Susan Hill: Oxfam Bookshops are ‘Thugs. Thugs and Bullies.’

The office in which I value books for Oxfam is a bit of a maelstrom. Papers, books and other ephemera come and go. Some of the detritus is mine (the stamp album wrapped in paper and marked DO NOT TOUCH); some (the vinyl) is not. Some objects sit there, totems of collective despair (the Whittier volume and, some way away, its cover). The day it first appeared, I didn’t notice the Guardian Books section (I am – sad but true – incapable of working a full-size broadsheet. They fold, rip and shed ink in my hands. I’ve been reading the Guardian online for years). Not until my manager (gleefully) pointed it out to me, and directed me to the quotation from this blog post, by novelist and publisher Susan Hill.

Apparently Oxfam Bookshops are “Thugs. Thugs and Bullies.” Not surprisingly, this assertion caused a minor furore in the book blogsophere, with The Bookseller subsequently picking up the story.

I am not enough of an expert in the charities sector to defend Oxfam qua charity (see Petrona’s brilliant post here, dissecting that part of Hill’s article). I have had enough elderly books explode sawdust, paperdust, rotten leather or unmentionable horror all over my finest New Look skinnies to defend Oxfam Bookshops.

Hill’s last three paragraphs fascinate me. I value for a ‘spanking new, paint-smelling’ bookshop (well, the fumes are fading) in a ‘market town’, in the ‘next county’ from Hill. In other words, I probably value for the shop she visited. In fact, I probably valued the paperback she wanted, but refused to buy because – in her words – it cost £4.99.

Er.

Susan Hill complains that a paperback she wanted cost £4.99. Well, first off, not to be grubby about this but I’d be concerned if the Somerset Maughan and Whitbread-winning author of (lucrative set text) The Woman In Black (which has been running as a musical since 1987, presumably earning the odd bean), head of Long Barn Books publishers (god, I can’t believe I’m plugging, mid-rant, but I would like one of these bags), writer of the Simon Serallier franchise (v. good indeed) and, er, the wife of not-entirely-impoverished Shakespearean legend Prof. Stanley Wells CBE, couldn’t afford  a fiver for a book from us. I have, after all, spent much more than a fiver on hers.

But, to address the major claims of her – and other articles. If Oxfam prices seem high to someone, my first response would direct them to the Oxfam Myths section of the Oxfam GB website, responding to the claim that “Oxfam shops are too expensive”:

Ask some of the world’s poorest people – who we work with – if they’d rather we sold a top for a fiver, or a pound. Because that money directly funds what we do. So what’s a nice top worth if it helps someone break free from poverty? Glad we’ve got that one sorted out.

Book-buying from Oxfam is about more than buying books. I don’t believe we do overcharge. I used to live a few doors down from the Oxfam shop on Oxford’s Cowley Road, and my defining experience of that shop – as of all Oxfam bookshops – was crying ha-HA and making like Muttley as I purchased for £1.50 something for which Waterstones, Tesco or Amazon (remember that jolly triumvirate) would have expected a tenner. Another university friend, when I mentioned my new job, bemoaned the possibility that now Oxfam was starting to value its books accurately, it would be much harder to pick up undervalued bargains: when I emailed a third in an excess of excitement at having just found a 1st ed. by the poet on whom she did her Masters (David Jones, since you ask), she recalled picking up another edition for a triumphant fiver. In uni towns, students are frequently the mainstay of charity and non-charity secondhand bookshops. They are not a wealthy demographic.

If Ms Hill says she was offered £4.99 for a paperback, I’d dearly love to know what that paperback was. We have strict pricing guidelines that mean general fiction – not always our most profitable area, but the one which probably sprang to mind when Hill’s Spectator readers heard of her ‘paperback’ – never costs more than £2.99 a pop. If a book cost £4.99, it’s usually biography, poetry, history, art – any of the dozen or so non-fiction categories we sell. If a book costs £4.99, I probably priced it, and our evil corporate Oxfam valuation system usually works as follows:

1. I take my BA and Masters-partly-in-Bibliography upstairs and clutch at the books that look ‘sort of valuable’ (when sending our darling D of E boys to forage for me, I amend this brief to ‘sort of old’).

2. I identify them. This involves the internet, my highly-trained skillz, emergency Facebook appeals to native German speakers, the British Library and Bodleian catalogues (all hail OLIS), perserverance, dumb luck and holding things up to the light. I quite often get overexcited. I am frequently interrupted by people wondering why on earth the smallest, youngest, scattiest-looking person in the shop is the person with the computer (generally people assume I’m taking my GCSEs). Sometimes I use the dumb waiter to send down excited notes saying 1ST EDITION 1946!!!.

3. I work out the lowest feasible market price, the highest feasible, and then I pick a price below the lowest price at which I – and my manager – think the book might actually sell. Then I knock off a bit more and stick .99 on the end. Sometimes I write out excited explanations of who Janet and Anne Graham Johnstone were, or how I can tell that this Nelson Editeurs Victor Hugo is probably pre-1918.

4. None of this is done in an attempt to destroy capitalism, exalt capitalism, bring down independent bookselling or shit on the fabric of my beloved hometown. I am ecstatic every time one of my antiquarian/collectables sells, and I also die a little every time I see a Harry Potter 1st ed (we get them) go for less than it deserves. We’re not trying to create a massive loss leader – we’re trying to get people in, buying, out, and back again later. And, personally, if we’re going to talk moral authority, I think that the fact that our proceeds go to charity makes us essentially A Good Thing.

Our new shop won’t hurt the other charity shops in our town. Our next-door shop (again, a worthy cause) primarily sells clothes and homeware. Their very limited book stock consists mainly of Mills & Boon – which we don’t sell anyway. Cancer Research has been on the same street as our other Oxfam for ages, and the two have coexisted equably, as far as I know (we are, I should say, coexisting equably with our neighbours, except for when they mistook our D of E boys for vandals – they were leaping up and down, flattening boxes, while wearing their school uniforms).

Our town’s most famous charity shop(s) fundraise for a hospice that receives exceptionally well-deserved celebrity support; long may she reign, and if I seriously believed my job damaged them, I wouldn’t be doing it. Our hospice is absolutely great; we’re lucky. Previously, I’ve helped said hospice by carol-singing/event-going et cetera – this is just another form of support.

Finally, it’s ludicrous and enraging to blame Oxfam for the death of the independent bookshop. For god’s sake, we’re not taking enough to be the death of anything.  Like the nay-sayers, you might already have forgotten the trio of Amazon, Tesco and Waterstones mentioned earlier. How on earth can Oxfam be more destructive than them? Unless, of course, it was us who bankrupted Borders. My town has, I suppose, two independent bookshops: one is run by the Shakespeare Trust along from Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Shakespeare’s town in Shakespeare’s County in ShakespeareShakespeareShakespeare[Error 401] and I think we can reasonably assume it will never go out of business. The other is privately-owned, eccentric, damp, fascinating and, no, I don’t know how it’s still going. But then, I have been incredulous that it’s still going for 20 years, and since I don’t know anyone other than me who’s ever bought from it (and Shakespeare’s Birth Town is also Mine) – though I suppose some customers must exist – I cannot call myself, or Oxfam, the final nail in its coffin. I have damp-addled Plays and Players magazines I horded as a teenager. On the side of the angels, again.

Stamping on Oxfam won’t save the independent bookshop. I appreciate that actually boycotting Amazon, or tackling Waterstones as to why they advertise Bookseller positions paying less than the minimum wage might prove less cathartic and fruitful than complaining about Oxfam, particularly for authors – after all, the Big Three do pay royalties. We don’t. On the other hand, if not-paying-royalties is the major crime, let’s go and set fire to some libraries.

Still, it was very exciting to see my workplace in The Guardian. I love my job. I love it because it’s teaching me new skills in valuation and conservation that I couldn’t otherwise learn without paying yet more money for yet another expensive course. I enjoy being with my coworkers; far from being charinazis, they generally range from bleeding-heart, sweet-as pinkos to Tories of the babiest blue. I enjoy the mix of people who come through the shop. I’m proud when one of my discoveries sells, and I’m proud, above all, to work for a company I can believe in (I’m not prepared to spend my between-year as a Waterstones less-than-minimum wage-slave).

Unfortunately, I don’t think we – or any bookshop – can afford to negociate Ms Hill a special discount, and alas, I doubt we, at least, will be giving her continued glee by seeming empty and sad. I understand there’s been a half-term rush on kids’ fiction, and I spent yesterday valuing the loveliest French-language books. Our greetings cards are also unexpectedly popular. I wonder if we’re going to be accused of killing off W. H. Smith?

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13 thoughts on “Susan Hill: Oxfam Bookshops are ‘Thugs. Thugs and Bullies.’

    • I was hoping you’d comment. And yes, that’s a splendid post (imagine my rage when I realised I was responsible for the pricing, Rhi. Imagine). Can Hill really want to see ANOTHER Stratford unit empty? Her point about it being ‘prime’ as a location is also tosh – rents are much cheaper on our street than on the three other sides of the same block, all of which have empty units.

      I have no love whatsoever for Waterstones. In the past three months, I’ve met two people who left long bookselling careers at a time of economic implosion, simply because they couldn’t stand to be there anymore. Both had emotional and physical problems more or less derived from their work. Both hated ‘the Hub’. What a mess. I know Borders was legendary in Oxford for its treatment of staff (coughIvenscough, Ellen, Paul, etc) but in the Midlands, Waterstones must win the prize…

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  1. All so true! And thanks so much for the generous comment and link to my post at Petrona. I’m a longstanding supporter of Oxfam and many other charities, we all need to do what we can for those less fortunate than ourselves. Sounds trite, maybe, but attacking those organisations that are in the main trying to help others is just the wrong way to go about it. A more constructive approach (eg suggesting a better way to organise mass-help) would be harder to take but would be more appropriate.

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    • My pleasure! And yeah, I totally agree. I witnessed the demise of Oxford’s best-known independent, second-hand bookshop last summer… it’s very sad, but if independent/second-hand book dealing on the high street could be taken over by charities (providing proper training in valuation, restoration etc, and salaries for professionals), I don’t think that would be a bad thing. Ultimately, surely it’s better that money goes to the DEC and other Oxfam causes…

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  2. As someone who used to work for Oxfam (though pricing clothes, which is less exciting than books – I couldn’t cope with the idea of throwing any books away) I wholeheartedly support this blog post! Though I’ve yet to read the Hill article, so I am getting ahead of myself…

    Oh, and so glad someone else can’t manage broadsheet size newspapers – I find them impossible…

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  3. Secondhand book shops are in competition with each other across the country – they buy and sell books. That is how retail businesses work as far as I am aware. They buy and sell products. Oxfam bookshops are not in this competition – they do not BUY books. The books are GIVEN to them. The price they charge for their books is irrelevant. They pay NOTHING for them. Of course they are going to be more profitable than secondhand bookshops. Even if a dead parrot ran an Oxfam bookshop, you would expect it to make a profit given the basic fact that all the books are donated. If people are happy with that, so be it and bye, bye the secondhand book tade on the high street. No business can survive for long if its “rival” pays nothing for its product. That’s how it is friends.

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  4. She ends her article with a snide: I was the only browser and when I passed by an hour later the shop was still empty.

    I wonder how she accounts for their success, then?

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