Planning group recommends closure of Toronto retail bookstore

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A committee analyzing the work and budget of the Anglican Church of Canada’s national office has recommended closing the Anglican Book Centre’s retail store in Toronto in July 2007 and moving to an Internet and telephone-based operation.

“The trend is that sales are declining. In September 2006, compared to September 2005, we were down nearly $50,000 in sales and that trend is continuing,” said Archbishop Andrew Hutchison, the primate. He and financial managers presented the committee’s recommendations to a meeting on Oct. 3 of all national office staff.

In a statement to the church, the group wrote that “it is our opinion that the bookstore is the victim of the times. The staff group that has run the bookstore for the past year has done hard, imaginative and heroic work to make a success of the operation … and yet, despite these efforts, sales continue to slide and the bookstore continues to lose money and to need subsidy from other parts of the General Synod budget.

“This, sadly, seems to be the fate of most small and specialized bookstores. Within walking distance of (the national office), we have seen several small bookstores close in the past few years. We believe that this process is irreversible and that the ABC bookstore operation as it currently exists can neither be maintained nor justified.”

Under the new business model, the 12 bookstore staff would work in Internet or telephone sales or the warehouse. “Some of the staff, should they decide to look elsewhere (for employment), there is nine months in which to do it,” said Archbishop Hutchison, adding that the United Church of Canada closed its bookstore in 2001 in favour of online and telephone sales “and doesn’t regret it.”

The group is also recommending that General Synod’s annual grant to 11 northern, less-affluent dioceses be frozen at its 2006 level of $2.4 million and that those dioceses develop plans by 2008 to move toward self-sufficiency. At the same time, he said, “we have to recognize that one or two dioceses will never get there,” citing as an example the sparsely-populated diocese of the Yukon. The committee also recommended that the Anglican Journal’s annual grant be frozen at $585,000 for one year.

The committee also suggested that “the ministries of all departments be developed to work more collaboratively with a view toward amalgamating,” he said. For instance, he noted, the group is recommending the merger of two national committees, Partners In Mission and Eco-Justice. (Partners In Mission oversees missionary work locally and abroad, and Eco-Justice pursues social justice work within Canada concerning indigenous peoples and environmental issues.)

Archbishop Hutchison noted that the committee’s report will not become effective unless the Council of General Synod – the church’s governing body between triennial General Synod conventions – approves it at its next meeting, to be held Nov. 10-12 in Mississauga, Ont., near Toronto.

“This is a work in progress. It is not set in stone and it is not effective until CoGS says so,” said Archbishop Hutchison. However, he added, “it is very unlikely that they are going to turn back these proposals. There is no plan B.”

However, bookstore staffer Michael Wilmot said he believed “there is too much emphasis on numbers and not enough attention paid to customers and the ministry aspect of the bookstore. We have heard over and over, ‘Please, please don’t close your doors like the United Church did.'”

Archbishop Hutchison said that 75 per cent of the bookstore’s sales come via telephone or the Internet, with 25 per cent from walk-in traffic. “By removing 25 per cent of our sales, how is that helping us? A lot of (the walk-in customers) don’t know how to use the Internet. We keep talking of the Anglican Church of Canada being a ministry, but when you take away the face-to-face contact, you depersonalize it,” said Mr. Wilmot.

For the month of September, 2006, the bookstore’s gross sales were $226,664, down by $47,305, or 17 per cent, from the $273,969 recorded in September, 2005. For the first nine months of 2006, sales totaled $1.59 million, down about $320,000, or 17 per cent, from the $1.91 million recorded in the first nine months of 2005. For the full calendar year of 2005, the bookstore recorded sales of $2.89 million and a loss of about $222,000. Overall, the national church recorded a deficit of $1.1 million last year.

In an interview, bookstore warehouse manager Sarah Chandler said the news came as a shock to staff. “It wasn’t on the radar,” she said, adding that several of the staff have theological backgrounds and relate to the spiritual aspect of the book centre’s merchandise, which includes books, music, vestments, cards and other religious items.

Ms. Chandler and General Synod treasurer Peter Blachford have been managing the book center since the resignation last January of former manager Dan Benson and former assistant manager Dan Graves. “There are cries from the staff for a manager,” Archbishop Hutchison told the all-staff meeting.

After the general meeting, General Synod treasurer Peter Blachford, acting controller Jim Cullen and communications director Vianney (Sam) Carriere met with bookstore staff at the retail location on the lower floor of the national office.

Managers said other options for the bookstore are being considered, but would be long-term plans. One is relocation to the Toronto’s St. James Cathedral, several blocks south of the national office, and another is merging operations with such other churches as the United Church and Presbyterian Church of Canada.

Bookstore staffer Lisa Mitchell noted that “the people I’ve talked to appreciate the opportunity for face-to-face and hands-on interaction about books. They like holding them and flipping through them.” The question is, replied Mr. Carriere, whether “it is part of a ministry we can’t afford.”

Mr. Blachford noted that General Synod will receive $400,000 by not exercising an option to move the book centre storefront operation to a neighbouring site. Philmor Ltd., the developer of the building housing the national office, plans to build another condominium tower nearby. However, the $400,000 will not go to the bookstore, but to offset a budget provision for undesignated bequests.

Archbishop Hutchison, in the all-staff meeting, said that the planning committee also agreed on operational values for church house staff that include enhancing a positive work environment, ensuring that staff maintain a reasonable workload, building opportunities for strategic planning and ensuring that new work is financially viable and sustainable with the staff available.

He noted that the planning committee was formed out of a mandate from CoGS at its spring 2006 meeting “to review the financial situation of General Synod.” He also said that the General Synod governing convention of 2004 had approved a framework for mission and ministry “that did not have the support of your directors. It was too ambitious and did not have the resources available.”

The committee also agreed to propose a set of operational values to CoGS “as a means of testing whether current or suggested General Synod ministries out to be undertaken or continued: They include: a) God’s mission in the world is the church’s focus locally, nationally and internationally, b) All ministry initiatives need to be both realistic and balanced (in terms of human and financial resources), c) All ministry initiatives will contribute to building healthy congregations and leadership, d) We affirm and encourage ecumenical collaboration in carrying out our mission and ministry and e) Work at finding appropriate ways of investing for the future of our mission and ministry.

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Solange De Santis was a reporter for the <em>Anglican Journal</em> from 2000 to 2008.

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