By Bruce Tober
Copyright © 2009 Bruce Tober - All Rights Reserved
As published in Bookdealer magazine, April 2009
To anyone who enjoys reading, to anyone who cherishes the arts, to
anyone who loves doing research, there are only two mortal sins.
The first is book burning. And the second is censorship. Actually they're equally reprehensible.
As a colleague in California said recently, "There are some books that should
be listed, regardless of condition. The reason is that someone, somewhere, desperately wants them," Steve Ball
of Book Nook of Orange County added. "It is a service to humanity and posterity to make them available. Used
booksellers are also historical preservationists," Ball concluded.
We were discussing something that occurred to me as I left one more charity shop with no books for sale other than
the most recent holiday reads in immaculate condition.
So where were all the classics, where were all the books Mary and Joe cleared out of grannie's loft after she passed
on to that great library in the sky. I told Steve I know they used to and certainly still do get donated to charity
shops. So why aren't they on display in the charity shops?
As I left that shop, two words popped into my head, book burning. If not actual book burning, still a fate worse
than almost any other which might befall an ancient treasure, the local recycling centre.
Today most charity shops get rid of the unpretty, unrecent books donated to them by selling them on to the local
recyclers or just binning them.
Amongst booksellers, there are many reasons for disliking charity shops increasingly becoming their competition.
Most of those reasons have to do with the economics of having to compete against shops which get tax breaks, lower
utility rates, workers who work voluntarily rather than for pay, and donations (read FREE) of books to sell.
"I have very mixed feelings [about such shops], another colleague, Bruce Bell, here in the UK, told me. "In
the small town where I live we have a little charity shop which raises money for the local hospital. I often buy
books there as they are cheap enough. But other charity shops, where books you can buy online for pennies are for
sale for £3-£5, just annoy me.
As for specialist charity bookshops - yes I object
"I have a hankering to open a shop and suspect that these shops would represent
competition for relatively ordinary books/popular fiction - the sort of stock that was once bread and butter in
many second hand bookshops," Bell continued. "I sell to a paperback exchange in Bath and I know that
what they buy/sell has been affected by the large number of charity shops around the city centre.
"As for specialist charity bookshops - yes I object. I know someone who works in the amnesty shop in Bristol
- their ability to source books is huge as stock is passed to them from their other non-specialist shops, they
pay nothing for their stock, their labour is free, they price and sell on the Internet.
I love dealing in books," Bell concluded. "I'd like to say I welcome competition but I don't really -
the market is crowded enough and earning a living is hard enough without competition from shops working with no
labour costs and no stock costs - hey maybe I'm just jealous - maybe I
should start a charity - but what I'd rather do is open a bookshop and add something to my local community."
Oxfam has, in the last few years has been setting up charity shops exclusively devoted to selling books. Increasingly
other charities are going a similar route. And many booksellers who rely on bookselling for their income, truly
resent that situation.
I'm not one of those booksellers, other than a tiny tinge of green around my gills at the benefits they receive
that I don't. I buy much of my stock from the smaller, less well-known, mostly local charity's shops and from a
few charity book shops. And I make decent to well above decent profits doing so, which enables me to reward such
shops from time to time with decent
But I mostly stay away from most of the large national charities shops, because they "burn books".
Interestingly, charity shops have a trade organisation, Association of Charity Shops. David Moir, David Moir, Head
of Policy and Public Affairs, told me in answer to a query, "The Association produces comprehensive guidance
for our members on consumer rights and consumer and product safety issues. But," he added, "we don't
produce guidance on types of book to stock. That is entirely a retail matter for the individual charity."
Pass on for reuse, books which cannot be sold
Which, of course stands to reason. BUT, he then said, "We encourage our members
to take environmentally friendly routes for stock which does not sell in-store. And, it is simple economic sense
for charity shops to try to recycle, or pass on for reuse, books which cannot be sold. Many partner with book recycling
schemes or with recycling companies to avoid creating paper waste."
I repeat, "pass on for reuse, books which cannot be sold...." now if charity shops did that, it would
be a policy, I for one, could live with. But only if that reuse were a use books were intended for, ie to be read,
One of the other charities which have dedicated book shops is the St Giles Hospice. It's a smallish, localish charity,
which alone would, and does, make it one of my favourites.
It has three specialist bookshops, Jane Crocker of the hospice's PR company, told me. "And 13 general charity
shops which are located across the hospice's catchment area, which, broadly speaking, is the West Midlands.
"We have no set policies [regarding which books the specialist shops stock or don't stock], "but quality
is considered, plus the nature of the publication (i.e. no risky adult publications). We also monitor the sales
we make against the space we have available to determine right level of stock."
Which sounds good, and from what I've seen in the couple of their shops, general and specialist alike, makes for
a rather good selection, rather than simply the latest bunch of best-sellers and "autobiographies" of
the latest 15-year-old celebrity.
I asked Crocker also about the pricing of their stock, especially in the specialist shops. I've been dealing with
one of their specialist shops for about two years and find the pricing at such a level that I can make a decent
(and in some cases, a very decent) profit.
"We employ staff with book knowledge for our specialist shops, who are supported by a team of volunteers who
generally have a 'love or understanding' of books," Crocker said. "We do however have one specialist
book volunteer who values books for us centrally at our Warehouse and has in the past represented St Giles at some
of the local book fairs."
But all isn't milk and honey
I do hope they manage to keep this person. He (or she) really seems to know how
to price the books fairly, at least the antiquarian books, which are almost all I buy at their shop. Now if only
ABE, Alibris, and some of the other book listing sites would only allow people of her quality to sell on their
All, but all isn't milk and honey with St Giles. I asked Crocker what the shops do with books deemed undesirable
for sale in the shops or which have passed their sell-by date and what is the policy in determining sell-by date,
i.e. how long is a book kept on display?
That depends, she explained, "on their quality, books will be moved between our shops within the catchment
area." She added that, "Most will be on display for a maximum of three weeks, but this does vary based
the topic, and some in the specialist shops are left longer. If a book is not of saleable quality, a textile company
collects from each shop to recycle the books. Each shop will receive income from the textile company, so no book
Well, yes, the textile company wants discarded books to recycle in whatever way they recycle and for whatever purposes,
but that's NOT really wanting the books, it's wanting to destroy the books, it's wanting the paper. Now, when the
people at St Giles read this article, perhaps they'll institute a policy like the one Moir suggested of "pass[ing
them] on for reuse"
And then there's Oxfam, one of the first to go with specialist book shops (funnily enuf in St Giles, Oxford, in
1987) and which now has some 140 specialist bookshops. That makes it Europe’s biggest retailer of second-hand books,
according to Rob McNeil, the charity's PR Manager.
He explained that Oxfam now "has around 140 specialist bookshops. Oxfam’s shops are run by around 1,000 staff
and 20,000 volunteers."
Asked what policies determine which books your specialist book shops stock and which they don't, McNeil said, "All
our books are donated, either by the people coming into the shop or through one of our 750 book banks around the
country. We also receive frequent donations of books from businesses, such as publishers and book retailers."
Shop staff, he added, "decide whether or not [a book] is saleable in their shop, based on its condition and
their knowledge of what their customers want to buy."
Likewise, it's at the local level, he said, that it's decided whether to stock a book or not. "For example,"
McNeil explained, "a town with a standard shop and a book shop may decide to only sell contemporary fiction
in the standard shop so as not to compete with the bookshop. Where no bookshop exists the standard shop will sell
all sorts of books, much like a bookshop."
Autonomous shop teams
And again, he said, it's the local "shop teams [that] determine the price of
books sold in their shop, with pricing policies developed on a shop by shop basis, based on their knowledge of
their local community."
But the key to all this local autonomy, McNeil added is that, "Oxfam bookshop teams are also trained to identify
potentially valuable books and research their price (we also have a team called 'Valued' which helps with this).
We aim to sell rare and valuable books at the best possible price, often at auction."
As to the final disposition of unsold books, "the ‘sell-by’ date," he said, "is decided on a case
by case basis. If the book is specialist it may have a longer shelf life than a novel. Books are often transferred
between shops in an area to reach the most appropriate markets."
Oxfam "also have a book barn where our unsold books are sorted and sold in different ways," McNeil added.
(But unfortunately Oxfam is another charity which indulges in book burning) "Sold in different ways, such
as online or for recycling into pulp which we’re planning to turn into point of sale materials for our shops."
And to show just how up-market some of its book shops are, McNeil noted that "the most we have raised from
a single book is £18,000. We got this for a 17th century economic treatise in 2005, and also for a rare Graham
Greene book in 2008. Both books were sold at auction."
And, he added, "Volunteers in Harrogate shop spotted the very first appearance in print of Sherlock Holmes
(A Study in Scarlet) in a Victorian annual – it was auctioned for £15,500."
This whole situation is insane.
When I have books I either can't or don't want to even try selling, for whatever
reasons, I pass them on to the local hospital or other charities, or leave them out in the reception area of the
block of flats I live in for the other tenants to take without charge. The only exception to this policy is books
which are so severely damaged, by water, dampness, mildew or mould etc,
as to be unreadable and possibly unhealthy to handle.
It would not be hard for charity shops to welcome and make it easy for booksellers to buy their unwanted/unsold
stock once a week or once every couple of months. Hell, they (the charity shops) could even put a minimum buy of
say £100 per time on the arrangement.
I know it wouldn't be hard for them to do the above or some variation of the same because I have arrangements with
several charity shops and charity book shops. At the charity book shops I get a 10-20% "trade discount"
based on how much I buy from them. At one of them I even get to go into their stock room and fill a few bags which
I buy for a set price without them even being looked at by the manager or anyone else. I have somewhat similar
arrangements with some of the charity shops which only have a book section.
It's a win-win situation. I get stock at a decent price and they sell off their stock at a decent price without
have had to spend the time going through their stock. pricing it, labelling it, displaying it, etc. I even have
one shop where the staff ring me on the phone when they have anything they think would interest me.
It's not rocket science. It's just good marketing on both sides.
PS: I tried to get some information from the British Heart Foundation,but they declined to be interviewed.
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