11 April 2012

Working for Oxfam…

Does the antipathy among booksellers for the book- hoovering activities of charity shops, particularly Oxfam, still exist? I ask because when I was a subscriber to the now defunct Book and Magazine Collector I recall an exchange of letters on charity shops that lasted for about three months. The tone of the letters from dealers was noticeably hostile. The strongest complaints always concerned the fiscal advantages enjoyed by charity jobs over those dealers in towns where these shops were in unfair competition with them. Dealers complained that people donated rare books to charity shops instead of selling them to dealers, thereby benefitting both dealer and vendor. Naturally, what was not mentioned was the fact that because most people prefer selling to giving away books, a dealer still had a good chance of making a living, either from buying directly from vendors or by bidding at auction. Nor was it mentioned that the percentage of good books to rubbish received at the online reception depots (called hubs ) was much lower than those encountered by dealers buying at auction. Which meant, of course, that much time and human resources are wasted by Oxfam in sorting and then chucking out the dross which dealers would spend in sorting and pricing genuinely saleable books.

I can speak from experience, having worked for a while as a cataloguer at one of these Oxfam hubs, where I found a few valuable items, including some modern firsts, association copies and early printed music by Mozart and Beethoven, but percentage-wise nothing like the number of treasures that are popularly imagined to turn up at these depots. For every Beano Annual number one ( £4,500 from a shop in St Andrews ) there are 15,000 trashy paperbacks, Worlds Classics and school textbooks.

In their resentment dealers perhaps forget that charities exist to do good—to improve water facilities in Ethiopia or treat glaucoma in India. When a copy of Gerard Ansdell’s legendary photo-journal, A Trip to the to the Highlands of Viti Levu ( 1882 - photo above), which in late 2009 had been handed into the Teignmouth branch of Oxfam , made a record-breaking £37,000 at auction, a spokesman proclaimed that the money would buy 1,500 goats, feed 5,300 families or bring safe water to 41,000 people. It should also be said that the only charity workers who make a living are shop managers and the administrators at HQ. Many volunteers, who are often retired or unemployed , work the same number of hours in these shops and depots that most dealers devote in their own businesses. Moreover, a few are perhaps as clued up as many dealers, but unlike the latter have no chance to make money from their unpaid roles as cataloguers.

This, of course, is not entirely accurate. It is disingenuous to assume that well-informed book sorters in charity shops are not given the occasional chance to benefit from their close contact with the more valuable books donated , especially in the less professionally run charity shops. If a volunteer finds a first of G. S. Marlowe’s I am Your Brother in a dust jacket and asks the shop manager, who hasn’t heard of Marlowe, if he can buy it for £10, the offer is likely to be accepted. The store manager is more likely to have heard of Seamus Heaney, which is why a copy of his incredibly scarce debut volume, Eleven Poems (1965) together with another first by Michael Longley, was selected out by a sorter and made it to the auction house, where the pair fetched £3,500.

I must also say that in the case of Oxfam, these sorters deserve the occasional bargain—without them the pricing would be left to ill-informed amateurs, and the charities concerned would suffer. At my hub I was the only specialist book cataloguer among a team whose own specialist knowledge lay mainly in the field of vintage clothing. My boss, the hub manager, knew nothing of books, rare or otherwise, and was overjoyed, if somewhat sceptical, when I announced that I had found a rarity, which was not often. When I uploaded details of the sheet music I seem to recall putting a price of around £600 on this item, having to my surprise and chagrin already been informed that the treasure was not being considered for auction. So there might be a little truth in the often heard charge that because of its market dominance Oxfam has become ever so slightly blasĂ© about maximising its income generation.

I would love to know how many and how often good and rare books are selected out by hub workers. The online Oxfam pages can provoke bitterness and envy mixed with howls of delight from dealers and collectors alike, but the tales of rare books that escaped the notice of the sorters only to end up in the trash piles will, I suggest, never be told. [R. M. Healey]

Many thanks Robin. Aye, there's the hub. As the b'stard Urquhart used to say "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment." I guess if an Oxfam bookshop sets up in your provincial high street right by your second book emporium your days are numbered-in Woodbridge near me 2 bookshops were blown away by charity shops. There is a lot of bad feeling out there, a recent bookshop that closed down sent its books to the landfill 'as a matter of principle' rather than to charity shops-- it's that bitter. However when just one rare photo book can buy 1500 goats and decrease the suffering of forgotten peoples the arguments start to falter..

For me the books in them are not especially cheap and generally uninspiring, I usually stick to DVDs and talking books. They have become receptacles for the books that low key bookshops used to sell- if a book is any good they have usually looked it up on ABE and put the right price on it which is, of course, the wrong price.
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