Category Archives: Christian Bookshops

Durham Cathedral Shop Employees win Redundancy Payout

This news is very much of the ‘we were tipped into a swamp and lost nearly everything, but we escaped the alligators with our lives after each losing half a leg’ variety, but the staff at Durham Cathedral Shop have – 4 years after the saga to which this blog is devoted kicked off – received some more good news.

It has been ruled that when the staff of the Durham Cathedral Shop were thrown out of their jobs in January 2010, it constituted redundancy and unfair dismissal.

Since Mark and Phil Brewer have done a vanishing trick after running the business into the ground (don’t forget that Phil Brewer used the shop to fund his Trotter-Trading Yellow private aeroplane, and that hundreds of thousands of pounds simply went missing), the Judge rules that payment can be made from State funds.

I should also say that this decision was by a previous shop management, and the shop – and particularly the staff – deserve full support.

Employment Tribunal Report

An Employment Tribunal held on Wednesday 24th August 2011 in Newcastle, and this is a report of the proceedings.

“A sorry tale which has been going on for some time has now come to this.”

The opening comment by Mr Jim Shepherd, Employment Judge, at the Employment Tribunal held on Wednesday 24th August 2011 in Newcastle, between the claimants, the staff of the Durham Cathedral Shop, and the Durham Cathedral Shop Management Company and the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills.

The start of the tale was on 22nd January 2010, when the staff of the Durham Cathedral Shop were all dismissed. The shop was one of the 23 SPCK Bookshops taken over in 2006 by the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust run by American brothers, Mark and Phil Brewer. In 2008 the Durham shop’s management transferred to the Durham Cathedral Shop Management Company, a new company set up by the Brewer brothers. By January 2010 Durham was the only shop remaining under their control, and was a poor shadow of the flagship shop it had been in SPCK days. Phil Brewer contacted the staff and said the company had financial difficulties and he needed to talk to the Cathedral Chapter. On 22nd January 2010 the staff were summoned by the Chapter Clerk, following his discussion with Phil Brewer, and were told the shop was to close immediately. The staff received no written notice of dismissal, were not consulted in accordance with UK employment law and did not receive wages due to them, severance payment nor redundancy payment.

The staff were represented by Sara Devennie, of Beecham & Peacock, Newcastle solicitors, who were instructed by the trade union USDAW, of which all the staff are members. Beecham & Peacock received no fee for this work as part of their on-going commitment to a number of trade unions to fight for the rights of workers.

The Tribunal were presented with the detailed and complicated facts of the case, and ruled that it was unfair dismissal and redundancy. The Secretary of State’s office had investigated the solvency of the Durham Cathedral Shop Management Company and stated it was not insolvent and was still registered as a company, with the registered trading address as the Durham Cathedral Shop. However, the Tribunal Judge stated he felt it unlikely that any money would be forthcoming from the USA.

By ruling that redundancy had occurred, the Judge legalised the claim for state redundancy payments to be made by the Secretary of State. Payments of between £2,000 and £11,000 were awarded to the staff.

The Durham Cathedral Shop, under the management of Durham Cathedral, re-opened on 1st March 2010, and all of the former staff have been re-employed by Durham Cathedral.

That is excellent news, and congratulations go especially to the one member of staff who persevered with the claim. Perhaps ways can now finally be found to look forward at Durham.

Remaining Questions

There are still some very serious questions around the whole SPCK saga, which I hope will be addressed somehow.

The Brewers still deserve to be brought to book for offences committed throughout the last several years. These include the magically vanishing funds from Durham Cathedral Shop mentioned above.

But there is also the small matter of money specifically given for the support of Christian Bookselling in Newcastle, and placed in a separate fund withing SPCK after the sale of the Bible House Bookshop, part of which seems to have been misappropriated during the time of Management by the Brewer Brothers after SPCK agreed to provide funds.

Specifically, monies were passed to the Brewers for improvements to the premises of SPCK Newcastle which – as far as we are aware – were never carried out. The sum involved was 5 figures. [Update: more detail in the comments.]

Questions around the Governance of SPCK itself, and decisions made.

And the whole question of who is going to learn which lessons from this whole Godawful Mess, and whether they actually have been learned?

Stand Up SPCK Up

Reports Elsewhere…

CRE 2010 – will you be there?

Phelim McIntyre writes:

CRE will soon be upon us and it would be good to see those who can make it one or more days. The Tuesday is a FREE retailers/suppliers day – so if you can make it that day your are welcome to come. Book your free ticket here What is better your ticket is valid for all four days.

I will be there on the Tuesday, Wednesday AND Thursday (oh the joys of being in church leadership meaning one day is not enough).  So if people want to meet up let me know.

I would like to say that we could pop open the champaigne and celebrate the removal of the Brewers and their practices but I am not so sure. Certain parts of the Brewers Grimm’s empire were not taken over by the Charity Commission so like Arnie in the Terminator I have this awful feeling that they “will be back”.  But we can raise a glass to all those people who have kept the story alive and supported the victims of the Brewers from Dave Walker to the Bishop of Salisbury who stepped in to stop the Brewer’s taking over the bookshop at Sarum and Wells theological college to the people at the Church Times to the bloggers to those around the country who have kept us informed of what is going on – you know who you.  During war you can not give honours to intelligence agents and we have been in (and in someways are still in) that situation but that doesn’t stop us drinking to your health.

Phelim McIntyre

Durham: Cathedral Shop Reopens

Phil Groom writes:

Given that Durham Cathedral’s web droids took down the last couple of notices about the bookshop, I did wonder if this would actually happen — but it did: the Durham Cathedral Shop has now officially reopened, as of Monday, March 1st 2010. In view of the propensity of Cathedral notices to vanish without notice, here’s a screenshot and a transcript:

Durham: The Cathedral Shop is now open - we value your support

The Cathedral Shop is now open - we value your support

The Cathedral Shop is now open – we value your support

Durham Cathedral’s shop reopened on 1st March 2010 in a temporary space just off the Cathedral Cloisters. It is now managed and staffed directly by the Cathedral and is a new venture.

The arrangements from 1st March are short term as the Cathedral looks to open a larger shop in due course. A feasibility study has just been commissioned by the Cathedral, Durham University and Durham City Vision, to determine best use of the assets on the Durham World Heritage Site. Provision of retail is part of this study and recommendations will be made regarding the best location for a permanent shop.

The shop stocks a selection of gifts, books and church supplies.

Fairtrade Fortnight 2010: The Big Swap

Fairtrade Fortnight 2010: The Big Swap

One hopes that having opened in the middle of Fairtrade Fortnight, said selection includes a good range of fairtrade products — and that the staff can expect a fairer deal from their big swap in employers.

Not sure when I’ll be up there next myself, so if anyone would like to provide a photo of the new shop, please, I’ll gladly post it here. At this stage, however, whilst I wholeheartedly applaud the shop’s reopening, I have to confess my congratulations are a tad muted as we wait to see what the “provision of retail” in the Cathedral finally proves to be…

Praying HandsFinally, for those who haven’t cottoned on yet (that’s fairtrade cotton, of course), please make a note of Friday March 26th in your diary: it’s been designated as a Day of Prayer for the Christian book trade — for the whole of the Christian retail trade — here in the UK. There are meetings planned all over the country: from as far afield as Motherwell up in North Lanarkshire to Battle down in East Sussex, from Belfast in the West to London in the South East. If you plan to take part, please feel free to leave a note on the Day of Prayer page saying where and when, and hopefully someone else will turn up to join you.

It’s also hoped that churches will catch the vision and pray with us and for us on Palm Sunday, March 28th: if you’re a churchgoer, please badger and bother your church leaders until they too catch the vision and flag it up in church magazines and online on church blogs, facebook pages, twitter streams and websites; because the simple fact is that we’re all in this together, churches and bookshops/retailers. They’re even beginning to catch on over in the USA…

Removals Fairies Strike at former SPCK Bookshop, Chester

Phil Groom writes:

We all know about the tooth fairies: you leave your tooth under the pillow, fall asleep, and in the morning your tooth’s gone and there’s sixpence (OK, showing my age…) in its place. In Chester, they have removals fairies, and they’ve paid a visit to the former SPCK bookshop:

Former SPCK Bookshop, Chester: Empty Card Racks Former SPCK Bookshop, Chester: Empty Shelves Former SPCK Bookshop, Chester: More Empty Shelves
Empty shelves in the former SPCK Bookshop, Chester
(Photos taken Thursday January 21st, 2010)

We don’t know exactly when the fairies visited, where they’ve taken the stock or who’s got the sixpence: presumably the Interim Manager, and hopefully he’ll be using it to pay off some of the creditors. Never has the phrase “watch this space” felt more poignant…

I also have it on reliable authority that Wesley Owen Chester is scheduled to close its doors for the last time today, leaving Chester without a Christian bookshop. If you’re the praying kind, please remember Ian Vollands and the rest of the staff team in your prayers.

But perhaps the situation is not as bleak as it might seem? Chester is home to, the UK’s (and probably Europe’s) biggest online Christian retailer, and they’re involved in discussions with friends and church leaders about the future of Christian retail in the city. If you live in the area and would like to take part in those discussions, you can request membership of the Chester Christian Bookshop facebook discussion group.

Responding to concerns that Eden might be branching out into bricks & mortar retailing, Gareth Mulholland, Head Honcho at Eden, said:

There are lots of creative ideas being floated around. They generally involve collaboration, community and shared ownership – none of them involve setting up its own bookshop.

Kudos to Gareth and Eden for taking this initiative.

Thanks as always to our intrepid photographer for the pics.

Disclosure notice: the link to featured in this post is an affiliate link. If you use it and then proceed to make a purchase, eden will pay a small commission to the UK Christian Bookshops Directory. Thank you.

St Olav: Keeping Jesus on the High Street

The Times, Saturday 16 Jan 2010 - The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street

The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street

Phil Groom writes:

Thank you to Rebecca Paveley for a superb write-up in Saturday’s Times, p.100, outlining both the crisis facing and the future hope for the UK’s Christian bookshops: The call goes out to keep Jesus on the High Street.

And congratulations to St Olav Christian Bookshop, with their photo of opening day occupying centre spread in the article and featured as an example of the future shape of Christian bookselling:

Phil Groom writes a blog on the future of the Christian bookshop. He runs one himself at the London School of Theology which, despite having a guaranteed customer base, is still struggling. He believes the only future is for shops to be run in partnership with local churches as community hubs.

“Shops have got to be much more than just bookshops. They have to be destinations for community,” he says.

“We could ham up the guilt for Christians or local churches to get them to support us, but that would only work for so long. They have to realise that they need to work more closely with shops if they want to keep them.”

This model has led to one shop rising phoenix-like from the ashes of a former SPCK shop in Chichester.

St Olav Christian bookshop closed under the SPCK name in the summer but reopened four months later as an independent shop, with a board of trustees representing every denomination in the city.

The shop’s manager, Bradley Smith, says there is “every sign” that the shop will do well: “We have very loyal customers, we didn’t realise how loyal at first.”

More discussions about the future of Christian bookshops emerging shortly, hopefully, on that other blog Rebecca mentions: A Future and a Hope for the UK’s Christian Bookshops

Time to Speak out about Unpaid Brewer Debts

After our letters in the Church papers and The Bookseller last week, we have had some attention in the church and trade press for the tricks and fiddles which have been perpetrated on suppliers by organisations run by J Mark and Philip W Brewer.

In the past suppliers have nearly all kept quiet about how their invoices have just been left hanging for months, or how shops have continued selling the same stock under a new operating company, while the suppliers of the stock have been told to take their invoices away “to the old operator”.

J Mark Brewer’s sworn declaration to the Texas Court revealed £1m+ of unpaid debt from the period summer 2007 to summer 2008.

And yet in 2008 and 2009 a new generation of suppliers were being signed up, fiddled, and left high and dry by a new set of operating companies, with three, four or five figure invoices unpaid, even while the Charity Commission were investigating the previous generation of fiddles.

These are suppliers who are dealing with what they are being told is a “Christian Business”, and/or are part of the ecosystem around the Christian Bookshop trade. We are now focusing on this aspect of this saga.

We are calling on suppliers to write in to the Church Papers or the Bookseller between now and Christmas to outline what has happened, and how you have been treated.

We will be running some accounts and examples here as they come in too, and (we hope) have an interview or two and pass stories on to the media.

We do not think there will be another chance to do this.

Here’s the drill:

  • Keep it short, sharp, snappy and factual. 100-200 words is enough.
  • Make sure that your account is one you are willing to stand behind.
  • We think that most of the Church papers have pulled or edited articles in response to Brewer threats in the past, so if you have controversial things to say, send it to The Bookseller.
  • Cover who you are, what happened, what you are owed, and which business you were dealing with.
  • If you really don’t want to go public, ask them not to reveal your name.
  • Send it to us anyway via this form, and we’ll publish it here too. Please mke clear if you want us to withhold your name, or if your account is not for publication (e.g., if it is evidence of criminal activity).

Find Email Editorial Contacts here:

Chichester Shop Reopening

St Olav Christian Bookshop

St Olav Christian Bookshop, Chichester

Phil Groom writes:

CONGRATULATIONS to Bradley Smith and to the churches and Christian community in Chichester who have joined forces to reopen the former SPCK bookshop at St Olave’s Church, North Street, Chichester.

The shop  — which will be trading under the name St Olav Christian Bookshop — is due to be formally opened at 10am on Saturday 12th December 2009 with a short service of dedication led by the Rural Dean of Chichester. Refreshments will be available throughout the day and the staff  are looking forward to welcoming whoever can get along to join them.

Bradley writes:

Thank you all for your support in recent weeks and months – we have found it very meaningful indeed and we hope we will be able to serve you well in the future. We ask for your prayers for this new venture.

The new shop will be governed by the St Olav Trust, a board of trustees made up of representatives from the different churches in the city. Opening times after the official opening will be:

  • Monday – Friday, 9.30 am – 5.00pm
  • Saturday, 9.00 am – 5.00pm

Now book the date in your diary, bookmark the blog in your browser and head on over there to cheer them on — even better, to do some of your Christmas shopping!!

Debts of the former SPCK bookshop chain: Church Times letter

Matt Wardman writes:

We have a  letter published in the Church Times this week about the former SPCK bookshop chain. Kudos to the CT for putting it outside the paywall, where everyone can see it.

A fuller version, with a few points about the J Mark Brewer attempt (known to us as the Great Texan Wild Goose Chase) to dodge debts by putting a sort-of conflation of various bits of his organisations into Bankruptcy in South Texas, declaring lots of debts but none of the assets, is in this week’s Bookseller – but they don’t always put letters online.

Debts of the former SPCK bookshop chain

From Mr Phil Groom and others


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.

We note, however, the notice from him in The Bookseller last week 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 him at: The Interim Manager, Begbies Traynor (Central) LLP, 32 Cornhill, London EC3V 3BT, under “ref. S8703” before the close of business on 16 December.

This causes us some concerns. 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 seven different corporate entities over the past three years. These comprise three charities, three private companies, and a company limited by guarantee, some of which have similar or identical names, and all controlled by various permuta­tions of the Brewer family members.

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 about the deadline for responses. The SPCK bookshop chain was a business with worldwide links, and the range of creditors may well include cathed­rals, communion-wine suppliers, development charities, craft busi­nesses, religious communities in Eastern Europe, a consulting engineer, and others. All of these creditor groups appeared in Texas court documents in 2008.

We urge all creditors, and potential creditors, to get in touch with the Interim Manager using the contacts in the notice, and/or those given on the Charity Commission site, via email, or by phone on 020 7490 1880.

We hope that a specific contact will be made with the hundreds of suppliers identified in the court documents. We also hope that the deadline for responses will be extended to a more realistic period, perhaps to the end of January 2010.


STL UK puts up the ‘For Sale’ sign: who will buy?

IBS-STL UK Announces Plans to Sell Operations

IBS-STL UK Announces Plans to Sell Operations

Phil Groom writes:

In a press release issued earlier today, STL UK, the UK and Europe’s major distributor of Christian books and related products, have announced that their business is being put up for sale by their USA owners, Biblica. This decision comes in the wake of ongoing cashflow and stock movement difficulties faced by the organisation since an unsuccessful IT systems upgrade in October last year: combined with the current economic climate, the financial stress has become unsustainable.

This represents the biggest shake up in the Christian book trade for well over a decade, the SPCK/SSG debacle not withstanding, and not only puts STL’s 490 employees at risk of losing their jobs but also risks seriously undermining those hundreds of Christian retailers and suppliers who have become dependent upon STL for their supply chain.

I personally believe that this development does not need to be a disaster and at the weekend I put forward what I have called A Modest Proposal to Save STL UK. There are thousands of people whose livelihoods are likely to be disrupted if STL’s future is not secured: all the employees at Authentic Media and Paternoster Publishing; everyone at STL Distribution; all those working for Wesley Owen; and all the retailers and suppliers I’ve already mentioned. But if we stand together, between us I believe that we could stage a trade buy-out and take over the business as a shared ownership company.

But there is no reason why others — churches and other Christian organisations — couldn’t get involved. We have the means, if we have the will.

If you believe the idea of such a buy-out has merit, please spread the word amongst your friends and churches; if you have any other suggestions for a way forward, please speak out; and please pray for all those whose livelihoods are now under threat.

The UK Christian book trade and the church itself failed when SPCK hit hard times back in 2006. Many people’s lives were ruined and many are still picking up the pieces. It would be a tragedy beyond belief to see that failure repeated with Wesley Owen and its associated companies.

Related Posts

Staff Vacancy at BOOKS Plus, Gloucester

Nick Lord writes:

Dear Phil,

I worked at SPCK London for 3 years alongside Mark Spearing. After leaving last year I took up the post of Branch Manager of BOOKS Plus Christian Bookshop in Gloucestershire Royal Hospital. I am now leaving this post.

I was wondering if it is possible, through the wonder of facebook, to let any people related to SPCK know that this job is now available. I am sure that there may well be a few ex-staff who might be looking for a job in a Christian Bookshop. I have very much enjoyed my time here and benefitted immensely from all that I learned during my time at SPCK.

If anyone would like any information they are welcome to email me: [email address removed as an anti-spam measure: see the BOOKS Plus website or contact Nick via facebook]

Best Wishes,

Nick Lord