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Christian bookshops: Are we kicking against the goads?


I've been enjoying Phil Groom's Christian Bookshops Blog and Phil Wittall's Simple Pastor (which was, until recently, also about bookshops!) recently. Both of them have been recently lamenting the demise of the Christian bookshop in the UK, but I'm starting to wonder if it could actually be otherwise.

The truth is, of course, that the world is changing.

Chain and independent bookshops only make up 43% of book sales in the UK, and the trend is downwards, not upwards; supermarkets, mail order companies and the Internet make up the majority of book purchases. e-book sales have overtaken hardback sales. (Although it's worth noting that they're still a drop in the bucket compared to paperback sales.) Brick-and-mortar bookshops, despite the many perks they demand from publishers, are universally having a hard time competing in this new environment. Even the once-mighty Borders has fallen.

It's not just book shops, either. Library use has been continually declining for the past 10 years. A combination of people reading less, getting their books through different means, and an economic recession means that prospects for niche-market specialist bookshops (which is what Christian bookshops really are) are pretty bad in most places.

So when I hear calls for Christian bookshops to be saved, I can't help thinking that we may be kicking against the goads here, and perhaps we should step back and think about why we want to save Christian bookshops.

I think there are two reasons. The first is nostalgia. We love our memories of the Christian bookshop of old. And that, unfortunately, is a problem, because we're often more interested in preserving the old than embracing the new; we're more often followers of culture than innovators. Sarah Bolme has noted another cultural lag in how Christians approach book sales, particularly with respect to e-books, but she says:

Traditionally, the Christian marketplace has lagged behind the secular marketplace. There has been a gap of three to five years between the trends in the secular market and the Christian market.

I think she's right, although I doubt it's as quick as five years; I'd say the lag is more like ten years. But at any rate, if the world truly has changed - and I think from the figures above, it has - then we need to change with it, and better yet, find ways to be leading the change rather than being reactionary and fighting against it, because that trick never works.

The second reason is that we love to see visible Christian witness out there in the community, and the Christian bookshop is an example of that. I have two answers to this, and the first is admittedly flippant: I thought the Church was supposed to be the visible Christian witness out there in the community. I can hear the counterargument that more people are likely to browse in a bookshop than wander into a church, but that to me says more about the weakness of churches than it does about the usefulness of bookshops.

But on top of that, we need to ask ourselves if Christian bookshops as they often are today - failing ventures, propped up by parishioner goodwill long after they stopped making commercial sense, eventually to fail leaving a Christians-used-to-be-here gap on the high street - really is the kind of witness that we want.

Do I want to see Christian bookshops? Yes, of course. Do I feel sad that they're dying? No, not at all. Hopefully their demise will provide us with the impetus to do something interesting and innovative instead.