Another Quaker bookstore bites the dust

Not real­ly news, but Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing recent­ly ded­i­cat­ed their new Wel­come Cen­ter in what was once the FUM bookstore:

On Sep­tem­ber 15, 2007, FUM ded­i­cat­ed the space once used as the Quak­er Hill Book­store as the new FUM Wel­come Cen­ter. The Wel­come Cen­ter con­tains Quak­er books and resources for F/friends to stop by and make use of dur­ing busi­ness hours. Tables and chairs to com­fort­ably accom­mo­date 50 peo­ple make this a great space to rent for reunions, church groups, meet­ings, anniversary/birthday par­ties, etc. Reduced prices are avail­able for churches.

Most Quak­er pub­lish­ers and book­sellers have closed or been great­ly reduced over the last ten years. Great changes have occurred in the Philadelphia-area Pen­dle Hill book­store and pub­lish­ing oper­a­tion, the AFSC Book­store in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Bar­clay Press in Ore­gon. The ver­i­ta­ble Friends Book­shop in Lon­don farmed out its mail order busi­ness a few years ago and has seen part of its space tak­en over by a cof­fee­bar: pop­u­lar and cool I’m sure, but does Lon­don real­ly needs anoth­er place to buy cof­fee? Rumor has it that Britain’s pub­li­ca­tions com­mit­tee has been laid down. The offi­cial spin is usu­al­ly that the work con­tin­ues in a dif­fer­ent form but only Bar­clay Press has been reborn as some­thing real­ly cool. One of the few remain­ing book­sellers is my old pals at FGC’s Quaker­Books: still sell­ing good books but I’m wor­ried that so much of Quak­er pub­lish­ing is now in one bas­ket and I’d be more con­fi­dent if their web­site showed more signs of activity.

The boards mak­ing these deci­sions to scale back or close are prob­a­bly unaware that they’re part
of a larg­er trend. They prob­a­bly think they’re respond­ing to unique sit­u­a­tions (the peer group Quak­ers Unit­ing in Pub­li­ca­tions sends inter­nal emails around but hasn’t done much to pub­li­cize this sto­ry out­side of its mem­ber­ship). It’s sad to see that so many Quak­er decision-making bod­ies have inde­pen­dent­ly decid­ed that pub­lish­ing is not an essen­tial part of their mission.

  • I don’t see this as a Quak­er trend so much as a trend in pub­lish­ing, which is get­ting more and more con­sol­i­dat­ed. I won­der if Friends felt that pub­lish­ing was not part of their mis­sion, or if it was an activ­i­ty they could no longer sus­tain finan­cial­ly. I have no insid­er infor­ma­tion on this, just speculation.

  • Mar­tin Kelley

    Yes, it’s cer­tain­ly true that this is a larg­er trend. I jumped to the web in 1995 after the small activist press I had worked at for six years more-or-less went under as a result of eco­nom­ic pres­sures: the clos­ing of the inde­pen­dent book­stores that were our bread in but­ter com­bined with ris­ing paper costs and a con­sol­i­dat­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion net­work that was squeez­ing out high­er discounts.
    Quak­er pub­lish­ing has long been a sub­si­dized econ­o­my. There sim­ply aren’t enough of us to make a prof­itable com­mer­cial niche. One issue in all this has been seri­ous finan­cial prob­lems at some of the sub­si­diz­ers (both Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing and Pen­dle Hill have had major bud­get crises and staff lay­offs). The most impor­tant trends might not be in pub­lish­ing but in the long-term finances of some of our big Quak­er insti­tu­tions. Still, I may be biased, but if I were the Quak­er Pope, pub­lish­ing would be the last thing to go.
    An inter­nal donor sur­vey or two makes me won­der if pub­lish­ing has dropped off the pri­or­i­ty list of the cur­rent donor gen­er­a­tion. Twen­ty years ago these clos­ings would have been a scan­dal. Old­er Friends then still remem­bered Rufus Jones, Thomas Kel­ly, Howard Brin­ton and that mid-century peri­od where Friends wrote ambi­tious books for wide audi­ences – it’s amaz­ing to see how many clas­sics from that peri­od were orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished by main­stream com­mer­cial pub­lish­ing hous­es. Today these clos­ings have bare­ly reg­is­tered in the Quak­er world.

  • Points well tak­en, Mar­tin, and I do share your con­cerns about it.

  • davidin­la

    The AFSC book­store is alive and well. (I am a vol­un­teer there.) The store moved last year, along with the region­al office, from Pasade­na to down­town Los Ange­les. We no longer have a walk-in book­shop oper­a­tion, but we main­tain a web site to sup­port online order­ing, and we sell books direct­ly at Quak­er gath­er­ings and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty events. The URL for the web site is: http://​www​.afsc​store​.org.
    In my expe­ri­ence, it’s impos­si­ble to make mon­ey sell­ing Quak­er books, but enlight­ened orga­ni­za­tions under­stand the val­ue of dis­sem­i­nat­ing Quak­er thought and wit­ness both with­in and beyond the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty, and they sub­si­dize this activ­i­ty accordingly.

  • @DavidinLA: I knew there were hopes of keep­ing the AFSC book­store going after Ken Morgan’s death a few years back. I’m glad to see it continues!

  • It is well to keep the dis­tinc­tion between book­selling and book pub­lish­ing clear. Fac­ing com­pe­ti­tion from Ama­zon and oth­er online book­sellers, Quak­er book­stores cer­tain­ly have an upstream bat­tle. I’m not sure but they have to redesign them­selves from an ‘down-the-street’ book­store par­a­digm to ser­vice orga­ni­za­tions like quaker­books and AFSC have done.
    What is more remark­able is that Pen­dle Hill has cho­sen to aban­don book pub­lish­ing. They still pub­lish the invalu­able pam­phlet series, but have decid­ed not to pur­sue larg­er works. This in an age where ‘print-on-demand’ ser­vices like Light­ning­Source make pub­li­ca­tion tru­ly inexpensive.
    The Quak­er Uni­ver­sal­ist Fel­low­ship has now pub­lished two col­lec­tions of essays on Quak­er Uni­ver­sal­ism using this tech­nol­o­gy and while we are not focused on mak­ing a prof­it we are delight­ed to have our titles picked up and sold on Ama­zon as well as quaker​books​.com and uni​ver​sal​ist​friends​.org
    There are oth­er indi­vid­u­als and orga­ni­za­tions which are using this tech­nol­o­gy as well: Quak­er pub­lish­ing is not dead and I would encour­age Quak­er authors to forge ahead and say what they can!

  • Hmm, inter­est­ing. I was just telling my spe­cial friend about a new fan­ta­sy I came up with, to open up a book­store that was both a store and a non­prof­it to encour­age lit­er­a­cy, wholism, and cul­tur­al aware­ness. It even has a name for it, the name of my new blog in the mak­ing, Rain­bow Friends — Book­store, Café, and Cul­tur­al Hub. I won­der if the prob­lem with these books is that the niche is too small and homoge­nous to be sus­tain­able? My dream is to be a writer, and one that would encour­age peo­ple to be hap­pi­er and health­i­er, with a Quak­er uni­ver­sal­ist mes­sage, like my hero Walt Whitman.

  • Dear Mar­tin,
    Glad to see you are tak­ing notice of these changes. QUIP did approve a minute (see below) regard­ing the changes in Quak­er pub­lish­ing in the Quak­er world last year that we have dis­trib­uted, but bet­ter on the UK side of the pond than on this side. Thanks for this oppor­tu­ni­ty to give it wider read­er­ship. Of course QUIP is con­cerned, but we do see a shift­ing from insti­tu­tion­al pub­lish­ing to self-publishing and there is a lot of that going on.
    One encour­ag­ing note is that sales from Quaker­Books of FGC are bet­ter than ever. I actu­al­ly cred­it this to the web­site and our e-mail newslet­ters — both Book Mus­ings (http://​www​.quaker​books​.org/​m​u​s​i​n​gs/)and Angeli­na Conti’s very fine Author Inter­views (http://​www​.quaker​books​.org/​i​n​t​e​r​v​i​e​ws/). Our very large annu­al cat­a­log has helped as well, though that is expen­sive to do, anoth­er ser­vice to Friends. Of course, the sad piece of this is that some of the increase in our sales are a result of the clos­ing of oth­er Quak­er out­lets. I do agree that Bar­clay Press’s web­site is exem­plary and we hope to emu­late and learn from some of their won­der­ful ideas, as well as offer­ing more com­pelling oppor­tu­ni­ties for par­i­ti­pa­tion from our site’s users.
    Lucy Dun­can, prini­pal­ly speak­ing as co-clerk of QUIP (www​.quak​er​.org/​q​uip)
    Here’s the minute from our annu­al meet­ing, 2007.
    07 – 23 Changes in Quak­er publishing
    The top­ic was intro­duced by hear­ing read our minute 06 – 11.
    Since then fur­ther changes have hap­pened in the Unit­ed States. Friends Unit­ed Meet­ing now dis­trib­utes only its own pro­duc­tions, online and by mail order. Their walk-in book­store has closed. This fur­ther shrink­age in US Quak­er book­stores strength­ens our con­cerns about the reduc­tions in pub­li­ca­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion pro­grammes around the world. We not­ed that dis­tri­b­u­tion is just as impor­tant as pub­lish­ing – if one can­not sell a book, why pub­lish it?
    Min­istry which is income pro­duc­ing is now often mea­sured by whether it pays for itself. But Friends are per­fect­ly will­ing to pay for oth­er sorts of min­istry with­out the need to realise a mon­e­tary gain.
    From the pub­lish­ing point of view Peter Daniels told us that the posi­tion of Britain Year­ly Meet­ing pub­li­ca­tions com­mit­tee is uncer­tain at present and there is a mora­to­ri­um on projects in the pipeline. Quak­er Life is reor­gan­is­ing its com­mit­tees and a review of pub­lish­ing is going on at present.
    Pub­lish­ing is at its heart about intel­lec­tu­al and finan­cial risk-taking, nur­tur­ing a min­istry of writ­ing and spot­ting ideas that might catch fire.
    As mem­bers of Quak­ers Unit­ing in Pub­li­ca­tion (QUIP) we feel it impor­tant to stress that being pub­lish­ers of truth is a key part of who Quak­ers are. We urge those who dis­cern pri­or­i­ties and make finan­cial deci­sions to remem­ber that the min­istry of pub­lish­ing is as essen­tial to our work as Friends as it has always been. While we wel­come new forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that sup­port the work of Friends, spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion also requires books old and new.
    We ask the clerks to ensure that this minute is dis­trib­uted wide­ly and appropriately.

  • @Lucy: A lit­tle Quaker­books self-promotion on my site? Classy.
    Thanks for past­ing the QUIP minute here. Google and Yahoo search­es show that this is the first time that any QUIP mem­bers have put this online. You shouldn’t have to be a mem­ber of the Quak­er bureau­cra­cy to be able to see this minute. The last year-plus has made me real­ize just how pur­pose­ful­ly opaque Quak­ers insti­tu­tions are in pub­lic, as most crit­i­cal infor­ma­tion pass­es by gos­sip. Then again, who cares?