By Christopher Howse
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 21/06/2008
Bookshops that the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge used to run in cathedral cities are bare, desolate, a dwelling-place for dragons, an astonishment, and an hissing.
Something has gone wrong. The SPCK is the oldest Anglican missionary agency, founded in 1698. Until recently, it had 23 bookshops in England and Wales, and was the country's second-largest Christian bookseller.
It still publishes books but, in 2006, announced a partnership with St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG), an Eastern Orthodox charity based in the United States and headed by Texan brothers Mark and Phil Brewer, to take over its bookshops.
All SPCK bookshops were to remain open and staff were to transfer to SSG. The shops would continue to operate as SPCK Bookshops, under licence, according to Simon Kingston, the chief executive of SPCK. The SPCK bookshops had been running at a loss.
Since then, the Church Times has reported the troubled course of the bookshops. This month, SSG emailed the bookshops to say that its trading arm "SSG-LLC has been placed into reorganisation in US bankruptcy court".
A new company, "ENC Management Company", would run the shops and separate companies were to run the Durham Cathedral and Chichester shops. Mark and Phil Brewer are directors of all three new companies.
Mark Brewer, the managing director of the Texan law firm Brewer & Pritchard, has stated that although the charity had had cashflow difficulties, some shops were thriving, including Chichester and Durham.
SSG shop employees were told by email that "payroll, redundancy and other such obligations will only be payable through the bankruptcy court". They were "invited to apply for a position with ENC management company".
It is not clear what effect events in America will have on the company in Britain, registered as a charity, that had been running the shops.
Charity Commission spokesman told the Bookseller this week: "We are currently considering whether this raises any issues for the Charity Commission to take forward."
SPCK bookshops that have closed included those at Lincoln, Norwich, Chester, and Westminster, which closed in April. It had been leased to SPCK by the Society of the Faith. Margery Roberts, of the Society of the Faith, said that it had "made considerable efforts to obtain appropriate and satisfactory information about SSG's finances and management structure" and "without any reassuring material" had decided not to assign the lease to SSG.
Four former SPCK shops, in Bradford, Canterbury, Exeter, and York, were to have been auctioned in London on May 13.
Estimates ranged from £500,000 for the Exeter shop to £150,000 for the Bradford shop. They had been passed to SSG in 2006 from SPCK, complete with fixtures, fittings, and stock. But they have since been withdrawn from sale.
SSG leases six other shops from SPCK at peppercorn rents. The freeholds would be transferred to SSG after seven years "if the SPCK Bookshops Group remains in operation on an agreed basis", according to SPCK's 2007 annual report. These shops are understood to be in Chester, Hereford, Newcastle, Salisbury, Winchester, and Worcester.
When SSG took over the bookshops, it said it would "enhance and broaden its mission of distributing Christian literature". Since the acquisition, some people have been unhappy about limitations on stock carried.
Last year, SSG announced its bookshops would no longer trade under the name SPCK, because "more and more SPCK books [are] carrying a decidedly 'liberal' agenda". Its trustees "feel the time has come to distance themselves from SPCK".
The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Rev Michael Perham, who chairs the governing body of SPCK, and Mr Kingston both resigned as trustees of SSG. Continuing as trustees was no longer helping any of the involved parties, they said.
I complained in this column in 2004 that the medieval church of St Michael at Plea in Norwich had been turned into an SPCK bookshop and café (instead of being used as a church), but now it has been closed and the staff are without jobs. That is hardly an improvement.
READ THE PREVIOUS POST RELATED TO THIS STORY:
Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan: 1700 years later - *Keynote Address of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the opening of the Edict of Milan Seminar 2013* *(Conrad Hotel, May 17, 2013)* ...
2 hours ago