It has long been perhaps the most dangerous Catholic bookshop in London. “It’s terrible, this place,” customers have been heard to complain. “You think you’ll just pop in, and you leave with four books.” Whether it was the warm ambience, the cheerful staff, or just the excellent selection, the Catholic Truth Society (CTS) bookshop was a haven for the discerning reader. Alongside the books and handy pamphlets for which CTS is renowned, you could find theological classics, new books from both sides of the Atlantic, and plenty of writings by and about the saints.
But on January 31, more than 90 years after it opened outside Westminster Cathedral, the outlet will be closing its doors for the last time. It follows the closure of the Manchester shop in 2012 and leaves CTS, a venerable publishing house, without a physical shop; though the internet is where most of its business happens anyway, and it is preparing to launch a new website.
Fergal Martin, who will retire as CTS’s general secretary in January, gave a simple reason for the closure: rents have increased to “way beyond what we can afford”, he told the Herald last week. And it’s true that the local area, close to Victoria station, now gleams with new bars, restaurants and upmarket shops.
But the end of the CTS bookshop is part of a bigger story of changes in reading culture and the Catholic community. The Padre Pio bookshop, also in the Westminster area, closed last year. In Ireland, meanwhile, the Catholic book chain Veritas will close three of its nine shops in January. (Its origins, incidentally, lie in the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland, formed shortly after the CTS in London.)
And it’s not just Catholic retailers which are finding it hard to continue. The number of independent bookshops fell every year from 2005 to 2017. It has stabilised in the last year, but is still just 868, down from more than 1500 in 2005. Surveys suggest people would like to read more, but don’t have the time … or at any rate, their time is ever more occupied by smartphones and laptops.
In any case, a Catholic bookshop is nobody’s idea of a get-rich-quick scheme. In 1980, the Herald reported that the bookshop might not survive much longer: the then general secretary, David Murphy, said there had been a “nasty cutback in sales”. The bookshop was “a drain on our resources”, he pointed out. “We run it, not to make a profit or a loss, but as a service to the Catholic community.”
Since 1926, when the shop first opened, it has been a fine expression of CTS’s values: good books which advance the faith. And, indeed, defend the faith: when Hans Küng published his notorious book Infallible?, the CTS bookshop declined to stock it. General secretary Thomas Rittner explained: “I do not think anyone would expect to find on the shelves of the CTS bookshop a book which tries to invalidate one of the doctrines of the Catholic Faith.” To criticism from liberal Catholics, he replied with a hint of irony that he could not be persuaded to act against his conscience. Three years later, his successor Murphy banned two periodicals on similar grounds: “Selling these magazines is not in accordance with the objectives of our society, which is the spreading of the Gospel.”
Now the CTS’s mission continues online. One consolation is that, in an age when most people are plugged into the internet, that won’t stop it from making books widely available. The closure is a cause for real sadness, but 40 years ago it would have been more like a disaster.
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