NOT LONG AGO, you could buy used books donated to charity shops for a few pence. They were sold to raise money for the charity running the shop. Not only did the charities gain much needed funds, but also many unwanted books were saved from being burnt or entering our already overloaded waste disposal systems. The joy of the charity shops’ bookshelves is that you never know what you will find, and often you can discover books no longer stocked by regular high-street bookstores.
Times change, rents rise, costs increase. So, naturally, the charity bookshops do not sell most books for a few pence anymore. A charity, which shall remain unnamed, used to have two of its shops near my home. One of them had a wonderful selection of books, but was managed by an over-zealous man, who priced many of the books at ridiculously high amounts. No doubt, he hoped to raise as much money as possible for the charity he represented. If a book looked old to him, he ‘whacked’ up its price, regardless of whether or not it was scarce enough to deserve his high valuation of it. A year or two (or more) ago, his branch shop changed. The unsold books were moved ‘en masse’ to another branch of the same charity shop chain, also near my home. Even before the start of the covid19 pandemic in the UK, the overpriced books remained unsold, taking up valuable space on the shop’s bookshelves, which could have been occupied by reasonably priced volumes that sold fast. The current manager of this shop, no doubt seeing that the overpriced books hardly ever shift, has gradually reduced the amount of space for displaying books. To add insult to injury, the books are poorly sorted into categories. Why, only today I spotted the “Diary of Anne Frank” on the Fiction shelf. Was this careless, or the action of a holocaust denier or, simply, ignorance?
Some charity bookshops sell used books at reasonable prices, but often their selection is limited to books by popular authors and only those examples that look almost new. I know there are some book buyers, who only wish to fill their bookshelves and coffee tables with books that seem to be in pristine condition. Maybe, certain charity shops feel the need to cater to these folks. Avid book collectors (hoarders?) like me are less fussed by a book’s outward appearance than its contents. Charities like Oxfam have stores specialising in ‘pre-loved’ books to cater for the likes of me and others for whom the pages are more important than the covers.
Not far from my home, there is an Oxfam bookshop in Portobello Road. This has a superb range of books, and the stock on its well-organised shelves changes rapidly. Every visit to this shop is a delight because often I discover interesting books, which I cannot resist buying and then adding to my continuously increasing pile of books that I hope to read one day. In addition, the staff who work there are friendly and take a great of interest in their regular customers.
I believe that part of the reason that the Oxfam bookshop in Portobello Road and other similar Oxfam outlets are successful and a pleasure to use is that book pricing is realistic and affordable. The shops do have small sections where truly high-value books, rare first editions and genuine antiquarian volumes, are protected and sold at a not unreasonably higher price than the rest of the stock. Because most of the books are affordable, they sell quickly and can then be replaced by books that have arrived in new donations. It is the fast turnover and reasonable pricing that I believe helps keep these Oxfam bookshops in business. Other charities that wish to earn money by recycling books should look to Oxfam for inspiration.