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Christian Books: Amazon Versus Christian Bookshops

I’ve decided to draft a few thoughts after Phil Groom‘s comment and pingback on the last post. Please pitch in with your own thoughts.

I write as a punter, not a professional in the booktrade. I am a ‘professional’ who needs to keep reading Christian theology.

What is in favour of Amazon and the online stores? First of all, price. Stipends for most ministers are OK but not great (I’m not moaning, I knew what to expect), and this means being careful financially. The discounts available online are broadly, although not always, better than is available in a typical Christian bookshop. It’s important to note, though, that discounts online are not necessarily about being able to afford that on high volume titles, because that is not usually the case with Christian books – unless you count The Shack, I suppose. I am sure that most of the religious hardbacks and paperbacks sold at Amazon would fall within the parameters of what some commentators call ‘the long tail’, that huge array of low-selling stock that they specialise in, rather like online CD and MP3 sites doing well on back catalogue. Furthermore, I can use a price comparison site like Bookbrain to check prices if something has been published in the UK. 

Second is range. Some Christian bookshops are very restricted in what they carry, not only as a function of only being able to afford small premises, but on theological grounds. And yes, I say that as an evangelical! The days may be gone when Michael Saward could caricature Christian Literature Crusade as Constricted Literature Crusade, but it’s not long since I discovered an evangelical bookshop that didn’t stock Eugene Peterson. I really don’t want Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer: I know they sell and realise there are economic necessities involved here. I think it’s a moot point why that tat sells: is it the advertising power of certain Christian companies, and/or is it pastors promoting nonsense in the pulpit? (That alone is worth a debate, I think.)

But this is not simply about theological narrowness: sometimes the work I want to read is not published in the UK, so the ability of an Amazon to get stock from, say, the States, is a distinct advantage to me. 

What works in favour of the conventional Christian bookshop? It may be a truism, but it’s worth restating: Christian bookshops can (or should) be a ministry, with a certain atmosphere and ambience, whereas Amazon and their ilk are businesses. (Not that I’m having a go at business.) A Christian bookshop can win me over by the personal qualities of the staff, not just the discounts. Some work hard on this, a few don’t.

A few examples from personal experience: when I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the local SPCK shop had a terrible reputation with theological students. It should have been our first port of call, but it had staff who were like the Christian version of Bernard Black in the TV show Black Books. Two disgruntled former employees left and set up a rival operation called St Denys. They knew they needed to reach students, and set about to do so. Good coffee was offered to every visitor. Students producing ID received 10% discount. The staff were theology graduates, and knew the field and gave good advice.

Similarly, my old friend Brenda Franklin at CLC in Chatham when I served in the Medway Towns was the exemplary Christian bookshop manager, and followed a difficult situation. She knew the trade and knew her faith. She always went the extra mile to trace a book. She was familiar with new titles, had read widely herself and could give an opinion. Most of all, she set up a specific scheme to reach out to local church leaders with monthly newsletters. While I didn’t often order expensive academic doorstops from her, I ordered more than I would have done if I had only wanted to save money. You could say that what she did wasn’t rocket science, but having come across the odd Basil Fawlty (as well as Bernard Black) in Christian bookshops, the Brendas of this world are a delight. 

My other example of excellence in the ministry of a Christian bookshop would be a current one: Jo Jones at the ‘Guy Harlings bookshop’ in the Chelmsford Diocesan Resources Centre. You’d expect Jo to have a good idea of what clergy are interested in, and she does. She knows it even more as one training for ordination herself, but I guess that means sadly for us we’ll lose her from the shop before too long. This is the first appointment in which I have ended up taking school assembiies. Jo has been brilliant for her knowledge of useful books. They would have been available online, but the advice couldn’t have been, notwithstanding the customer reviews on websites, which don’t count for as much in my eyes.

One last thing to mention before throwing this open is the rise of Christian online stores. I guess the most prominent one I know for books is Eden. They seem to have a wide knowledge of the church scene, across all sorts of traditions. They also sell CDs, DVDs and other resources. There is a reasonable discount, which I appreciate, although the postage costs are a disincentive and have driven me back at times either to Amazon or a local bookshop. I can’t get advice from them.

Wider than books, I should also mention Cross Rhythms Direct. Their main speciality is CDs, with some DVDs, and they have recently branched out into books but are far less confident there. CR began as a print music magazine for the Christian scene. The CD prices are the most competitive I know for Christian music, although you can opt out of your discount to give to a worthy cause. Many of the CDs have reviews, but that is where I need to make a disclosure: I am one of their CD reviewers!

Well, hopefully that’s enough to get a discussion going. What are your thoughts? Over to you!

Sabbatical, Day 24: No Sleep Till Brekkie, More Lectures And The Bristol Tourist Trail

I don’t do well on first nights in new locations. Not on the evidence of this sabbatical, anyway. Having barely slept before 4 am on my first night at Cliff College a fortnight ago, I didn’t sleep before 1:30 here, then woke at 5:30 with a vile headache. (Not that I know what a nice headache would be, you understand.) At 7 am, I decided I needed a large dose of tannin, so I took the pint-sized mug I’d brought from home and made my first tea of the day. The pain slowly subsided over a period of several hours, until it was gone by late afternoon.

Trinity does worship differently from my time. Twenty years ago, nearly everything was Alternative Service Book. Except when Paul Roberts inflicted chanted Book of Common Prayer services, that is. Though the ASB has been replaced in the C of E by Common Worship, the college seems to have themes for particular weeks. This week it’s Iona Community worship, widely popular in many parts of the British church but something that drives me nuts. I have no problem with a liturgy that emphasises social justice and makes no division between work and worship. However, I have found several of their liturgies and some of their songs hectoring and lecturing. Not only that, the confession used this morning was fundamentally inadequate. I like the mutual confession approach of Iona (service leader confesses and congregation pronounces forgiveness, then the process is reversed), so I’m not critical of everything. But this confession started from the point that we had hurt ourselves, then others, then the world. Absolutely no reference to the rupture between humans and God that is central to confession. Remind me never to use it in worship.

There were good things – not least the brief testimony of a student as to what God did in a prolonged experience of a spiritual desert. And the guy who read the Gospel reading did so with great feeling. Those were highlights.

Lectures were more relevant this morning. The operating paradigm (I’m at a theological college – out come the long words!) was still that of the large church, but I felt that more of today’s material was translatable or adaptable. We began with a session on team leadership and issues around teams. We then looked at how to run a meeting, largely taken from the old John Cleese video ‘Meetings, Bl**dy Meetings‘. Finally, a few thoughts about some common mistakes made by leaders.

This afternoon had an optional session. I opted out. It comprised some BBC videos on assertiveness training. While that’s an area I could do with improving in, I needed some air and some exercise to counter the effects of the much improved food. I decided I would try to find some old haunts. Off I went across the Clifton Downs, down two roads whose names may just betray Bristol’s slave trade past – Blackboy Hill and Whiteladies Road – and on down, eventually to Park Street, where I used to frequent three shops. I knew that SPCK would have been long gone after the business atrocities that have been inflicted on that chain of bookshops. Sadly, Rival Records is no longer around – I remember buying Bruce Cockburn‘s World Of Wonders in there during my first year. And the Evangelical Christian Literature bookshop is now a branch of Wesley Owen, stocking everything from N T Wright to Joel Osteen. Insert words such as ‘sublime’ and ‘ridiculous’ as you see fit. I think I’m right in remembering that ECL had been founded by George Mueller.

Not being home today means I’ve missed Shrove Tuesday with the family, but Debbie told me tonight she and the children had decided to postpone pancakes until Saturday. I’m glad they have. Pancakes and their toppings are one of those simple pleasures where it is a joy to see the fun Rebekah and Mark have. Two small pancakes with toffee ice cream here at lunch time were delicious, but no replacement for being with the children. As to toppings generally, I’m a fan of those English Provender jars – no, not the garlic, ginger or horseradish, rather the raspberry coulis or the Belgian chocolate sauce. The latter has been harder to find in the supermarkets recently, though.Looking at the website tonight, I’ve noticed they now do a Fairtrade chocolate sauce, though.

More seriously, I had to miss a hospital out-patient’s appointment Rebekah had this afternoon. Eighteen months ago she had grommets inserted in her ears after protracted episodes of glue ear and consequent poor hearing. They still haven’t solved the problem. One grommet fell out a few months ago, and today they could see congestion in it. She may have to have more grommets fitted, poor lass. Recently, we’ve let her start answering the telephone, but conversations with her are punctuated with “What did you say?”

Tonight, I’ve just spent the time quietly reading. Next stop a spot of supper then an early night, I hope, to catch up on last night.