decreasing circles even now.

The notice as published seeks creditors of “St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust”, without identifying a specific charity number, and restricts the call to debts incurred before the end of June 2007. Given the confused governance and business relationships, we suggest that the Interim Manager needs to cast a far wider net, at least initially.

We are also concerned that the deadline for responses to the notice has been set for December 16th. The SPCK bookshop chain was a business with worldwide links, and the range of creditors may well include Cathedrals owed rent, communion wine suppliers, development charities, craft businesses, religious communities in Eastern Europe, a consulting engineer used to design an improvement scheme, and others. All of these creditor groups appear in the 2008 Texas court documents referred to above, and – despite the 2008 bankruptcy attempt having been fraudulent – we have found the records of debtors declared to be largely accurate.

We are a little baffled as to how such a range of creditors can be realistically expected to respond to a notice with a 3 week deadline in a Booktrade Magazine, posted up to 3 years after the relevant debts were incurred. Also, would a single notice adequately meet legal requirements where such a wide range of creditors are affected?

So we urge all creditors, and potential creditors, to get in touch with the Interim Manager using the contact details in the notice, and/or those given on the Charity Commission site, which are stsgct@gothamerskine.co.uk via email, or by phone on 020 7490 1880.

We have done what we can to bring wider attention to the published notice, but we hope that specific contact will be made with the hundreds of suppliers identified in the Court Documents, who are potential creditors even within the period before June 2007. Any debts before this date would be in addition to the more than £1m of debts identified in the 2008 Court submissions.

We also hope that the deadline for responses will be extended to a more realistic period, perhaps to the end of January 2010.

Yours etc

Phil Groom. Editor, UK Christian Bookshops Directory, christianbookshops.org.uk
Matt Wardman, SPCK-SSG News Blog, spckssg.wordpress.com
Simon Barrow, Co-Director, Ekklesia, ekklesia.co.uk


SPCK/SSG Creditors have 2 weeks to Act (Updated)

Matt Wardman writes:
This advert appeared in this week’s Bookseller.
Note that you only have about a fortnight to write in.
ST STEPHEN THE GREAT CHARITABLE TRUST

This charity has been in the press over recent years as a result of concerns expressed over its operations. In April 2009 the Charity Commission appointed Peter Gotham of Begbies Traynor as Interim Manager to take over its running – other than with respect to its religious mission in the churches it controls. This objective was made more complicated by virtue of the fact that since July 2007 the shops previously operated by the charity were managed instead by other companies appointed by the Trustees. The Interim Manager has now completed his initial work, has retaken possession of most shops, and is moving towards meeting valid claims on the charity’s assets. In order to do this he has instructed agents to put various of the Trust’s properties on sale. He is now advertising for creditors’ claims incurred before 1 July 2007 in order to ensure that no valid claims go unmet. (Any claims incurred after 1 July 2007 will be the responsibility of the various companies engaged by the Trustees.)
Creditors who believe that they have a valid claim against the Trustees of St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust incurred before 1 July 2007, should write to the Interim Manager at Begbies Traynor (Central) LLP, 32 Cornhill, London EC3V 3BT under ref S8703 before the close of business on 16 December 2009.
Presented by: Begbies Traynor (Central) LLP
Presenter’s Reference: S8703/PJG/NGA/BRS
———————————————————————————-
Editorial Note: I am not at all convinced by the cut-off date, though, without seeing rock-solid evidence. For example, Mark Brewer was reported by the Bookseller as acting for SSG in November 2007 when the chain dropped the SPCK name.

And which external companies were responsible for running the shops after 1 July 2007? The company which seems to have been responsible for running most of them – ENC Shop Management Ltd – was not registered at Companies House until 11 March 2008

Groups such as the Church of England Pensions’ Board and various government agencies, and other creditors, need to take a close look at this.

And you only have 2 weeks to do so.
[Update: 27/9/1009.
We have been in touch with the interim Manager’s team during the afternoon.
The reason why responsibility is accepted for debts incurred before 1 July 2007 is that the Interim Manager was appointed to manage the “St Stephen the Great Trust” (no 1119839) charity, while a separate  charity – a Company Limited by Guarantee – had been created to manage the bookshops. The Interim Manager was not appointed to manage this Company Limited by Guarantee, and so they are not accepting reponsibility for debts incurred by this Company.
Editorial note: This is all horribly complicated, and we will try and submit a list of detailed questions to the Interim Manager and the Charity Commission over the weekend.  The Company Limited by Guarantee was merged with the parent charity (no 1119839) by direction of the Charity Commission on 27 July 2007 – see the “subsidiary charities” page on the link above, so it is not clear to us how the Interim Manager is entirely not responsible for actions of this charity.
In the meantime, there is an email address for the Interim Manager on the Charity Commission website, where you can send your precise queries.
My brain still hurts.]


SPCK AGM 2009 – Salient Points

Matt Wardman writes.

On this blog we have attempted to keep up with a dozen or more different strands, and have communicated formally or informally with everyone from bullied staff to suppliers left high and dry to the USDAW Union to the Church of England Pensions’ Board.

More than 12 months on, some of the tectonic plates in the SPCK-SSG saga have shifted, some staff have received compensation after a long legal battle, and the Bookshop Chain is nearly (except for Durham Cathedral Bookshop. Bah!) under the control of trustworthy management in the shape of the Charity Commission Interim Manager of the SSG Charity. Painful decisions will continue, but the management can now be relied upon to follow the law of the land, and a set of honest principles.

The saga will continue for a long time to come, as debt recovery action takes place (I hope), assets are recovered, the Messrs Brewer are (we hope) brought to what justice is possible, and some new initiatives and bookshops continue to emerge from the rubble of the destroyed SPCK chain.

Following the SPCK Annual General Meeting on October 1st, these are some joint reflections drawing out some of the more salient figures from the Accounts and Annual Report.

SPCK Annual General Meeting 2009

The performance of SPCK in its current format of publishing and mission still holds relevance and concerns for former bookshops staff, and the publication of the latest Annual Report at http://www.spck.org.uk/about_spck/spck_2009_rept_accts.pdf gives cause for question.

Former bookshop staff still have a loyalty to the Christian mission of SPCK as it affects the wider Christian world through its publishing programme and world wide literature initiatives; feel worried about the fate of the bookshop premises once owned by SPCK which were funded by the giving and the support of thousands of Christians for nearly 200 years; and apprehensive about the shortfall in the pension fund which affects existing SPCK pensioners and those yet to receive their pensions.

Those with financial expertise and insight can read the Accounts and draw conclusions but key paragraphs in the Annual Report are as follows:-

From the Chairman’s Overview

“First, we experienced a large drop in the valuation of our investments; and second, we suffered from the outcome of a revaluation of a pension fund.”

From the Financial Review

“The Society recorded a net surplus , before exceptional items and gains and losses, of £294,000 (2008: surplus of £751,0000. Exceptional items in this time of economic downturn include an increased provision of £3,832,000 for funding a revised larger deficit in pension funding relating to a now-closed scheme, which was identified after a revaluation of funds by the Church of England Pensions Board. In addition, there was a large non-cash cost in the form of a net loss on the revaluation of investment assets of £3,111,000 (2008: net loss of £1,318,000). The net movement in funds for the year was a deficit of £6,648,000 (2008: deficit of £674,000).”

Further on investments

“The investment in William Leech (Investments) Limited has been used as security to guarantee the Society’s liability for additional pension contributions to the Church of England Defined Benefits Scheme”. Presumably because of stock market performance, the ordinary shares in William Leech, at market value fell from £4,640,000 in 2008 to £3,521,000 in 2009.

Sales

Sales income from Publishing in 2009 was £1,733,000 – in 2008 £1,834,000. The budget figure for 2010 implies a further fall.

Freehold Properties

The freehold properties housing the former SPCK Bookshops are no longer quoted assets.

Commentary

The Christian book trade is said to be in a fragile state at present, and the loss of 23 SPCK Bookshops can have been no help to publishers especially coinciding with a Recession. One hears worrying rumours about the future of Biblica/STL and the Wesley Owen shops. If SPCK did not survive, not only would the future of Christian mission and publishing be harmed, but also the pensions of former staff would be jeopardised and the William Leech Foundation, a generous charitable donor, harmed.

The pensions of former staff are held by the C of E pensions board, so if SPCK itself suffered really serious trouble, those funds are safe.

Finally, things may change (again) as the economy recovers from the current recession – perhaps particularly for investments held by the pension fund.

Wrapping Up

If SPCK wish to respond to any comments here, we are happy to publish a statement or commentary.

The SPCK AGM, Unfinished Business and Unanswered Questions

David Keen writes

The SPCK Annual General Meeting is happening this Thursday – 1st October – and the annual report and accounts for 2008-9 are online. There is a passing reference to the former SPCK bookshops:

“SPCK continues to have a number of significant legal issues with Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust in regard to matters connected with the former SPCK Bookshops. The Charity Commission has appointed an Interim Manager for the Trust, and progress is being made.” (page 6)

Others have stronger views than I over how much responsibility SPCK should shoulder for handing over their bookshops (and staff, customers, and suppliers) to a family of charlatans, who have unfairly dismissed over 30 former staff, been censured in the US courts for a fraudulent bankrupcty claim, and finally been booted out by the Charity Commissioners. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Some better news for former staff: the report reveals that their pension scheme, which is managed by the CofE pension folks (as far as I can tell), had a big shortfall as a result of the CofE revaluing its pensions (though it was struggling before this). SPCK has started making additional payments into the fund of £285,000 to top it up. This is going to be paid for the next 15 years, and the whole amount has been put on this years balance sheet – £3,832,000.

As I recall from comments on this blog, there is some question about whether the Brewers have kept up with pension payments to the staff they inherited from SPCK. Whose job is it to retrieve those: SPCK? Charity Commissioners? Church of England Pensions Board? What happens if they aren’t paid? Maybe this is a question which needs to be asked at the AGM.

Though the pension fund has imploded, SPCK are at least doing their bit to support former bookshop staff on this front. But we’re not out of the woods by any means.

Couple of other things:
– SPCK have nearly £300k in a restricted fund for Newcastle Bible House, which seems to be for the purpose of Christian retailing in Newcastle. This is listed in the accounts. What’s going to happen to this?

– Do the premises of former bookshops still belong to SPCK, or were they completely made over to the Brewers? The shops, as I understand, were given over with restrictive covenant, and at least one has been sold on by the Brewers for another use. I’m not sure what the legal situation is here, whether the shops revert to SPCK if the covenant has been transgressed.

There are other questions which need asking at the AGM, so if any readers of this blog are planning to be there, here is your mission, if you choose to accept it…..

Do we need an Anglican Books Forum?

Matt Wardman writes:

This is not within the strict remit of the SPCK campaign group, but we are a network including booksellers, readers, authors, publishers and all manner of interested parties – so I thought I would run a flag up the flagpole.

Future of Church House Publishing

Phil Groom has posted about a decision to hand over Church House Publishing, currently owned by the Archbishops’ Council which is the Church of England “Cabinet”, to the Hymns Ancient & Modern company:

The Archbishops’ Council is in discussion with Hymns Ancient & Modern with a view to outsourcing the Council’s publishing services. The proposed agreement would maintain the Council’s long-term commitment to publishing liturgy, key reference titles and other resources for the Church.

Clearly the SPCK/Brewer experience has caused us to realise that the people who will get hurt – if anyone does – who are the staff, customers and suppliers, need to have a voice. This applies even – and I need to emphasise this – if the other party is basically trusted as is certainly the case with Hymns Ancient & Modern, which is a different world from Philip and J Mark Brewer.

There are still important questions about the concentration of influence and other questions, and Phil puts this better well:

  • Does the Church of England need an independent voice for its publishing division?
  • Is it right to concede so much control of the Church’s voice to the owners of the Church Times?
  • What provision — pastoral as well as financial — is being made for staff who now face the very real possibility of redundancy?

There is more detail on Wannabe Priest’s blog.

Anglican Books Forum

That has set off the thought whether we need a group / network / whatever that can be an arena where the range of people interested in books can have these conversations.

These are some initial thoughts.

  • When the Brewer detail is finally revealed, everyone will be looking for a network or body to comment on these kind of questions.
  • The current question around CHP demonstrates the need for something independent but comprehensive to raise alarm.
  • I’m suggesting that such a setup could have its seed as a spinoff from SPCKSSG.
  • We have seen the the need for an Anglican focus, e.g., a group that can raise a hue and cry in General Synod etc if necessary, but also be consulted by e.g., the Archbishops’ Council. Of course there’s a “promote books” role as well.
  • Needs to encompass publishers /booksellers /readers /writers / bookstaller people / various other stakeholders.

Note: clearly “books” is the wrong word, since we are in a multimedia age – but it’s the best I could do for now.

Wrapping Up

This needs to be talked about more widely, since it is not our core purpose – which continues to be the scrutiny of the run down of the former-SPCK bookshop chain until the bitter (or not) end.

Also, it’s not something we can drive from here – anyone interested in picking up the baton? We can advise.

What do you think?

Church Times Report on Salisbury

Matt Wardman writes:

Yesterday I mentioned that the Church Times was due to publish an article about Mark Clifford’s new bookshop in Salisbury. It also has a good roundup of recent developments in the case of St Stephen the Great. The piece is here and is reproduced below.

A NEW Christian bookshop opens in Salisbury tomorrow. The owner is Mark Clifford, a former manager of Church House Bookshop, who was recently made redundant from the Sarum College Bookshop.

Mr Clifford lost his job in a col­lege cost-cutting exercise, having seen sales rise by ten per cent between September 2007 and June 2008. He had taken over a struggling shop with declining sales, and described his three years there as “tough”. Sales rose despite staff cuts last year, and the shop was said to be picking up a great deal of the business of the former SPCK shop in Salisbury after its new owners, the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), started bankruptcy proceedings in Texas (News, 13 June 2008). The college’s shop is now being run by its librarians.

The SSG shop is still trading in a limited way in Salisbury, managed by a member of the Brewer family. Mark and Phil Brewer are directors of SSG, an Eastern Orthodox charity based in the US. Many UK suppliers will not deal with SSG, but the Salis­bury and Chichester stores are re­ported to have taken in remaindered books from shops closed by the Brewer brothers. Trading Standards have instructed that SPCK signage is to be removed from the shop front at Salisbury.

Sarum College tried twice to sell the college bookshop to SSG, a move Mr Clifford opposed. The trustees gave him the option last summer of leaving or buying the business him­self, or of someone else’s buying it. It was not prepared to negotiate about the rent. After Mr Clifford announ­ced on 11 August last year that he was going to open his own business, he was given an hour to leave, he said.

The new shop will eventually have two trading floors, he says. “Salis­bury needs a city-centre Christian bookshop, and I think we’ve got the knowledge and experience to pro­vide a really good service. The book trade has got excited by it, and I have tremendous support from publishers and suppliers.”

Restricted covenants limit former SPCK shops to bookselling with a broad Christian tradition. The Brewer brothers tried unsuccessfully to sell many of the shops in April 2008. They sold the Exeter shop in September 2008 for £507,000. It is now GemStar Jewellery and Gifts.

Thirty former employees of SPCK Bookshops are taking their cases to an employment tribunal (News, 12 September 2008). Pensions, treat­ment of staff, payment to creditors, responsibility for leases, and legal threats are all issues as yet unre­solved in what one former employee has described as a “trail of damage and despair”. The SPCK mission society is no longer involved with any of the business of the SSG shops.

Here’s hoping for a LOT of media coverage for our campaign in January.