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 Book Shops > Oxfam Killed my Bookshop

Oxfam Killed my Bookshop

August is traditionally the 'silly season' for the national press but nevertheless, the number of column inches generated by Marc Harrison’s assertion that Oxfam killed his bookshop has been prodigious. The subject even got an airing on breakfast TV and resulted in people stopping me in the street to talk about it.

One rarely gets such an opportunity to see secondhand bookshops through the eyes of one's customers, and the diversity of views expressed in response to some these articles has made fascinating reading.

Opinion ranges from those who would never visit anything other than a charity bookshop, to those who regard them as the work of the devil. Evidently many people’s views are diametrically opposed, but is it possible to glean any facts from this welter of opinion?

Firstly, Oxfam’s claim to be the largest seller of secondhand books, with 130 shops in the UK, is demonstrably true, but what of their oft-repeated statement that they are ‘not operating for private gain, but to eradicate poverty’?

It’s not possible to isolate the figures for book sales in Oxfam’s accounts, but the latest figures for their trading arm shows an income of £60.5 million derived from the sale of donated goods, of which ‘trading expenses’ swallowed £45.5 million, producing a trading surplus of £15 million.

What this means is that despite the advantages of 80% rate relief, free stock and volunteer shop staff, Oxfam is generating a surplus (profit to you and me) of less than 25% from the sale of free stock. This result hardly lives up to the claim that they are not operating for ‘private gain’, when that’s exactly where 75% of the income generated by their shop volunteers and donations goes to.

It should also be borne in mind that once this trading surplus is allocated to projects such as famine relief, operating costs for this arm of Oxfam’s activities would need to be deducted.

I make this point not as a criticism of Oxfam’s business methods or acumen but because of the false impression Oxfam gives of its commercial activities. It’s not surprising in these circumstances that independent bookshop owners feel aggrieved at the implication that they are somehow avaricious and greedy, rather than simply trying to earn a modest wage.

Secondly, how much of a real treat is Oxfam to the future of independent secondhand bookshops?

I don’t question those who say that the arrival of an Oxfam bookshop has had a significant impact their business; I’m just surprised that they are so vulnerable to a threat that's been around for so long.

For example, in Stroud the Oxfam shop is three times the size of my bookshop, is bang in the town’s centre, and has a whole long wall of books, priced by a volunteer using the internet. Oh, and perhaps I should mention the we have EIGHT other charity shops selling books, including one directly opposite us, which constantly advertises in its window for book donations. If we hadn’t responded to the evolving completion from charity shop bookselling, we would have been out of business years ago.

Mike Goodenough

UPDATE 28.12.16.

In retrospect Marc Harrison's claim that Oxfam had destroyed his livelihood as a bookshop owner lanced a boil which had been festering for at least a decade. It did so in spectacular style with the story travelling literally around the world.

Most of the unfolding story can be followed in our 2009 Bookshop News reports starting with the entry on 23.05.09. Sadly, some of the links to other content are now redundant due to that site's poor or nonexistent archiving.

In re-reading all the coverage the story generated, it seems to me that it's The New York Times distant perspective which provides the best overview.

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