Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Christian Resources Together Trade Retreat

It has been my great pleasure to escape the confines of the wonderful Unicorn Tree these last couple of days (minions of old were conscripted in to fill the empty seat of the wonderul bookshop boss - I am informed the shop still stands ready for my great return tomorrow - remember i'll be the one sipping on the caramel flavour nectar of the coffee bean!) and go to the Christian Resources Together retreat which is a meeting together of Christian retailers and suppliers/publishers. 
It is a wonderful time for keeping informed, social chats, networking and friend making and inbetween the coffee breaks there are even some rather good seminars, talks and useful training type things.
I was extremely flattered to be invited to contribute a  little something to a wonderfully entitled session being given by the great Eddie Olliffe on 'Albatross, Dodo or Jewel - is there still a place on the high street for Christian bookshops to shine!'
I did say to one of the other people also asked to contribute thoughts, the rather clever Steve Mitchell, that sandwiched between Him, Eddie and the very insightful Andrew Lacey, it was obvious I was to be comedic value - God having a rather grand humour decided to prove that one right and as I took my stage debut I promptly fell up it into a rather full slapstick faceplant! ahh well luckily my ego is such it provided an ample cushion and I picked myself up, dusted off and started all over again!
The following piece is a much longer version of what I said (much, much longer and what I said was too long for the squeezed time space given - mea culpe, Eddie).
It's not necessarily of great interest to all you lovely shoppers but it does perhaps give you a feel for the things facing a lowly bookshop boss these days, and not just this bookshop boss but many others and their cheerful minions too - so please do try to think of us here in the shops and when you can please buy local and support your indie businesses as we really do need you all more than ever these days!

Anyway see you in the shop soon, and don't forget mines a caramel latte if you feel like stopping by to chat :-)

How can our trade best communicate the good news in an increasingly post retail era and to a progressively digital era.

Just the kind of question I always loved when studying! So falling back on academic principles I’m going to break the question down into sections!

So first off then: how can our trade communicate the good news.
(For me this raises two main questions that need considering first off,
the simple one of – how do we communicate the good news already?
Then: how do we ourselves experience or define that good news or indeed what the good news is.
You see much of our answer to the bigger question as a whole depends on the answers we give to these questions and how we predicate our response to the questions and issues in relation to being an albatross, dodo or jewel I think.)

My response to the question of good news issues can be summed up in the fact that we are the good news not the books we sell, the books are tools but we are the witness, the living proof and so therefore it is our actions in the heart of the community, our local community, that actually communicates the good news and not the books/music/gifts we sell.
(This is really quite a freeing idea if we properly embrace it …
Think being sent out and not needing two coats etc, think about being the witness by the sharing of verbal word, attitude and action and not by written books or arcane wwjd codes! Think radical hospitality as just a few ways this works.)

So ok that’s a great theory or spiritually fulfilling outlook but in practice our job is actually to sell Christian product and to be a solvent venture while doing it or we aren’t in our trade or in business! So how do we reconcile these things – turn the theory to practical expression when the way we’ve done it before doesn’t seem to be working so well anymore?

Is it coffee shops, more secularisation and hiding our light under a bushel, a little bit of abramic selling out or peter like denial to survive?

No and Yes.

Yes – we widen our outreach to where it should be – the wider community, that’s the wider secular community and not just the churched community, after all that’s where the good news needs to be if we are talking of us communicating it! Because surely those in the churches already have it (though they might need a bit of re-education and a reminder on occasion).

So is this selling out?  Shouldn’t be, but ask yourself what your local community needs, is it really another coffee shop sandwiched in between the others on the high streets? Or could it do with a general bookshop/stationers, toy shop, health food store, secondhand bookshop to fill the library decrease gap, haberdashery or hardware store etc etc etc
All these things are not in anyway in conflict with Christian books and do nothing to lessen the communicating of the Good News – however there is not a reason to my mind for the Christian Books to be shunted to the back of the shop to make room for these others things so as to make the shop more acceptable to the secular shoppers, instead they should work together in tandem so that the buyers/browsers of one interact with the buyers/browsers of the other and in so doing act as witnesses together and build up the community as a whole and show clearly that being a Christian is not an extreme sport for the minority or radicalised but is instead something normal, real and liveable (and in so doing make the questions askable and the witness real) – the good news communicated through people that’s the original model after all.

Does this potential broadening of our retail offer and widening of our customer base dilute or alter our message? No!

Does this lessen our trade focus and offer? Not really – after all TMD for example aren’t lessened by the range of items they distribute, nor are Kevin Mayhew as they broaden their offerings either.

Does this broadening make us viable – possibly is the only answer here because the factors are many that determine viability but it’s certainly stands a chance of improving viability if done right!

(So does changing the focus, broadening the base make us an albatross, dodo, or jewel –as we  try to communicate the good news, well I think that really depends on how we see that good news and answer those first two questions.)

Ok ‘ in an increasingly Post Retail Era’?
I don’t think so. In fact I would go on to say that we now consume more than ever before, we buy more for less and use less for more! But it’s mostly all retail orientated still, yes people are all about cheaper and easier but not about not buying! The venue may have changed but the game of consumerism hasn’t!

But our shops are struggling, our sales are dropping like the proverbial stone in a mill pond, yes but that’s not because people aren’t buying it’s just they aren’t buying from us sadly.

(So is that due to us being retail dodo’s then – old fashioned, ugly, twee and outdated albatross shops? Or buried jewels hidden in sunken treasure chests?  )

Are we avoided because of how we look or act, what we stock or don’t or where we are situated in other words?
Possibly so.

There is for me a consideration we all need to look at and think on and that’s the fact that we in many ways over the years have managed to ghettoise ourselves to some extent, we have isolated ourselves on the desert island of being ‘Christian’ bookshops and by default and accident inferred we only serve Christians and that’s who we are there for etc
In some cases we have even gone one step further and not only infer we only serve Christians but in fact we only serve ‘Our type’ of Christian! We sometimes forget how easy it is to become trapped in our pride and prejudice and in turn become bastions of bigotry  - ‘ I am of Apollos, I am of Paul’ and when we do this we become our own downfall as we stop communicating the good news fully outwards.

I know this sounds really harsh and believe me I’m not casting stones as I’m not without sin but I do believe it is something we need to give real thought to as we outreach out – radical hospitality means talking the log out of our eye so we can use the wood to build bridges, inroads of communication and community centres.

The truth is if we open our doors wider there are lots of people out there shopping and browsing daily – it is still a national pastime.

However they aren’t using us and it’s not just because the doors are too narrow and people like playing at shop the net night and ebay gambling, it is however down to wanting more for less and I’m sorry to say there isn’t much we can do about this – it’s a producers and publishers fix, -  because while they give in and sell their  product at prices that allow their product to be devalued to such an extent that consumer mindset is full price is a rip off (and then don’t play with a fair trade ethos at heart by allowing independents the sort of terms that would ensure a more level playing field so that we can compete on price) well this seems like something we can’t beat doesn’t it.

But is it? I think we can and should campaign, shout and educate both in trade and in the secular arena – buy local campaigns, being honest in name, shame and explain tactics and finally at the end of the day if it is cheaper from Amazon then buy it from there! Of course then tell your supplier/publisher what you are doing and why – (also point out that though that may make their figures look good if they extrapolate the sheer numbers of indie customers doing that currently and then work out the outcome when those indies finally go under what the final impact to them may be maybe they’ll see that working with us is better for all, especially as there isn’t a bookshop in the country, secular or Christian, that doesn’t daily see customers come in to browse and choose books and then say to their friends or ebook/download tool _ I’ll get it from Amazon now I’ve seen it! So how many end sales lost will that really be??) Yes this is a double edged sword I’m playing with here but sometimes ‘I count my losses as gain’

So talking of Amazon what about this increasingly progressively digital generation!

First off perhaps we need to stop blaming the internet for our problems – after all the internet is just an inanimate object, a tool – it’s people that buy and that use the internet! If we are going to ascribe blame (and really should this be a blame game?) then let’s ascribe it correctly.

Wouldn’t it be better to stop seeing Amazon, Eden etc etc as the enemy and instead see them as a colleague the way we do each other – yes maybe not a best friend after all if you are on my back doorstep you are my competitor but not my enemy, we can still be friends and collegues – that same holds with internet shops, indeed they can in some cases even be an admirable ally!
Marketplace, A-shops, ebay, affiliate schemes etc all can be a radical tool in shop survival – after all in the immortal words of another big boy – every little bit helps.
We use the tools at our disposal and should thank god for them instead of bemoaning them and wailing lamentations of doom.

In this progressively digital generation there are still people out there that don’t want kindles and ebooks, that still enjoy the sensation of a real book and it’s ability to be shared with others, still people that like going in bookshops and so the rumours of the books demise are much exaggerated I think, and so too the end of all high street and independent bookshops!
However we can’t and mustn’t deny kindles and ebooks and other downloadable materials, so I advocate that here is the time we use our online competition as ally! An affiliate percentage is better than nothing while we petition our trade partners to work with us in finding a solution we can use well, be it a Christian offering like Gardners Hive, or a shop based scheme for digital download cards or cloud & app based download offerings etc. I’m not sure of the solution but I am sure we need to be working on it right now and together.

So yes it’s an increasingly digital generation but we can still be at the heart of it if we use the tools available to us.  Websites can be done cheaply – very cheaply and no one should be without one, if only for the avenue of online advertising it can open up!

Something worth remembering is that this digital generation want to be part of a community! Facebook, twitter, blogging and social networking are all proof of the want to be part of a community – yes it’s different than before but it’s still a want to be part of something more – we can be part of that something more, we can still be aprt of that community.

Lets not forget as well that the digital generation, regardless of their age, are still coming into town on Saturdays, they still want to see live bands, meet up with each other, go to the cinema, out for food, attend conventions and other events or group meetings, see their fave authors and interact with them etc – this all still leaves the door wide open for us – but probably only if we’ve widened the door for them first.

Books are not dead, our trade is not dead but it may be that they are being redefined – and to answer Eddies larger question (which I wasn’t asked to do!) yes we can still shine as jewels set in an ephod breastplate made from gold tested in the refiners fire.

Melanie Carroll

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