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Oxfam Bookshops - the charity announces plans to open more "Specialist Bookshops" in 2004. Sherborne Bookseller Clive Keeble (aka Mr Grumpy) has his say.

Charities do good work and are an important part of 21st century society ; however, the manner in which charity shops, especially charity bookshops, are mushrooming and eroding the traditional town centre retail base has not until recently been fully appreciated.

Until recent years most charity shops were "low-key" shops, let often at a peppercorn rent in order to keep the premises occupied : this is no longer true. Many charity shops are now professionally refitted and wish to be sited on the main street in town centres : charity shops are seen as a "risk-free" tenant by landlords, much the same as estate agents or building societies, and are now often paying premium rents.

Recently Oxfam issued a press release: "Oxfam expands book chain as bookworms scent second-hand bargains".

This was not palatable reading for me as a dedicated bookdealer in quality secondhand books. Precised from the Press Release I learn that Oxfam who now have 60 specialist charity bookshops, and will open a further 10 or 15 more next year ; the average take in such shops is £170,000. Collectively Oxfam sold 12 million books in 2002, mostly through their "general" charity shops ; sales are growing 20% per annum.

One section of the press release that I found offensive was, and here I quote ""Oxfam specialist bookshops will be a shock to people expecting the clichéd image of dark, dusty second-hand bookshops selling scruffy paperbacks," said [Murray] Winters. "The shops are bright, light and well-designed, and offer a vast array of books, including many specialist, rare, antique and unusual titles. Many books on offer are no longer available from mainstream book retailers. Customers appreciate that diversity of choice."

I suspect that most traditional secondhand bookshops in the UK are far more inviting than Murray Winters suggests, and also have far better stock than his words infer. Much as most bookshops would like to professionally refit, we generally pay a very fair price for stock ( subject to constraints of needing to make a profit) and do not use volunteer staff - not to mention the matter of having to pay full business rate (charity shops receive mandatory 80% relief). - these all account for a large percentage of our expenditure. In most districts charities get free "trade waste" collection offered by council, while commercial premises have to pay.

I look upon myself as a custodian of quality books. In many instances books that would be pulped by those less knowledgeable are rebound and brought back into full service : quite often the book will be priced merely to regain the bookbinding outlay. It has been suggested by some within this industry that as traditional bookshops have closed, the charity shops have "saved" books by offering a sales outlet thus preventing many good books being pulped. There is no clear evidence that any other than the obvious suspects have been shelved in the charity shops : many books are pulped by charity shops, and I wonder how many charities would get books rebound.

Slowly but surely the traditional secondhand booktrade has reached crisis level. On a month by month basis we see shops closing, unable to compete on a level playing field with the charity shops. Some dealers have moved solely to the internet, some dealers downsizing and only offering specialist titles by mail order catalogue or at bookfairs. The trade for general stock has all too frequently gone to the charity shops.

Speaking personally I have never refused to check any books brought to my shop door for sale, nevermind how varied the quality. In many instances I will purchase, however the sad fact is that with 7 charity shops in Sherborne (7,500 population) that my sales for general stock has fallen away rapidly in the past two years.

There are some very serious questions that we should all be asking Oxfam.

1) Do they explain or make any attempt to explain to donors the value of many books that people wish to leave. Say that one book in a box is "worth" £250 and another £500, will Oxfam staff point this out to the donor, who might well not know this, and who quite probably has needs of their own.

2) Do Oxfam give free advice and valuations - most established bookshops will do this, only charging where any research involved requires more than a basic search ?

It is now for others to speak up and be bold ; our future and very existence is up for discussion. I relocate from Sherborne in 2004, will the Oxfam bookshop appear in this town before or after my departure : Oxfam have for three years been "threatening" to open one of their specialist bookshops here ;

Clive Keeble
Keeble Antiques
2 Tilton Court  Digby Road
Sherborne  Dorset  DT9 3NL  Website

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