The changing face of charity bookshops


I have been selling books for a relatively short time so whenever I detect a change in the business it’s always strangely exciting and/or edifying. Or it would be if these changes weren’t all for the worse. Thus far the most marked change has been in charity bookshops.

There’s a deep seated antagonism between the charity sector, Oxfam especially, and secondhand book trade: They get their stock and staff for free; they make little money for charity yet spend more on refits that most booksellers make in a year; there’s a statement floating about (apocryphal yet persistent) that Oxfam want to wipe out the used books business. etc. etc.

Yet my biggest problem is not with the existential threat posed by this ham-fisted, overly subsidized job-creation scheme. It’s with their manic and shameful pricing strategies that affect me as much as a consumer as a competitor.

It’s no longer a surprise to walk into a charity bookshop and see the base price of their cheapest books raised from 50p to £1, from £1 to £2. Each price jump usually accompanied by a new ever fresher face behind the counter – as if price is inversely proportional to their age (and distance from their GCSE Business Studies class).

Worse is the gentrification. It’s just as common to pop into your local charity store and see the same books that were once humbly shelved now displayed proudly on stands with bibliographic data stuck on post it notes with inflated prices. Occasionally it’s justified, usually it isn’t. Usually it’s slightly wrong and somewhat misleading. Soi dissant ‘First Editions’ are anything but. Other times the label may be technically correct but the book is obscure, unwanted and endured only one print run, it makes the whole thing exploitative.

Worse still is when they mention the price of the book online. The intention is to show that this book is a bargain (an investment) – even though there is no mention how it compares to those online copies in terms of condition etc. Yet, to me, it frequently seems like an excuse for their exorbitant prices – you think we’re bad, look that this!

charity bookshops pricing mania

I recall especially being in a YMCA store run by trendy young things. Vintage clothes were hung over louche dummies, a collage of cut-outs from fashion magazines covered the roof, stickers from folk-festivals clogged the door frames. There was an elderly gentleman there too, with his wife. He wanted a WW2 book that they’d listed for £14 and couldn’t understand why it was so expensive. He could get such books for £1 on the market, he told the young guy running the store. In reply he received a brief and slightly embarrassed explanation of market economics. No sale was made.

Now they have no books, save a wodge of 50p paperbacks to decorate the furniture. This is, in my experience, the upshot of hot-shotting prices: the tactic fails and books are removed from the stores or, if they were exclusively for books, they shut.

The gentrification of charity bookshops and shelves has reached the unlikeliest of places. In a town I shall not name – a more wretched hive of scum and misery you’re unlikely to find – worn, dog-eared 1930s hardbacks are now displayed and curated as grandly as if at the Olympia Book fair. Get’em whilst they’re overpriced because they won’t be there for long.