Tag Archives: SPCK Bookshops

Breaking the Silence

Two Brewers - but watch out, there may be more...

Two Brewers - but watch out, there may be more...

Phil Groom writes:

Have been rummaging through my backcopies of Christian Marketplace and found the article J Mark Brewer had them take down from their website, from the July 2008 issue, Industry News, p.6. Reproduced below for those who missed it; and if that’s you, good news: if you’re involved in Christian retail, a church leader or responsible for a church bookstall, you need never miss another issue — head on over to the UKCBD Blog to find out how to pick up a FREE subscription: Keeping Up to Date, Getting Up to Speed.

Reading through the article, I can’t see anything that’s even remotely sanctionable let alone libellous. This is straightforward, factual reporting. But I can see plenty of reasons why dear old Marky warky, bless his devious little cotton socks, would have wanted to suppress it. 

Finally, a reminder for anyone pursuing the Brewers/SSG for debts: neither the St Stephen the Great trading company nor the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust is in fact bankrupt. They have not gone into administration; they have not been legally declared insolvent. The USA bankruptcy filing was thrown out as an attempted fraud on the courts. Don’t let them fob you off with false claims of bankruptcy.

Bankruptcy, closures, sackings…
From bad to worse at SSG

The SSG Bookshops story took a dramatic twist last month when it emerged that the company which owns the shops, St Stephen the Great – Limited Liability Company (SSG – LLC) had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States. Chapter 11 is a form of bankruptcy that allows a business to continue trading and pay creditors over time.

Mark Brewer informed all staff by email on 6th June that on 6th June that “SSG has been terminated as the trading company to operate the bookshops formerly known as SPCK bookshops” and that “SSG-LLC has been placed into reorganisation in U.S. Bankruptcy Court”.

The email also advised staff that, “The bookshops will now be operated by ENC Management Company. Former employees of SSG-LLC are invited to apply for a position with ENC Management Company. If you wish to apply, please reply to this email so indicating.”

The directors of ENC, which was registered at Companies House on 11th March 2008, are listed as Sandra K Brewer, Mark J Brewer and Philip W Brewer and its registered office is listed as the address of the Chester shop.

Staff in the Chester shop received an email on 2nd June from Philip Brewer advising them of the “change in ownership/management to ENC Management Company with effect from 1st June.” The email also advised staff that they could continue “employment at the Chester bookshop … by applying for a position with the new company” (ENC) and that this was “not a transfer of your employment under TUPE.”

USDAW, the shop staffs Trade Union, who have been advising staff over recent months, expressed concerns at the latest developments. Christine Peacock, Senior Legal Assistant at USDAW, told Christian Marketplace, “We are currently investigating what effect, if any, SSG’s filing for bankruptcy will have in the UK.”

Peacock confirmed that there are fifteen claims lodged in preparation for Industrial Tribunals. The first of these (Alison Speddings vs Mark Brewer) which was due to be heard from Monday 9th June at the Sheffield Employment Tribunal, was adjourned because of the ‘bankruptcy’ situation and neither Mark nor Phil Brewer were in attendance.

She also said that USDAW were aware that ENC Management Company is also owned by the Brewer brothers and were “currently taking advice on the validity of these actions. We are concerned that they will have the effect of moving the assets to a place which means that there are no assets available to settle the claims.”

The Charity Commission are also to undertake an investigation into SSG; a spokesman confirmed that they are “currently considering whether this raises any issues for the Charity Commission to take forward.”

At the time of writing it appears that thirteen of the 24 shops originally passed onto SSG are now closed. A number have closed since the bankruptcy announcement, including Chester, Newcastle, Norwich and Worcester. A further three are independently open with doubts about the status on another four.

Currently there are three companies running the remaining bookshops. In addition to ENC there is Durham Shop Management Co. and Chichester Shop Management Co. and the listed directors are the same for all three.

Mark Brewer has again been asked to comment on the current developments but has not responded to any request.

Brewers Still Faking It In Salisbury

Congratulations to J Mark Brewer on winning the much coveted Mr GAFCON 2008 award. Mark, you are truly a hero and I can think of no one else so deserving of this trophy: well done, sir, well done!

Phil Groom writes:

Is it ENC? Is it SSG? Is it Third Space Books? No: it’s SPCK!!

Thanks to one intrepid photographer (you know who you are: thank you) we can reveal that despite a Trading Standards investigation requiring the removal of their illegal SPCK signage, as of 18th December 2008 the former SPCK Bookshop in Salisbury was still using an SPCK Sale notice in its window:

Salisbury, 18th Dec 2008

Salisbury, 18th Dec 2008

Salisbury SPCK Sale Notice, 18th Dec 2008

Zooming In: Salisbury SPCK Sale Notice, 18th Dec 2008

Have to say, I was rather taken by the ‘Window Pictures by Icon Art’ backdrop to the sale notice. Very fetching; and I do hope someone closer to hand will check — and if they’re still displaying this notice, that someone will fetch Wiltshire’s Trading Standards back again…

Somebody remind me, please: how long ago was it that the licence to use the SPCK name in connection with the bookshops was withdrawn? And what did Mark Brewer himself say about wanting to dissociate SSG from that name? Something about “traditional Christian values”? One wonders which tradition he had in mind…

“It is important that the people who work for this charity want to work for it and are devoted to supporting its work because it is not ‘just a job’; it is a mission,” he said. Brewer added that he has no intention to sell off stores. “I did not agree on behalf of Saint Stephen the Great to acquire 23 brilliant locations in great cathedral cities throughout the country, only to sell them a year later,” he said.

“These shops are like the talents the Lord spoke of in the parable, and to earn His favour as ‘good and faithful servants’ we must invest these talents for His glory. That is why I have taken a bold e-commerce initiative to become the dominant online Christian bookseller. I have also opened two new shops since the acquisition.”

Splendidly said, Mark, splendidly said

An Open Letter to the American Orthodox Institute

Phil Groom writes:

Letter to the American Orthodox Institute,  submitted 30/12/2008 via their Contact Us page:

Dear Friends,

I represent the UK Christian news blog, SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info – https://spckssg.wordpress.com – which exists to report upon, scrutinise and provide space for discussion about the acquisition and running of the former SPCK bookshops by the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSGCT).

Having posted their promotional video on your blog in March this year (http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/2008/03/test/), you know that SSGCT purports to be an Orthodox missionary society. It has, however, been disowned by the wider UK Orthodox community, members of which regard its USA based owners, J Mark and Philip W Brewer, as an embarrassment to their church:

The organisation is now operating under several different guises: ENC Management Company, Durham Cathederal [sic] Shop Management Co, Chichester Shop Management Co and Third Space Books; there may well be others – the Brewer family seem to be particularly adept at changing company identities and shuffling assets between their various companies when they come under scrutiny or when bills become due.

Earlier this year, J Mark Brewer attempted to file “St Stephen the Great LLC” for bankruptcy in the USA. This was thrown out by the Court as having been submitted in bad faith and was described by the Trustee of the Court both as an attempt to commit fraud on the court and as an attempt to evade responsibility for debts here in the UK, where many former employees and suppliers to the bookshops remain unpaid.

Mr Brewer also set out to silence reporting on his activities by issuing ‘Cease and Desist’ letters to a number of people, myself included. This appears to have been another part of his strategy to evade his UK creditors by ensuring that evidence needed by the Courts would be inaccessible.

Since then, despite a solemn and legally binding undertaking by covenant to maintain the SPCK shops as Christian bookshops for a period of seven years, he has gone on to sell the Exeter shop (which is now trading as a jewellery store) for the sum of £507,000. We have not yet ascertained what he has done with that money but his former employees and suppliers to the bookshops still remain unpaid whilst the few shops left are inadequately stocked, understaffed and poorly run.

All of these innovative business practices are being carried out in the name of Orthodox mission, in a so-called bid to “Rescue Britain’s Christian Heritage” as per that promotional video. Instead of rescuing Britain’s Christian heritage, however, the Brewer family are trampling it underfoot and treating Christians and non-Christians alike in the UK with contempt.

In his essay “Conflicted Hearts: Orthodox Christian ‘Social Justice’ in an Age of Globalization” John Couretas, your Executive Director, observes that “The Orthodox tradition of social witness is ripe for renewal and revival.”

In his end of year message, Fr. Hans Jacobse comments that “Now more than ever, Orthodox Christians need to make their voices heard on the most important social issues of the day.”

For us here in the UK, one such important social issue is the injustice meted out by the Brewers to their former employees and their suppliers in the name of Orthodox mission. I therefore make bold to suggest that a good starting point for your longed for renewal and revival would be to call the Brewer family and their St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust to order – and if they fail to respond in proper repentance and restitution towards those they have wronged in the UK, then to publicly dissociate AOI from SSGCT and their so-called ‘Orthodoxy’.

Finally, in the interests of transparency, please note that I will be publishing this message as “An Open Letter to the American Orthodox Institute” on our blog. A new year is almost upon us: it would be an immense relief to my colleagues and myself to bring this disgraceful episode to a close before another year passes. I urge, you, please: do all that is in your power to help us achieve this end.

If you need any further information, please feel free to contact me.

Thank you for your attention: I look forward to receiving your response soon.

Yours faithfully,

Phil Groom

Phil Groom
SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info


Rescuing Britain’s Christian Heritage: Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust lead by J Mark Brewer

Just a little reminder of what they said when they started …

SPCK Staff: Tell the Church of England Pensions’ Board all the detail you have

Matt Wardman writes

I crashed into the former SPCK Bookshop story when it became a Free Expression issue back in July after watching with interest since the previous December, and since then I have become simply horrified at what has gone on and how staff, suppliers, the authorities and everyone have been treated with contempt by this pair of Shysters J Mark Brewer and Philip Brewer.

Below is an article from me attempting to help current and ex-staff members get in touch to give the Pensions’ Board the information needed. I am posting it here because the Wardman Wire has a prominence in search engines which is currently greater than the SPCK/SSG News and Information blog. It will be reproduced on the News blog on Monday.

The Brewers’ various corporate vehicles – of which the key one is the Society of St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust – have simply not been responding to requests to supply information about the status of staff pensions, which is itself an entirely contemptible and despicable course of action. Further, there are very real questions about whether the monies that were deducted from staff salaries as “pension contributions” were ever in fact even passed on to the Pensions’ Bodies.

SPCK Staff and ex-Staff Pensions

This is my interpretation, and not an official statement from any of the organisations involved. However, I am told that it highlights some current key issues accurately.

“I’m not claiming be an expert, but this is how I understand some of the issues around pensions. I am not a lawyer, but I hope these comments may help. Among the problems that the Church of England Pensions’ Board are likely to be facing are these:

Eligibility for the Church Workers’ Pension Fund

Eligibility for membership of the Church Workers’ Pension Fund (who manage the SPCK scheme) depends on the potential member being employed by a “Church of England Body”. The SPCK itself counts as such a body. The Society of St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust counted as such a body while the SPCK had the right to appoint a representative to the board of the body. Even after the Bishop of Gloucester and Simon Kingston resigned from the Board of Trustees due to conflicts of interest that “right” persisted.

When employees were transferred to other bodies/business entities (such as ENC Ltd and the companies running Durham and Chichester Shops), where SPCK did not have the right to be represented, therefore eligibility for membership of the Church Workers’ Pension Fund probably ceased at that point.

It is a further problem that it is in dispute when and whether such transfers happened, and what role was played by the St Stephen the Great Company Limited by Guarantee, whether any employees were transferred to THAT entity, when that was done, and whether employees of that entity would be eligible for Pension Fund Membership – bearing in mind that it was the *parent* charity, rather than the *daughter* charity, of the Saint Stephen the Great Charitable Trust.

Pension Contributions

In the attempt to make “St Stephen the Great LLC” bankrupt in the South Texas Bankruptcy Court, J Mark Brewer submitted documentation showing an unpaid debt to the Church of England Pensions’ Board for a sum of $13396.78. That may be money that employees think has gone to their pensions which has in fact gone to Brewer and Pritchard in “Legal Fees” or to the “Orthodox Church/Christian Mission Fund”, or elsewhere.

If those contributions have not reached the Church of England Pensions’ Board, then – unless they are told – they have no way of working out the relevant entitlement, or hypothetical entitlement (depending on whether the employee was working for an eligible organisation or not).

When they come to work it all out, they will have to make sensible assumptions given a very difficult set of circumstances and probably no one at all is going to be absolutely happy.

The Information needed by the Pensions’ Board

So they need as much information about each and every member of staff worked for SPCK or the other entities, when and what pension contributions have been made or are supposed to have been made.

That kind of information is things like – for example – the names of organisation paying payslips etc as well as deductions from salary.

Additional Voluntary Contributions

AVC’s (Additional Voluntary Contributions) are run by many pension schemes as a means whereby employees can boost their retirement income. The pension fund agrees to the payment and the amount (as there’s a government regulation on how much top up there can be) then the employer makes a deduction from payroll each month. This is shown as a separate deduction on the payslip and is sent to the Pension Provider as a separate payment.

Staff sending information to the Board should certainly advise of AVC payments because if these have not been passed on that really is theft as the money was taken each month from net pay.”

Wrapping Up

The Brewers’ offence is compounded bv the treatment of staff and the $1.5 million that has been admitted to have not been paid to creditors for goods supplied – while J Mark Brewer and Phil Brewer themselves extracted more than $750,000 from the same organisation at the same time – mean that this is not merely a game of leapfrog.

These admissions were made in the documents the attempted Bankruptcy Submission in Texas by J Mark Brewer, with the following statement (PDF, 1Mb) attached:


“I declare under penalty of perjury that I have read the answers contained in the foregoing statement of financial affairs and any attachments thereto and that they are true and correct to the best of my knowledge, information and belief”.

This submission itself was later admitted by J Mark Brewer to be in Bad Faith (PDF 150k):


after the Trustee in Bankruptcy (public official) had Accused J Mark Brewer of perpetrating a Fraud on the Court (PDF 700k).


We encourage everyone who has posted about the closing down of CartoonChurch’s reporting, or taken an interest in the SPCK story, to review developments and publish a suitable end of year post – linking back to the News and Information Blog.

Exeter: The Incomplete Story (Part 4)

Phil Groom writes:

“Part 4?” you ask. Yes: Part 3 wasn’t labelled as such: it appeared earlier this week as Welcome to GemStar Jewellery and Gifts, Exeter. Since then SPCK have kindly furnished me with a copy of the Land Registry documentation pertaining to the transfer of properties to St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSGCT).

The covenant contained in that document, and cited in my letter to Exeter’s Planning Services Dept (sent today, copied in full below) applies specifically to Bradford, Canterbury, Exeter, Truro and York.

I’d like to emphasise at this point — as stated in my letter — that I know of no cause for concern about the new tenants, GemStar, as a company: on the contrary, their presence is no doubt an asset to Exeter and I wish them every success. Unfortunately, like so many others caught up in this mess, they may find themselves unwitting victims of the Brewers’ innovative business practices; and in that, they have my sympathy.

Full details of the Planning Application along with drawings and other documents are available on the Exeter City Council Planning Pages:

The deadline for comments or objections is 21 days from 12/12/2008, the date of the Planning Application Notice as displayed in the shop window.

From: Phil Groom
Subject: Comments re. Planning Application 08/2291/07
Date: 19 December 2008
To: Rachael Durbin, Exeter City Council, Planning Services Dept    

Dear Ms Durbin,

I wish to comment on Planning Application 08/2291/07 re. the proposed “alterations to existing fascias to provide non-illuminated hand painted lettering on south east and south west elevations, hand painted vertical lettering on south corner of building and projecting sign on south west elevation”.

Having studied the proposed signage, I believe that its installation would be in further direct breach of the seven year covenant pertaining to the use of the property at 1-2 Catherine Street which restricts such use to Christian bookselling. I say “further direct breach” because the current usage of the shop as a jewellery store is also, unfortunately, in breach of that restrictive covenant, which states:

The Transferee hereby covenants with the Transferor that for a period of seven years from the date hereof the Transferee will use the Properties hereby transferred as bookshops which will serve a broad Christian tradition and sell books, bibles, church and parish stationery and resources, music, software, cards, gifts and other associated products which adequately reflect the range of theological views held within the broad Christian church including those of the Church of england, the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist and Baptist churches as well as the Orthodox Church and will not use or permit the property to be used for any other purpose.

That citation is taken directly from the Land Registry form TP3, “Transfer of portfolio of titles”, certified copy dated 12/01/07, (copy available on request: please ask) whereby a transfer with “limited title guarantee” took place between the former occupants, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and John Mark Brewer, Sandra Kay Brewer and Karen Ellen Brewer (the Brewers) who were “to hold the Property as Trustees of the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust” (SSGCT).

Whether the Brewers had the right to dispose of the property is another matter (restrictions on disposition are imposed by Section 36 of the Charities Act 1993, and I am referring this matter separately to the Charity Commission) but even if they did have such right, the restrictive covenant remains in place and is binding upon any subsequent owners, and is in fact twice referred to in the current Land Registry files relating to this property, which also note that a copy of the covenant is filed:

Under “B: Proprietorship Register”, part 3:

(31.10.2008 ) A Transfer to a former proprietor contains a covenant to observe and perform the covenants referred to in the Charges Register and of indemnity in respect thereof.

and under “C: Charges Register”, part 1:

(06.05.2008 ) A Transfer of the land in this title and other land dated 29 November 2006 made between (1) The Society For Promoting Christian Knowledge and (2) John Mark Brewer and Others contains restrictive covenants.

Please note that I have no concerns whatsoever about the new tenants, GemStar, as a company: on the contrary, their presence is no doubt an asset to Exeter and I wish them every success. I fear, however, that they may find themselves unwitting victims of the Brewers’ innovative business practices.

My concerns relate to the use of these particular premises for purposes contrary to an established covenant and, specifically with reference to this planning application, by proposed signage that fails to promote the covenanted usage during the seven year period throughout which the covenant applies. Please do not hesitate to ask if you require any further information: this issue is but one small part of a much more extensive and ongoing scrutiny of the Brewers and their business dealings.

Please also note that a copy of this letter will be posted on the ‘SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info’ blog.

I thank you for your attention to this matter and I look forward to receiving your response soon.

Yours faithfully,

Phil Groom

Phil Groom
SPCK/SSG: News, Notes & Info

Advent in Exeter?

Phil Groom writes:

I’ve just stumbled across a rather challenging post from Paul Collings, a Methodist Minister in Exeter: Has Advent become a non-event?

Recently, a long established Christian Bookshop in Exeter, UK has closed and I sometimes wonder if I had to anything to do with its demise, by once suggesting to the manager that he should sell a different kind of Advent Calendar.

In the UK, we share the German Lutheran tradition of Advent Calendars where children of all ages open one door each day to receive a chocolate treat. I merely suggested that the bookshop should create calendars with empty compartments into which we place thoughts, gift promises and prayers. Perhaps it did not catch on! Or is it that today’s society is actually saying, “It is better to give than receive, as long as I’m still on the receiving end.”

Paul’s challenge is there for all of us: will we ever learn to give purely as givers, without expecting some sort of return? What effect would it have on our nation’s economy if everyone started giving without expecting to receive? 

I don’t think Paul’s suggestion had anything to do with the shop’s demise, but I was struck by how accurately his idea seems to sum up the problem with the Brewers’ attitude to the former SPCK Bookshops: as if they see the entire chain as their own personal chocolate-filled advent calendar from which they can take, take, take, but never put anything in…

Qur’an Ban: Two Years Today

Phil Groom writes:

Today, December 3rd 2008, marks exactly two years since news broke of the Brewers’ decision to ban the Qur’an from the SPCK Bookshops (remember that at that point they were still officially trading under the SPCK name).

“Stocking books which are inimical to Christianity, which without question the Koran is, could well create the wrong impression among some that we endorse the belief systems of other religions as equal or viable alternatives,” said Mark Brewer, the Texan lawyer who chairs the trust.

Source: Church bookshops stop selling Koran: Christopher Morgan, Times Online, 03/12/2006

Personally, I regard the rot within our faith — including people like the Brewers — as far more inimical to Christianity than the Qur’an. Natalie Jones again:

The Brewers [are] destroying an important part of [Durham] Cathedral as surely as a suicide bomber might – they are just taking a longer way about doing it, like some kind of infectious mold destroying an old, beautiful piece of stone. Fundamentalism is fundamentalism, not matter what denomination of belief it belongs to.

For those who want a more enlightened and intelligent approach to Christian-Muslim relations than the Brewers appear to be capable of, I have no hesitation in recommending Riddell and Cotterell, Islam in Conflict: Past, Present and Future. 

Here’s a reminder of the some of the news and blog reactions that followed the Brewers’ announcement: 

Leicester: One Year On

Phil Groom writes:


This weekend marks one year since the news broke of SPCK/SSG Leicester’s independence under a new name, Christian Resources:

Congratulations to Peter Hebden and his team on making it this far: here’s wishing them every success for the future! I invited Peter to give us an update and perhaps offer some advice for anyone else seeking to strike out by themselves. He writes:

All the best stories begin with “once upon a time” and end with a “happy ending”.  


Once upon a time there was a Christian bookshop in Leicester trading under the name of SPCK. It was a kindly shop with lots of friends and neighbours.  Then one day there was a sudden whoosh as the wind of change blew away the cobwebs, some of the books, some of the staff, and even…….some of the traditional ways of doing things. SSGCT had arrived.

Principles and goals were challenged, even one’s raison d’être was examined and tested.  Many changes were promoted, many implemented, some refused (I hate wearing a tie). The results were of mixed value and after a year of frantic activity the whirlwind of SSGCT moved off to other shores.

What was left was renamed Christian Resources in an attempt to re-brand, broaden the stock range and concentrate on core customers. The rest of the world looked on in partial disbelief, finding it hard to accept that there may yet be a future for an independent bookshop. The future would lay in resourcing Christians with many things, the printed word accounting for perhaps only 55-60 % of sales.

We at Leicester have been fortunate to have an accommodating landlord, patient financial backers, (we thank God we did not turn to the banking system), and most importantly helpful suppliers. The landlords were able to offer accommodation with a short term ‘get out’ aspect and within a couple of weeks all the major suppliers offered credit facilities. These credit facilities were crucial in helping us to bring the stock of new books and products up to sensible trading levels. I can not stress enough the value in both financial and encouragement terms of credit facilities in those early days as we rushed headlong into Christmas.

There was much to organise in the first few weeks bearing in mind that the deal was not struck until the 15th of October, just 16 days to takeover day (and a week of that was spent on holiday in Turkey).

Here is a basic tick box list for anyone with a desire to ‘step out of line’:

  • BANK ACC. Paying in & cheque books
  • CREDIT CARD facility
  • SERVICES, rates, electricity etc registration
  • ACCOUNTING procedures,
    Sales & purchase ledger systems
    Credit customer notifications
  • STAFF conditions of employment/contracts, H & S.

On reflection we are greatly blessed with the encouragement received from many quarters but take note you who may consider a similar step, the bottom line is that the customer is king. This means that if one doesn’t get the price ‘right’ then that good will which abounds on the first few weeks will evaporate as quick as the morning mist in spring. I have found  even the most loyal of customers don’t hesitate to use Amazon or go direct to a publisher or wholesaler if it suits. Remember nobody owes us a living, everybody has to find the best deal for themselves, not us.

As for a happy ending, well I am sure there will be one its just that I don’t know what it is yet, but I really do feel God will have a hand in it if I can just bring myself to let Him.

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…