A Christian Bookshop in Marlborough started 30 years ago from a women’s Bible study group.


Rachel on the left and colleague outside Mustard Seed bookshop

How did the Mustard Seed bookshop start?

In 1989, I was a mum with three small children, and I was going to a ladies Bible study group. A discussion arose that it would be good to have a Christian bookshop in Marlborough so we would not have to go to Swindon (which is 12 miles away). Three of us – Deborah Reynolds, Gilly Price and myself – decided to look into it. I had worked in Christian publishing so knew something about the book world.

My first job was in the Religious Publishing division of Collins Publishers – as assistant to Lady Collins, who ran it. Then I did some copy-editing, moved to a Christian publishing house as assistant editor and later became editor doing some commissioning work. I had to give up my job (but did some freelance work) when my husband’s job took us out of London and when I had children.

We decided to contact the trustees of a disused church called St Peter’s at the end of the high street. They thought it was a very improbable idea but were prepared to let us have a go. We realised that a bookshop on its own was unviable so decided to combine it with a coffeeshop. At that time there were only two coffeeshops in the town – now there are over 20!

A ‘management’ group convened and someone took on responsibility for the coffeeshop, an architect offered to design a logo and helped with the layout/ furniture. We were given a loan, and I took on sourcing books, which we initially got from the Christian bookshop in Swindon. I asked if they would sell us 100 books on trade terms. Quite quickly we opened our own trade account with STL (Send the Light wholesalers and distributers). We opened Mustard Seed Christian bookshop and café at the end of 1990.

After using the disused church, the building where we are now became available in 1997. It is a little old boathouse in Waitrose car park by the River Kennet, so it’s very central. We had a couple of Christian backers who were prepared to buy the building, and we pay them rent. To actually have a place of our own seemed very significant and, at that point, we always had two staff on at a time, and everyone was paid.

How did Mustard Seed cope during COVID?

Because our mission is to embody the presence of Jesus, and to somehow give people an experience of that, we are not into fast food and online services (unlike most of the world). So lockdown with COVID was a real challenge. We did a mixture of things: we tried to keep up with our mailing list and offered times when people could collect orders from the shop while staying outside; our helpers with special needs started colouring bookmarks with Bible verses and these were put in with all the orders – this has continued and turned out to be an important ministry.

On the back of each bookmark we have a picture of who coloured it in with the message: “This has been hand coloured for you by”…and then their name. I’ve had emails from people telling me how receiving a bookmark has brought Jesus to them. I think since COVID, the ministry aspect has been much more prominent in what we do. But we still have to cover our costs. We now use volunteers in a way we never did before.


How do you compete with large online retailers like Amazon?

We can’t compete on cost necessarily, nor on speed of delivery etc but we offer human contact! We send out a monthly newsletter highlighting half a dozen new books or ones of special interest; we host a book group open to all; we can get most books within a week for customers and we have a great range of cards and gifts. We have a loyalty card too, which works out as a ten per cent discount that can be used for books as well as in the coffeeshop. In the past we had author events but have not done so since COVID.

What is the vision for Mustard Seed?

As name suggests, we knew we were starting as a small seed but prayed we would grow and the ‘the birds of the air’ could rest in our branches – the coffeeshop has been really important in this. Our strap line has been to ‘sow and nurture seeds of Christian faith’. We have never been a denominational bookshop or linked to only one church in town (Marlborough is a small market town with a population under 10,000). We have people from the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and Independent Evangelical Church working in the shop. We hope that people of faith and no faith will be comfortable here.

Our witness is in how we treat and accept people; we do not set out to evangelise them. We now have adults with learning difficulties helping, probably partly driven by the fact that my oldest son has Down’s syndrome. The basic vision has remained but some of the outworking has developed as the world has changed dramatically since 1990.

Many folk over the years have shared with us that Mustard Seed has been a significant ‘sanctuary’ for them during difficult times. We had a member of staff who had just stopped being a pagan and was further exploring Christianity. He went on to be ordained and said Mustard Seed played a significant role in his journey. Steve Goss, who went on to develop Freedom in Christ in the UK, first picked up the Freedom in Christ book in Mustard Seed. There are lots of small stories of Mustard Seed playing a significant part in people’s faith journey whether as customers or staff.

The vision remains, but how we fulfil it will evolve: initially the coffeeshop was seen as a way to make money; now it is integral to how we make Jesus known. Recently our bestsellers have been The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy; Tales of a Country Parish by Colin Heber-Percy (he is a local vicar) and then Bibles and books on spirituality or prayer.

How have books been connected to your own faith journey?

Books have been the most significant tool for growth in my life. They have opened my mind and heart to God’s spacious generosity; excited my mind as I’ve read stimulating theology and shown me new ways to pray and live with Jesus. The fact that so many great minds are Christians encourages my faith. They provide a wonderful basis for discussion and sharing faith!

Find out more at mustardseedbooks.com