Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Charity begins at home.

An interview with Waterstone’s this week, the ongoing rumblings about Oxfam and others undercutting the independent sector, The Guardian list of the country’s 10 best second hand bookshops and a thought provoking blog on the subject from Other Stories have all made me think about bookselling far more than I ordinarily might. My city centre used to have an excellent choice of second hand, charity, discount, independent and chain bookstores. Times have changed and all but one of the second hand shops have moved from the city centre, either to more picturesque surroundings, or onto the internet. With the exception of The Works all the discount shops have gone, and what was once 3 floors of Dillon’s is now 2 floors of Waterstone’s with a travel agents and a cafe.

Two years ago this was all a bit depressing; Waterstone’s was not in my opinion enjoying its finest hour, the best of the second handers decided to save on rent by moving the good stuff online and the rest onto a market stall and a decent independent finally shut up shop. Since then however things have improved tremendously; Waterstone’s has begun to resemble its heyday once more and a dedicated charity bookshop (Age Concern) has moved into the town centre. Moreover a collection of second hand (charity and independent) bookshops seem to be coexisting in mutual benefit around both the cities universities.

In all honesty I’m sceptical about claims that the charities are damaging independents, many of whom manage to sell their stock for less despite having to buy it in. The upside of depending on donated stock must be that your getting the sort of books that (especially when new) reflect what people buy and want to read, the considerable downside is the impossibility of guaranteeing supply, even more critical for specialist retailers

I do believe though that many second hand retailers are out of tune with what customers want. I’ll walk into any bookshop I see but there are minimum requirements I expect to be met if I’m to walk back again, these are a) some attempt at dividing stock into categories, b) alphabetical order or some similar discipline imposed on the books c) service which isn’t actually rude, patronizing or openly aggressive d) regular opening hours that follow some sort of recognizable pattern.

My local charity shops excel at all of the above, the staff might not always be terribly knowledgeable, but without exception they are extremely helpful, choice might be limited but the relatively high turnover of stock make regular visits worthwhile. The best shops I know are opposite each other, nobody goes to one without visiting the other, and it’s rare not to make a purchase in both. The worst shop I know fails on every count to offer or deliver anything approaching customer service, how he remains in business is a mystery understood presumably only by his accountant.

Generally I don’t think it matters very much who’s selling second hand books, as long as we can buy them. For anybody willing to adapt and evolve now is a really exciting time, independent publishers are producing amazing things, the internet has improved availability and awareness of works in a way almost beyond imagination and we still love shops. In short there are still plenty of ways to make money in bookselling, so why shouldn’t the charities get some of it, and why on earth is Oxfam especially being criticised? If they do a better job than their predecessors that’s not a fault, it’s a lesson to be learned and good on them for teaching it.


  1. I don't mind books loosely arranged in categories all helter skelter. People don't put things back properly and it is too labor intensive to keep checking and rearranging the stock. Also, higgledy piggledy arrangements lead to many serendipitous discoveries/

  2. Interesting thoughts. I'm sceptical too about how much Oxfam damages things; should we not be pleased that they have found such a good way to raise money? It makes me feel less guilty about my purchases from there.

  3. Sherry, you have reminded me of an occasion when I worked in bookshops. After much putting off I finally spent an entire afternoon sorting out our poetry section, it was large and filled with very slim volumes, within 48 hours some customer had come in and ENTIRELY rearanged all the books in some sort of order comprehensable only to themselves. I was quite cross. I do think in city centre's that shops have to be easy to use if you want to get people on lunch breaks, and maybe it's one reason why charity shops are doing so well.