Let us hope for imagination for the new ABC

Published December 1, 2006

In The Story of My Life, a new musical that premiered in Toronto last month, the majority of its scenes take place in a bookstore – a place that the protagonists, friends named Tom and Alvin, call a “marvelous magical modular miracle maker.”

The description might be a bit precious and klutzy, but those who love bookstores will instantly recognize the point. A shop that sells books is a place where magic happens, where people get together and discover the riches of the world, and a bookstore focused on spirituality adds an extra, meaningful dimension.

As reported on p. 1, the Council of General Synod (CoGS) has accepted the recommendation of a committee reviewing the operations of the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office in Toronto that the Anglican Book Centre (ABC) close its storefront operation in favor of concentrating on telephone and Internet sales.

The book centre is an internationally-known retailer of books, CDs, vestments, cards, parish supplies, icons, other decorative religious items and “holy hardware” such as chalices. It has an extensive children’s section and many of its staff have theological training.

The operations committee, which includes national office managers, notes that the bookstore’s sales have been declining in recent years, small bookstores everywhere are closing and competition on the Internet is extensive.

All this is true, but the picture is not quite so simple. As recently as 2002, the bookstore reported a profit. It has been haphazardly managed in the past four years, caught up in a poorly-executed move to new quarters, where it was tucked into a basement location. Customers complain that it is now difficult to find and parking is much more limited.

About a year ago, its two top managers departed and were not replaced; since then, a committee of staff and managers from the finance and communications departments of General Synod (the church’s national office) has managed the store’s affairs.

A 2005 report commissioned by General Synod’s management team recommended the bookstore have a director at the same level as church house’s management team, but this recommendation was never implemented. In addition, development of the store’s Web site has been slow.

Since the announcement, staff and customers have been vocal in their protests. There has been no mention of layoffs. The church already owns the space and if it contemplates retaining the 12 staff and redeploying people in the telephone, Internet and warehouse operation, where are the savings purported to necessitate the closure?

As staff and customers point out, ABC is more than a store: it is part of the church’s face-to-face ministry. On a recent lunch hour, that was much in evidence as an 82-year-old customer sought advice as to which edition of the Bible she might give her grandchildren. Another customer wanted to know if the store carried small, capped bottles for carrying anointing oil. Both received personal attention and left with exactly the purchases they sought.

Even the online book retailers – with the exception of Amazon.com – maintain huge bookstores in urban centers. At Indigo, you can get a latte in the attached cafe and while away hours with a book.

What seems to be missing concerning ABC is a spark of imagination. Religion, and Christianity in particular, has seldom been more evident in the public discourse. The book The Da Vinci Code and the film The Passion of the Christ attracted millions of seekers. Questions about God, ethics and spirituality are in the media daily.

Surely ABC could be marketed in a livelier manner. Like so many individual churches, it seems to sit there and wait for people to come. When they do, they find a rewarding experience, but there has been little energy for marketing in recent years. A staff committee and accountants can hardly be expected to do that job.

The bookstore could also benefit from a solid analysis of its competition. Even some church leaders have been heard to say that they buy their books at other stores, such as the one at Toronto’s Wycliffe College, because the prices are better. A quick comparison shows that ABC retails a new biography of Desmond Tutu called Rabble-Rouser for Peace at the publisher’s list price of $34.99. Amazon.ca offers it at about $28 including shipping; Indigo.ca lists it at $27, again including shipping. To be sure, the bookstore has a vast range of theological volumes that are harder to find elsewhere.

The point might also be made to the customers: use it or lose it. When sales figures for September show that vestment sales are roughly half what they were a year ago, one has to ask where Anglican clergy are making their purchases.

It is encouraging that CoGS also approved a motion to create a joint working group that will develop and monitor a business plan for ABC’s future. Let us hope that the passion for the book centre can be translated into real, imaginative action to rejuvenate this historic resource.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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