From a mustard seed…
Christian Bookshop Day 14 October 2023
To celebrate Christian Bookshop Day, we’re visiting Mustard Seed Christian book and coffee shop in the heart of the Wiltshire town of Marlborough. Just moments away from a bustling high street, Mustard Seed offers an oasis of peace in a former boathouse on the banks of the River Kennet. It has been Rachel Maurice’s ‘fourth child’ for over 30 years.
Rachel Maurice + Team = Mustard Seed
‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a Christian bookshop in Marlborough and didn’t have to go all the way to Swindon to get books for the Bible study group.’ So said one of Rachel Maurice’s friends, way back in 1989, long before internet shopping and digital books.
‘Wouldn’t it be nice if…’
It was the (mustard) seed from which a thriving Christian book and coffee shop grew, serving the town and surrounding community to this day.
Rachel had a background in Christian publishing. ‘At the time, the perceived wisdom was you couldn’t have a Christian bookshop where there’s a population of less than 100,000, it just won’t work. Well, Marlborough GP surgery had just 12,000 people on its books so we felt it would only ever work if we could have it with a coffee shop.’
‘We had virtually no money and only a small team…’
Books had always been a big part of Rachel’s life, but even with a personal passion and experience in the business, she wouldn’t have taken the project on without her friend Deborah, a special needs teacher and new Christian who sadly died three years ago. ‘We had virtually no money and only a small team, but there was a redundant church at the end of the high street and Deborah persuaded the trustees to let us set up there. A few of us put in about £3,000 to buy stock and bookcases and there was a small kitchen so we could serve teas and coffees: filtered or instant, there were no lattes or flat whites in those days.’
An architect friend designed the Mustard Seed logo (which was updated about ten years ago) and they opened in St Peter’s in October 1990 and stayed until 1997.
‘It worked well for a time, but it wasn’t our space,’ says Rachel. ‘We had to pack everything away when there were concerts in the building and eventually there was a move to raise our rent beyond what we felt was reasonable, so we started looking for a new home.’When Mustard Seed was originally set up, the founders didn’t want to be linked to any particular church in town and they’ve always drawn their volunteers, and customers, from across the churches. A trust was set up, as Rachel explains: ‘The Charity Commission would only accept the bookshop, but not the coffee shop, so there was Mustard Seed Trust, which is the bookshop, and Mustard Seed Limited, which is the coffee shop. The trustees of the charity were the directors of the company and the company covenanted its profits to the bookshop, so they never had to pay tax and that’s been the continuing legal framework.’
Marlborough High Street rents in the 1990s were extremely high but then an old boathouse in the Waitrose car park came on to the market. Originally it had been the boathouse to the private house that used to be on the site and had been done up, after a fashion, in the late 1980s but it’s still got the original flagstones and ‘is quite damp!’ When they went to look at the building people were discouraging: ‘Oh, nothing ever works there. There’s been loads of vandalism because it’s in a dark car park on a Friday night and so on and so on.’
Undeterred, Rachel and Deborah decided they would buy the boathouse. They tidied it up, built a small extension and moved in in the autumn of 1997.
‘We chose the name Mustard Seed to suggest something that’s very small to begin with but then grows into something generous and inclusive: that wonderful image of a seed which grows in to a tree so large that all the birds of the air can rest in its branches. That’s always been what we’ve wanted the atmosphere to be and that’s why our stock has always reflected a wide range of Christian spirituality, and why we didn’t want to be linked to any particular denomination or particular viewpoint.’
As for many Christian bookshops, the serial lockdowns of the pandemic proved an enormous challenge. Even now, Mustard Seed opening times are much shorter than pre-pandemic, with only a recent return to Saturday opening. But what is it about Mustard Seed that has enabled it to survive when so many Christian retailers didn’t?
‘The ones that have survived,’ says Rachel, ‘have largely been small independents that have had a role within the community, where people in the community feel an affinity, a loyalty to the shop and recognise that it’s a resource that’s worth supporting. Also, and this is special to Marlborough, we're a community with quite a lot of people with learning difficulties because there used to be a huge hospital in Pewsey which closed down when the care in the community policy was introduced. People really appreciate the fact that we have three people with learning difficulties working in Mustard Seed.’
Even so, since 1990 the bookselling industry has gone through huge changes and unprecedented challenges with the shift to Amazon and online selling. How has Rachel coped with that? ‘We knew we needed a website but we were never going for a big online presence: we were always about being local, and about meeting people and about showing something of Jesus in how we treated people. So, one thing that’s made a huge difference to us is bookshop.org which was started in America but came over here through the Booksellers Association. It’s a way in which bricks and mortar bookshops are able to compete online.’
So what is Rachel’s stock philosophy: how does she choose what she puts on her shelves?
‘I can’t sell something I don’t believe in.’
‘It’s inevitably influenced by my own theology,’ she says, ‘because I can’t sell something that deep down, I don’t believe in, or don’t find life-giving. In the early days, there were many more publishers’ reps and you built up relationships with certain publishers, but that’s far less the case today. Over the last ten years, there’s been a huge rise in small Christian publishers so it’s become a much more fragmented industry.’
Rachel has been a friend of BRF Ministries author and vice president George Lings for many years and when she read his Seven Sacred Spaces: Portals to deeper community life in Christ she realised that it articulated the approach she has always taken to Mustard Seed.
‘I’ve come for peace and a bit of time on my own.’
‘I hadn’t realised but when I read the book, it enabled me to see that that’s almost exactly what we offer. People come into Mustard Seed, and quite often they’ll say, “I’ve come for the peace and a bit of time on my own.” So we clearly provide “cell space” for people. “Refectory”: obviously the coffee shop does that. We’re also a “cloister” where people come to meet, intentionally, or they just get talking to strangers and amazing conversations spring up spontaneously.
‘In terms of “scriptorium”, there are the books, the resources… For “garden”, there’s the sense of meaningful, purposeful work. Most of our volunteers would say working here gives a structure and a purpose to their week, and certainly it gives the people with learning difficulties a sense of belonging to a team and a meaningful workplace. In terms of “chapter”, decision-making: we try to run it very collaboratively with staff and volunteers.
‘The tricky one is “chapel” in that we do not see ourselves as alternative church, but we do spend a few minutes in prayer committing the day to God before opening each morning. I think what George is saying is that that model is not just about space, it’s about a balanced way of Christian living, and that’s exactly what we do.’
It might be obvious from all Rachel has already said, but why is it important that people support their local Christian bookshop?
‘First, I think if people value the community they live in and feel that one of their values is something about the communal life, whether it be your local Christian bookshop or any of the other independents, part of what gives a town its identity is having shops, and if they’re all generic and big chains, there’s no personality.
‘… they thought we look normal and that's really great!’
‘Second, if Christians think that having some sort of a Christian presence within the community that isn’t a church building and isn’t too religious, is important, then a Christian bookshop is one of the best ways we can do that. Certainly we are known by the wider community to be a Christian shop but I’m thrilled when somebody comes in and says, “Have you got a Len Deighton…” or a whatever, because obviously we haven’t looked odd from the outside: they thought we look normal and that’s really great!’
‘It’s lovely to see you’re still here.’
Rachel cannot speak highly enough of ‘Team Mustard Seed’: the staff, volunteers and trustees who have worked on the team over all these years, sharing their time and their gifts to ensure not just the survival but the flourishing of Mustard Seed. Asked about the impact Mustard Seed has had on the life of the local community over so many years, Rachel can’t say, but what she can say is this: ‘All I know is that over the years, so many people have come in and said “It’s lovely to see you’re still here… You have no idea what this place meant to me while my marriage was falling apart and I came in every weekend… or my mum bought me here for tea after school and it’s just been such a special place to me.” It's those sorts of stories that are so brilliant, that’s why there’s so much love for Mustard Seed.’
Rachel with coffee shop manager Claudia, ‘who has an amazing gift for hospitality’.
To find out more about Seven Sacred Spaces and free supporting material click here
To find out more about Christian Bookshop Day visit booksaremybag.com