"No good ever comes of gentleman amateurs buying and selling"—Milton
September 9, 2009 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Oxfam, the 67-year-old Oxford-based confederation of multinational organizations, spends more than $600 million a year around the world fighting poverty, famine, climate change and discrimination. $32 million of that budget comes from book sales at its 130 second-hand bookshops in the UK, making them the second largest retailer of second-hand books in Europe. Now, independent booksellers are beginning to speak out about the competition. On the BBC, in the Telegraph, the Guardian, and the New York Times, some British booksellers are questioning the wisdom of charities using chain stores to raise funds. Are they “destroying lives here to save them elsewhere” as they’ve been accused of by one former UK bookseller, or is this the logical economic result of “the English town with the secondhand bookshop everybody loves but most people never actually go into.” as David McCullough, director of trading for Oxfam recently speculated?
posted by Toekneesan (40 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Attention British booksellers: if a famine relief organization is better than you at bookselling, you are not as good at bookselling as you thought.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:35 AM on September 9, 2009 [32 favorites]


I've no idea how Oxfam are damaging independent book shops because their second hand books are ridiculously overpriced. All but their basic paperbacks are priced at fantasy levels but I guess someone somewhere must be buying them.

Mr Bonham, who complains about the internet, should get on the internet.
posted by fire&wings at 8:36 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


Of course Oxfam pays nothing for their inventory and most of their staff is volunteering so no wages, but yeah, those British booksellers must suck at bookselling if they can't compete with some famine relief organization.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:48 AM on September 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think its probably amazon and ebay that are hurting the second hand booksellers, not Oxfam. The second hand book marker has changed massively because of the internet, in very very obvious ways.
posted by memebake at 8:52 AM on September 9, 2009


Hmmm. I live in Brighton, which once was a town with many, many secondhand bookshops where now there are very few. Most of them were forced out when the owners of the buildings got in businesses that were happy to pay a lot more rent when leases were up for renewal. OK, so a fair few of the new businesses failed but that's capitalism I guess*. For me the choice between a capitalist & a poor person is not too difficult...

I read a lot via my iPhone now but have brought a few secondhand ones recently (one in Oxfam when my charity shop-addicted other half was clothes-buying & another from a local market stall). Most of my paper-book reading is done via the library. Go libraries!

* My favourite turnaround was possibly the most ramshackle bookshop in the world being turned into an extremely swanky furniture shop which became a christian (new) bookshop within 12 months. Heh.
posted by i_cola at 8:52 AM on September 9, 2009


Actually, over the past 3 years I've brought lots of secondhand books via Green Metropolis & secondhand/new shops via Amazon marketplace. Seems like technology could be the problem indeed.
posted by i_cola at 8:56 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


those British booksellers must suck at bookselling if they can't compete with some famine relief organization

Well, obviously I was being a little flip, but I've heard this complaint quite a bit, and I find it unpersuasive. I strongly suspect that the Oxfam stores are far more a convenient target than they are the real cause of the booksellers' woes. More likely they are being affected by the same forces that have caused so much disruption for the business in the US: Amazon and ABE, the economy, burgeoning competition for mindspace and entertainment dollars. US booksellers are hurting too, and Oxfam is not the cause.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 8:57 AM on September 9, 2009


Destroying lives, eh, well at least there's no overheated rhetoric in the debate.
posted by DU at 9:01 AM on September 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


I know Oxfam have lower cost and overheads than other secondhand book shops, but that doesn't make them better at dominating the market. The difference goes towards raising money, and not lower prices. Oxfam often overcharge for the books they sell, and it shouldn't really be too hard to match or beat them on price. Even the "charity factor" of people seeing the high price as part donation isn't that strong when they sometimes price books at 50%+ of original retail price. Also, in comparison to most other bookshops, they have a small and limited-breadth stock. I think that secondhand booksellers should perhaps look elsewhere for the cause of their worsening businesses, like online sellers or just a general change in book consumption habits.
posted by Sova at 9:01 AM on September 9, 2009


Someone call a waahmbulance. For chrissakes, this is a charity that is doing great stuff all around the world. That they've raised their game and now offer a much more professional book retail experience is *good* news. Of course it is sad that independent book stores are going out of business, but this is hardly news. The decline of the indy book store has been reported for the last decade.
posted by Lleyam at 9:10 AM on September 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


Even the "charity factor" of people seeing the high price as part donation isn't that strong when they sometimes price books at 50%+ of original retail price.

I haven't seen this at all, my local Oxfam second hand book shop (which I buy from and contribute to regularly) typically charges £2 for a 2nd hand paperback. I have seen this figure mentioned a number of times in the press and have got the impression it is fairly standard.

Personally, I think its just tough on 2nd hand private shops, the nature of supply has changed, as it does in many other sectors. If people value the additional social benefit linked to dealing with Oxfam rather than a private supplier then that is a market reality that they will just have to deal with.
posted by biffa at 9:10 AM on September 9, 2009


I've read a few of these reports over the past couple of weeks, and while Oxfam have undoubtedly cut into secondhand booksellers' margins, there are, as a few people have already said, a whole wealth of other factors in the decline of the great secondhand bookshop. Like their disorganisation, their grumpy owners and the fact that they reek of cat piss.*

A more serious problem, to my mind - and it's a problem not just with Oxfam's bookshops, but its record shops and the shops which just sell clothes - is their overpricing. biffa mentions £2 a book; at the neaest Oxfam books to me (west end of Glasgow) it's nearer £5, sometimes more; likewise, their record shops are wildly overpriced. This seems to go against the idea that charity shops are meant to be two-way charity: raise money for your cause, yes, but also supply the poorer members of society with goods they couldn't otherwise afford.


*my favourite secondhand bookshop in Glasgow suffers from all three, but to be honest I wouldn't have it any other way.
posted by Len at 9:36 AM on September 9, 2009


I suspect eBay has done far worse things to the second hand trade.

BTW anyone under the mistaken impression that second hand book sellers are ever happy about anything should really watch Black Books.
posted by Artw at 9:36 AM on September 9, 2009 [3 favorites]


Are they “destroying lives here to save them elsewhere” as they’ve been accused of by one former UK bookseller

bee you double-el shite.

disclaimer: not British

disclaimer 2: work in humanitarian relief in 3rd world contexts


I can speak from first hand experience: Oxfam is awesome and doing awesome things to save LITERALLY millions of lives in some of the very poorest and most extreme places on our planet. My organization partners with them in a number of initiatives in a great number of 3rd world environs and I've only ever had the greatest respect for both their people and their approach to humanitarian relief work.

Here in Kenya, Oxfam "works with the most vulnerable communities in the dry and remote northern regions, and in the impoverished slums of the capital Nairobi."

I live just a few miles as the crow flies from Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa, here in Nairobi. I've typed about it before. Tonight, a million or so people will go to bed, there in Kibera, most of them without running water or electricity. Without a freaking sewage system for crying out loud.

How many people in the UK are going to bed tonight without those 3 things or at least limited access to them?

The average life expectancy at birth in the UK is 79.4. In Kenya its 57.86 - up significantly in the last couple decades thanks to organizations like Oxfam. And Kenya's one of the most developed nations on this continent. Take the very bottom of the life expectancy list:

Zimbabwe
Lesotho
Sierra Leone
Zambia
Mozambique
Swaziland

All 6 in Africa. All 6 in dire straits. All 6 of them both Oxfam and my org work in (I'm almost positive - Zimbabwe sometimes our operations go on hold given the political environment). All 6 of them with an average life expectancy at birth below Zim's 43.5 years.

You know what that means on the ground? It means you don't have old people in these countries. I know - I've lived and worked in all but 2 of them - and a number of others close to the bottom of that list. There's no old people there. None. Everyone dies before they can get old. Even here in Kenya, a really old person is a pretty rare sight. There's no retirement home communities here. No massive medical infrastructure to support an aging generation. Hell - in the US and the UK and a great many other places, services catering to the aging comprise a massive industry - a whole sector devoted to old people. Yet that's non-existent here because there's no need.

So you know what, UK booksellers? I'm sorry things are so tough for you. My heart's breaking. But if you have to close shop - at least consider this: you could probably get a job at a retirement home.

Its clear don't understand the meaning of what "destroying lives" really is - and though I would never wish it on you that you would find out, I do hope you quit using it with such a cavalier insanity. Think about that while you turn off the lights of your shop that you own, drive your compact car home on well-maintained roads monitored by non-corrupt police, kiss your wife that you get to grow old with, hug your kids that get to go to a decent school, and then eat a warm, high-calorie meal, before sleeping in your warm, comfortable bed, safe inside your small, fully functioning house.

Because the people Oxfam serve get none of that.
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:36 AM on September 9, 2009 [24 favorites]


edit: I've typed about it before. (link gives you a bit more on Kibera and the rest of Kenya if interested)
posted by allkindsoftime at 9:46 AM on September 9, 2009


Even the "charity factor" of people seeing the high price as part donation isn't that strong when they sometimes price books at 50%+ of original retail price.

I haven't seen this at all, my local Oxfam second hand book shop (which I buy from and contribute to regularly) typically charges £2 for a 2nd hand paperback. I have seen this figure mentioned a number of times in the press and have got the impression it is fairly standard.


My local one also does small paperbacks at about £2 to £2.50 generally, which seems about the market price. But I've seen larger non-fiction or textbooks selling for £8 to £10 on original back prices of less than £20. I'm not really judging their prices except to say that I don't see evidence of using their position to undercut secondhand sellers. If this was an otherwise straight fight, I don't see why Oxfam would be such a big winner. The only factor that Oxfam has that other secondhand bookshops don't is the ability to move stock. They can cater for different populations and even out gluts because of their "chainstore" model. I don't know how much this happens, but I've not yet quite experienced the wonderful "caverns of books" effect that long established booksellers manage (though York Micklegate is kinda homely in that way).
posted by Sova at 10:20 AM on September 9, 2009


I wonder if bringing books to a second had shop in Britain is similar to the one I had at three independent stores in Minneapolis: first, being treated as a tedious inconvenience, then being offered a really not-worth-the-trip pittance, and finally being handed back a third of what I've brought and pissily told "we can't use these and you can't leave them here." With transit we're talking an hour of my life rendered unpleasant and I didn't even actually finish my errand. I take books to the nearest charity they take the bag, say thank you, goodbye.

I realize it is a tough market and you can't pay a lot or pay for everything but seriously - these businesses made giving stuff away for free the preferable option to getting paid for it.
posted by nanojath at 10:24 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I hope nobody tells these booksellers about BookMooch. Heavens!
posted by odinsdream at 10:25 AM on September 9, 2009


For some reason booksellers think the world owes them a living. They are often actively hostile to their potential customers and yet at the same time it is everybody's fault but there's. Who the hell did they think was going to side with them over Oxfam? They should be sent to Africa to do (forced) voluntary service, along with those authors who think secondhand books are theft.
posted by ninebelow at 10:32 AM on September 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


BTW anyone under the mistaken impression that second hand book sellers are ever happy about anything should really watch Black Books.

Artw, everyone should watch Black Books anyway. LOVE that show. Love Dylan Moran...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:32 AM on September 9, 2009


I kind of love antisocial bookstores that smell of cat pee anyway.
posted by Artw at 10:33 AM on September 9, 2009


Wait, wait, WHAT? In the article ninebelow linked, there's something about authors getting 2p every time their books are lent out at a library? WHAT?

(so says an American author who never sees sweet FA for royalties thanks to Amazon et al).
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:34 AM on September 9, 2009


Sell some T-Shirts or something.
posted by Artw at 10:35 AM on September 9, 2009


Don't think I haven't thought of it. But the bf's too busy drawing his comic book to draw anything for them...
posted by bitter-girl.com at 10:43 AM on September 9, 2009


BTW anyone under the mistaken impression that second hand book sellers are ever happy about anything should really watch Black Books.

My favorite Black Books quote:

"Oh, Christ! Customers? Why didn't you lock the door?"
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 11:03 AM on September 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


INVISIBLE HAND-OUT
posted by GuyZero at 11:36 AM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


those authors who think secondhand books are theft.

Not quite what Ms Winterson said. In fact, not at all what she said. It's actually mildly interesting, what she said.

And among other things she said was:

Like most book lovers, I am a great haunter of second-hand bookshops, and while I know the money I spend there won’t benefit the writer directly, such shops offer a limited and eclectic range, and are part of the passion for books – not a way of avoiding paying for them.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:38 AM on September 9, 2009


Wait, wait, WHAT? In the article ninebelow linked, there's something about authors getting 2p every time their books are lent out at a library? WHAT?

Public Lending Right
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:42 AM on September 9, 2009


Wait, wait, WHAT? In the article ninebelow linked, there's something about authors getting 2p every time their books are lent out at a library? WHAT?

It's a British thing, we Amerricans wouldn't get it.

But it's a righteous idea, I've always thought

(On preview- what TigerTiger said)
posted by IndigoJones at 11:46 AM on September 9, 2009


Retailers in general tend to moan about charity shops because they pay heavily reduced business rates.

Though the 'free stock' has to set aside against the fact people use them as a dumping ground for basically rubbish that all has to be sorted and got rid of.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 11:48 AM on September 9, 2009


Wow. PLR is brilliant! If I had a nickel for every time I get a "I borrowed one of your books from the library, now give me total handholding support for every pattern in it..." email.......ummm, well, I suppose it would be a bit like PLR, but not really.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 11:56 AM on September 9, 2009


Sounds like you need an opens source consultancy business model...
posted by Artw at 11:57 AM on September 9, 2009


Yeah, that'll go over well in a field dominated by free stuff, Artw. I can see it now: "You're too cheap to buy a $5 pattern PDF, so here, let me charge you $25 an hour to help you with the pattern you got for free at the library..." ;)

(Nothing against libraries, god knows I love them, but there's a real culture of entitlement in my particular workplace niche that seems to exist only to cancel out the truly generous nature of most people who work in the field).

It's like the Anti Life Equation of knitting.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 12:57 PM on September 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


The great Driff Field might have a lot to say about this. He wrote presciently about the impact of 'The Big Ox', as he called it, on secondhand booksellers, the majority of whom he had little time for.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 1:21 PM on September 9, 2009


Point them at the Wiki!
posted by Artw at 1:23 PM on September 9, 2009


"Wow. PLR is brilliant! If I had a nickel for every time I get a 'I borrowed one of your books from the library, now give me total handholding support for every pattern in it...' email.......ummm, well, I suppose it would be a bit like PLR, but not really."

Why not just bit bucket this kind of email?

PLR sounds like just the kind of socialist program Americans can get behind though. Lots of money being shovelled directly from government (whom for the sake of arguement I'm going to assume fund in whole or in part the vast majority of books borrowed from libraries in the US) to big business and big name authors with a pittance to the people who could really benefit.

Plus at the same time they could overturn the case law that prevents plan sellers from attempting to restrictively license the use of the plan. And then booksellers could extend that to licenses on books preventing you from reading them more than once without re-purchasing the book.
posted by Mitheral at 2:41 PM on September 9, 2009


People who make a living selling stuff that deny the original artist revenue for work whine about charity? That's, uh, not tweaking my heartstrings.

And yes, I know, doctrine of first sale, I have lots of stuff from second hand stores myself, but FFS, when your entire business is essentially parasitic it's a bit fucking rich...
posted by rodgerd at 3:11 PM on September 9, 2009



I haven't seen this at all, my local Oxfam second hand book shop (which I buy from and contribute to regularly) typically charges £2 for a 2nd hand paperback


I've seen books in my local Oxfam books priced at £40 - though these were probably textbooks. I don't want to turn into one of those people who moan about charity shops being overpriced, but Oxfam do tend to charge more than other stores for books, which makes bargain-hunting less fun - the point shouldn't be to make me think I could write that title down and pick it up on Amazon Marketplace later.
posted by mippy at 5:08 AM on September 10, 2009


NB I do live in London, where many charity chains know their markets very very well and can price accordingly. However, there is an independent charity shop next door - rude staff, not clear where money goes, price things very high (burnt out pan - £1.50, knackered leather football - £25). I know what Oxfam do, and although their pricing was a pain when I was a student and couldn't afford to get novels there, I'd rather support charities this way.
posted by mippy at 5:12 AM on September 10, 2009


Why not just bit bucket this kind of email?

Because, Mitheral, the other sometimes-bad-sometimes-good thing about being a knitwear designer is that there is a huge online community of knitters, and if I didn't at least politely reply to these emails, I'd get savaged on Ravelry and the like, and then even fewer people would buy my pattern PDFs...

And sometimes they're ok -- I love it when homeschoolers ask if they can photocopy their copy of my beginner's knitting book for a class they're teaching with all the neighbor kids (hook 'em while they're young!) -- it makes me happy to be able to say, no, don't bother, CRAFT zine reprinted those pages in color on their site, here, here's the link... but there is a fundamental lack of respect by some people that indicates they don't see what I do as a job, and that I should be happy to help them, indefinitely, for free.

Bringing it back around to the topic at hand, it all kind of comes down to customer service, don't you think? I mean, I would rather shop in an indie, small bookstore than go wade through the (usually crap) selection at Goodwill, or the predictable bestsellery crap at Borders. Our local indie has interesting stuff, new and used, and magazines that are hard to find elsewhere. It's next to a great restaurant, in a cool neighborhood. But they're not going to put Borders out of business any time soon, which is sad.

On a happy note -- when we were at said bookstore last weekend (ooh! old books about Eleanor of Aquitaine! YES!), they've gotten into the Indie Bound movement in a big way -- I hope it brings them more traffic!
posted by bitter-girl.com at 8:14 AM on September 10, 2009


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