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.’
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?
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!