Dear Oxfam; Or, A Humble Petition

The ever-expanding chain of 130 Oxfam bookshops raises millions of pounds to fight poverty around the world. Their volunteer army sells over 12,000,000 books a year, most of them nearly-new paperbacks like these Advance Reading Copies. The chain receives plenty of older books too– but what happens to them?

Last July Mr. Marc Harrison of Ellwood Books in Salisbury hung up his ‘back in five minutes’ sign and never came back. His takings had slumped by more than £2,000 a month but the culprit was not the intangible recession or the fickle mood of the public. It was the solid and uncompromising form of a nearby Oxfam Bookshop that had opened 18 months previously. The town’s other two bookshops had closed down within six months of Oxfam opening and Mr Harrison famously dubbed the chain ‘the Tesco of the second-hand book world.’

proof copies

Proof copies at 99p each, anyone? Nope, thought not. Where are the real books?

Fair Trade? He didn’t think so and to Oxfam’s astonishment neither did anyone else. The story made the national press and the slick suits back at HQ soon discovered that their soothing mantra of ‘it’s all for charity so that’s all right then’ no longer worked. It was particularly ineffectual on the second-hand book trade, which, it turned out, had been seething for years and spoiling for a fight. The gloves came off and Oxfam’s core policies, trading advantages and charitable status were given a good going over. All sorts of Rumours emerged: the chain deliberately targeted towns with existing bookshops, for example, and apparently just 20% of their takings reaches the ‘good cause.’

Another rumour was confirmed recently in Book and Magazine Collector by Peter Moore of the PBFA. Many collectors had noticed that there never seemed to be any decent books in the shops. They were certainly donated, but why did they never reach the shelves? The answer lies in a statement issued after the PBFA and Oxfam met last November:

“Members of the book trade, naturally enough, would prefer to see the better books entering the trade rather than going to a charity whose staff, on the whole, cannot have the knowledge to process the books to best effect. To put it simply: Oxfam would prefer to receive £100 in cash rather than a carton of books. As booksellers we would be happy to pay £100 in order to acquire a carton of books.”

I bet. Phil R Shelves? No thanks!

Oxfam’s cushy arrangement to offload all those pesky books at wholesale prices to The Inside Ring of lucky PBFA members is outrageous. Both sides appear to have forgotten the most important part of the equation: us. Book collectors outnumber and outspend dealers hand down, in the light of which might I presume to offer Oxfam a humble petition on behalf of the people who spend millions a year on the very books you seem to find so problematical?

Firstly, we want to see those books. The lack of them makes your shops bland and Lifeless. You have edged out our old haunts, replaced serendipity with homogeneity and locked away the past in a hot glass display box behind the counter. Now you’ve carved out a deal to flog the best stuff from the back door. Those better books are donated by people who trust you to do the utmost, rather than the least, to maximise their potential. It is not an option; it is your duty, and the repercussions of failing in this duty are very serious. A few years ago those very books were on the shelves of the local shops you have replaced. What is so insurmountably difficult about putting them back there so that we can buy them again in that quaint, old-fashioned way? Listing them on line is not enough, by the way – we want to see them, hold them and judge them for ourselves.

Secondly, recruit new staff from the world of old books. Many managers clearly have no idea about edition, condition and pricing; on the other hand a few are making a pretty good job of it. When I last visited the shop in Canterbury, for instance, it looked more or less like a proper bookshop. There were plenty of older books and browsing was how it should be – fun. I’d also like to see Book and Magazine Collector sold in every branch. Turn your customers into collectors and profits will soar. Your volunteers would pick up a thing or two along the way as well: staff who know their stuff shift units.

Thirdly, I like your Grand Ambition. Open more shops. The country needs them, but why not target towns that have recently lost a bookshop?


Walk on by... better books would attract big-spending book collectors.

Some dealers do not mind Oxfam as neighbours but many more do. You should at least test the water by consulting interested local parties. What makes this whole affair so sad is that your shops are almost great. The general public like them, all you need do now is cater for big-spending collectors by letting us buy your better books. Show us the goods! We’ve got the cash – do you want it?

Oxfam’s controversial policies continue to attract comment, most recently an elegant shoeing from novelist Susan Hill who branded the chain ‘bullies and thugs’ in The Spectator. Whatever your views the bright new things of the old-book trade are here to stay and Oxfam, dealers and collectors are All In This Together. Collectors, however, are the foundations of the old-book trade and by far the greatest part of the pyramid that now has the Oxfam empire at the top. With a little effort Oxfam could have our respect, support and admiration rather than our resentment, derision and antipathy. I know what relationship I would rather be in.

What’s your opinion? Is your local Oxfam bookshop the real thing or is it suspiciously free from nice books? What do you think of the pricing? How could the shops be improved? Join the debate and send in a comment here. If collectors feel strongly about the issues I’ll deliver a real petition of your views to Oxfam’s Head Office later in the year!

13 Responses to “Dear Oxfam; Or, A Humble Petition”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Michael Lieberman, Wessel & Lieberm. Wessel & Lieberm said: Dear Oxfam; Or, A Humble Petition. Collector wants Oxfam to rethink its strategy of wholesaling its better books […]

  2. Oxfam shops across the UK are now able to list their secondhand books online with AbeBooks and reach an international market of book buyers. Shelves Wholesale

  3. Emmanuel says:

    You’d be mortified at the volume of rare and wonderful books trashed by charity shops. I regularly peek inside waste containers belonging to charity shops (including Oxfam), and amongst the banana peels and smashed bric-a-brac there is always book goodness. This wastefulness is rife in the provinces.

    As far as I can ascertain, reasons for binning books vary. Lack of shelf-space. Lack of shelf-esteem. If a book “doesn’t show up on the internet” it is thrown out. Old foreign language books are unfailingly binned. If a book is tatty it is discarded – insanely, even a tatty dustjacket gives the illusion of tattiness. William North’s City of the Jugglers was found – a deceptively unattractive and shabby binding, but fantastic story (rare, too). Elsewhere, books of a specific topic are binned; usually poetry and religion – but once a cache of desirable 1930s east-Asian cookery books – my favourite: a bin full of Strindberg firsts).

    Broaching the topic with staff is fruitless. Allusions are made to an invisible ‘management’. Offers to buy unwanted stock, or for that matter any acquisitiveness on the part of the customer – however altruistic – is greeted with flapping or tutting.

  4. Mark Ellingham says:

    I don’t quite recognise this picture of Oxfam bookshops. Has anyone been to the brilliant Oxfam Bookshop in Marylebone High Street? It’s a great secondhand book (and record) shop, well organised and full of discoveries. It even has Book & Magazine Collector prominently for sale on the counter. Oh – and just a few doors along is one of the best new bookshops in the country, Daunts, which is even more full of hand-picked gems. Both bookshops seem to thrive and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the presence of visiting both a positive attraction.

  5. Sean Montgomery says:

    These shops sound great for the collector but could be dangerous for the generalist used bookseller. Perhaps they will be useful as thrift stores like Salvation Army and Goodwill are in the US for finding treasures to sell. Then the specialist or antiquarian seller might have a newer source of material. Of course if Oxfam or any charitable organization hires dealers to help them sort the books then the fox will truly be in the hen house!

  6. Mike Morris says:

    I totally agree with Emmanuel above, and you only have to read this thread on the Sheffield web forum to see the arrogance of Oxfam:

    And yet it used to be so different. When I was a student I must have bought hundreds of books from Oxfam, many of them tatty old paperbacks often at 10p or thereabouts. True, that was 30 years ago, but now the shelves of Oxfam (and indeed all the other charity shops that have followed suit) are utterly uninteresting, full of glossy new-looking overpriced chick-lit. Indeed the Oxfam bookshop in Otley now has a notice saying that they won’t accept yellowed or tatty paperbacks.. so whereas charity shops used to be glad for anything you could give them, now they want to cherry-pick the best stuff and throw the rest back in your face.

    Consequently I can’t remember the last time I bought a book from a charity shop and usually if I go to a new town I don’t even bother going into the Oxfam bookshop. Books on car boot sales tend to be much more interesting as well as a lot cheaper. Incidentally I think the caption on your picture must be wrong: you will do well to find any book in an Oxfam bookshop which is 99p.

  7. Elliot says:

    Like Mark, i don’t recognise the Oxfam Bookshops described. I live in the Midlands where we have the benefit of at least four excellent Oxfam Bookshops. Each is slightly different but all have a wide selection of “old” and “interesting” books from vintage kids to rare local history volumes. Yes they all have a wall of fiction which includes chic lit. But venture further into the shops and you can usually find an item that gets the heart pumping. I too was concerned to read in the Book and Magazine Collector (purchased from an Oxfam shop) about the alleged deal between Oxfam and the PBFA members. I’ve asked a couple of staff about it and they’ve told me they’re not aware of any such “deal”. Certianly it doesn’t appear to have changed the stock in their shops in recent months. I can still always find plenty of special items to add to my collections. Yes it’s true that their books tend to be priced more acurately than other charity books shops – but is that really something to complain about? If they were lucky enough to have a Penny Black donated would we expect them to sell it for a penny just because they are a chairty and it was donated to them. Come on guys. I personally think Susan Hill has got it the wrong way round. It’s Oxfam that is being bullied. Everyone is taking pot shots at the chairty but the truth is that the causes predomiantely lie elsewhere. Oxfam are just an easier target – being busy trying to aid people and less likely to waste donor funds on defending themselves.

    • betweenthelines says:

      Here is the report from The Guardian about the Oxfam/PBFA stitch-up. The plain truth is that Oxfam bookshops are no substitute for the ones they replace; on the other hand they are not solely responsible for the decline of the second-hand bookshop. It is not a case of what they are, but of what they could be: vastly more profitable, far more interesting, valuable to book collectors and so on. It is the wasted opportunity and the arrogance that annoys collectors.

      • Elliot says:

        Because it’s reported in the Guardian that makes it the plain truth? We all know that the media can interperate things in a certain way. Have you asked Oxfam directly? As I said, I asked Oxfam staff and they seemed to know nothing of this new arrangement.

        • betweenthelines says:

          The part you refer to is a verbatim quote from the (ex)chairman of the PBFA; it is directly attributable and can be taken as the truth. As for the staff members you spoke to, perhaps you asked some that Trading Director David McCullough forgot to phone and directly inform of the boards’ latest trading strategies. I’m sure he’ll get round to it soon.

  8. Becky says:

    I despair at some of the comments people have left about Oxfam Bookshops. I love my local Oxfam Bookshop. The staff are friendly and approachable. I’ve also witnessed the heart warming charity they display towards “customers” that clearly are very lonely and need a little human contact. I spend quite a lot of time in there, browsing the kids section looking for a vintage children’s book to add to my collection, I’ve never seen any member of their team turn away a donation. In fact, when people enquire about what will be done with any books not put on sale, more often than not they are told that they will be sent onto other shops in the network, listed online or worst case recycled into items they use in the shops. Ofcourse I don’t know whether this is the truth but neither have I any reason not to trust what they say. I have also witnessed how some donors have specifically said they are dontaing to Oxfam because they know they will not just mark valuable books at £1.00. If I should ever be able to bring myself to donate any of my collection, my local Oxfam will be my number one choice to receive my donation.

  9. Helen says:

    I will no longer shop at Oxfam for books. People – including me – used to buy books from charity shops because they could not afford to buy new. With supermarket prices now relatively low and on-line sellers providing new books at similarly reduced prices, why would anyone want to pay £2.50+ for a second-hand copy of a modern paperback? Other charity shops have followed Oxfam’s example – British Heart Foundation prices are even worse in some towns. The joy of finding a tatty gem for about 20p (I have many books marked ‘6d’) has disappeared. It is so sad for those of us who do not have huge financial resources but who are genuine book lovers and would be loyal customers. Furthermore, the staff in my local Oxfam shop are arrogant and rude towards customers. I have not returned since being spoken to appallingly two years ago after a hesitant, gentle enquiry as to whether a price could be reduced at all. The mantra about it ‘being for charity’ was chanted. How about the other one that ‘charity begins at home’?

  10. David says:

    I have never found an oxfam bookshop I liked. Overpriced books which were given for nothing. Dorchester branch selling second hand Tony Blair Auto., for more than it is in Tesco, new! Middle class staff chanting the charity mantra, “it all goes to a good cause”; yes the well paid management! Misguided pricing, probably using the internet for the highest price or the infamous Miller’s Guides. Generally the staff have not a clue about social interaction, take-it or leave-it and pay the price, and “by golly aren’t you lucky you found that nice book here, as all the second hand book-shops round here have closed now”. I stopped giving books to charity when they started to nit-pick about quality, condition and bulk, “we don’t have the space”. Check out the pallets of books available on ebay which were charity shop rejects. Free books, free staff, the sky’s the limit. I only hope other charities start to develop book bins at superstores. British Legion, Help the Heroes, R.S.P.C.A.? Oxfam will prpobably moan, how unfair!

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