Foraging in the charity shops

Here in my agreeable outer-London suburb, we’re pretty lucky.  We have good schools, plenty of public transport links, trees and open spaces, and a Carnegie library.  Oh, and no fewer than nine bookshops.  Life is good – but I should qualify that last statement.

Of our nine bookshops, one is a “proper” bookshop, with a tight but comprehensive range, trained and pleasant staff, book tokens, 48 hour ordering and all those good bookshop things.  It has a big W over the door, and its future prospects are interesting, if not necessarily secure.

Another one is more of a stationers-cum-newsagents – it also has a big W over the door, though the loud royal blue fascia suggests a more mid-market positioning than the specialist shop.

That leaves seven more bookshops, some concentrating on books, others extending into fashion, homewares and indeed anything that might have fallen out of your loft.  They are, of course, charity shops, and my neighbours and I can support cancer research, hospice care, the developing world, and children’s causes, through a variety of outlets.

Since I stopped buying all my books at Borders, I’ve found that I tend to split my book-buying between Waterstone’s and the West End specialists, where I typically pay full price, and charity shops, where I typically pay about £1.50.  This means that my average cost per title is similar to the Amazon or supermarket shopper, at around £5 a time.

Full-line retailers feel ambivalent at best about charity shops.  On the one hand, one wants to support charitable donation, and all of the good causes on my high street are legitimate and worthwhile.  On the other hand, the charity shops’ economic model – exempt from corporation tax, exempt from charging VAT on sales, and with 80% relief on business rates, plus stock donated at no cost, plus a staffing model based on volunteering – can make the most socially aware retailer turn a little green.  These concessions have enabled charity shops to prosper where commercial shops have failed; we have fewer building societies cluttering up high streets than we used to, and coffee shop penetration appears to have topped out, but charity shops keep on coming.

A few years ago, booksellers started to get exercised about charity shops, selling the same books as the specialist for 20% of the cover price; in retrospect, this was angst over the two-foot wave that destroys your sandcastle, and takes your eye off the tsunamis that are rolling in from Seattle, Cupertino and Cheshunt.  And when times are hard, and the environment is fragile, and good causes deserve our support, there is little criticise in charity shop patronage or expansion.

In the meantime, the internet has pretty much wiped out traditional second-hand bookselling.  Whereas every provincial town used to have a Second-Hand & Antiquarian Bookseller tucked away in a back street on five rickety floors, selling a mixture of collectors’ books and general tat, the growth of online resellers – primarily eBay, and AbeBooks, now owned by Amazon – created an instant global market for old books.  The thrill of the chase disappeared overnight – if I want to buy a copy of an old collectible, I no longer have to spend years foraging in divers stacks – I can log on, place my order and sit back and wait for the package from Albuquerque or Ipswich to arrive.  And easier access has driven down prices, so those autographed editions I thought might look after me in retirement are now ten-a-penny.

This has indirectly benefitted the charity shops, so that few of us now regard our surplus books or LPs as serious earners – they’re another hindrance, and down to the charity shop they go.  And book-lovers have become expert assessors of charity shop stock – I know that there’ll be plenty of copies of One Day, or Room, or South Riding available down there in a couple of months, and I can start planning next year’s summer reading now.  In the meantime, I could build a substantial shed out of the Clarksons, Peter Kays and Parkys available from my seven local charity shops.

The charity shop purchase often feels like a loan from Mudie’s or Boots Lending Library.  I’ll buy some dumb, stupid title from the London Review Bookshop and keep it for years, to justify my extravagance; whereas I’ll buy, read, enjoy and recycle a charity shop book.  If I want to read it again one day, I’ll just fork out anouther £1.50.

I have some broader thoughts about charity retail, which I’ll save up for another post, but in the meantime, one last observation.  I’m a book-lover, and bookshop lover.  My travels in the average week probably bring me into the ambit of about eight different branches of Waterstone’s; however, I’ll only visit one – I only need to visit one, and I’ll be up to date with what’s new, and what’s on promotion.

But charity shops are always worth a punt.  I’m agnostic about the good cause at any one shop – like most of us, I have charities I support, but this is about books, about commerce.  I’ll try any charity shop – although there  is a Guardian-y something about Oxfam that tends to attract the better books, and which has enabled them to focus harder on books than alternative charity retailer.

Generally, there’s a purity to the charity experience – the shop offer is defined by stockholding alone.  Customer service will be pleasant, but unlikely to be specialist, and the environment can be beaten up and a little whiffy.  What the customer gets is what chain stores deny – the thrill of the unknown, the possibility of The Unexpected Find.

If Waterstone’s could reintroduce a the element of surprise and delight, so that they offered more than a reliable experience to the shopper, where might that take them in the future?  The bookshop as treasure-trove, as inspiration, the bookshop that leads you in unexpected directions.  Good bookshops have always done this over the years.  At the moment, the random pleasures of Oxfam can be more rewarding than the considered range of Waterstone’s.  That’s an opportunity, I think.

Photo: net_efekt on Flickr