Shaftesbury’s Oxfam bookshop is a popular High Street stop for many locals who love to browse for a bargain or a rare record. But they are running low on stock.
Keri Jones from ThisIsAlfred went to visit and was surprised by the volunteers’ theory for the drop off in donations.
I’ve been invited into the inner sanctum of Shaftesbury’s Oxfam book shop. Behind a mirrored glass door, a team of three volunteers is busily sorting books, maps and records from pallets stacked on the floor. Jim Stanton has been deputy manager for two years. His son volunteered before Jim took on one of two paid positions in the shop.
Opening a new consignment of donated goods can be exciting. “The Manager found a first edition C.S. Lewis in a donation. We did a lot of research on it and we sold it online for £2,000. It was gift-aided, which meant we got an additional £500 on top of that. It just shows that in every box you open, there could be a gem in there,” said Jim.
But the supply is drying up and this back room, which would normally be crammed, has more space than staff would like. “We’re a bit short of books at the moment. Normally this place would be stocked full.”
So why are fewer books coming in? The decline in drop-offs is a recent phenomenon and Manager Nancy Dorey has a theory. “The only thing we can think of is that, because of Brexit, people aren’t moving, downsizing or upsizing. That’s when we tend to get the big donations in,” said Nancy.
“We have been absolutely overwhelmed with stock. At one point we had three garages full. We can’t think of any other reason apart from that, because we get lots of customers and lots of money goes through the till,” she added.
Being unable to physically deliver your big bundle of books to the store shouldn’t present a problem. Jim says their team can pick them up. “We have a volunteer who goes out and collects stuff for very large donations. He can come in with 20 or 30 boxes full. Otherwise, it’s just people coming in with bags full of stuff and dropping them off,” said Jim, who added the books turnover quickly.
“In general terms, about four to five weeks. The old adage is that, if it hasn’t sold within that time, it’s probably not going to sell at all. It’s better to refresh the shelves, not overfill them, but keep them looking nice and fresh,” said Jeff.
People browsing the full bookshelves in the shop next door are oblivious to the problem. That’s because Oxfam shares stock with their other outlets. “We’re in a network of Oxfam shops. Some shops will have a surplus, some will have shortfalls, and so we swap it around. We deal with books, music and records, so some of the shops that don’t deal with that will give us their stock, because they know we can sell it for them.”
Vinyl is back in vogue and Jim has noticed that more shoppers have been searching the 7” selection and album rack. “We’ve certainly got an increase of people coming in asking about records. The trouble is, because vinyl has become fashionable, a lot of people are selling it commercially and people are selling it online now. So for us to get good quality vinyl is very difficult. But when we get it, it sells very quickly,” said Jim.
“We do classic, jazz and rock. The rock sells really quickly and we have had some very good donations. We did have one, which we sold online, that we got £500 for, but it was a niche 1970s progressive rock record.”
As a regular visitor to the Oxfam bookstore, I had been oblivious to all of the activity in the room next door to the shop floor, where unsold stock gets posted online. “Any donation that comes into Oxfam is put into the shop first, so that we put our priority in the High Street and our customers here. If it doesn’t sell, then it comes to me. And then we list them online,” said Jim. “We have about 1,000 books from the shop that are online.”
He says that books held in Shaftesbury are identified as such on the national Oxfam website. “You can go on to Oxfam UK and that will give you everything that Oxfam has listed within the UK, but you can then actually go shop-specific. We do have people who come to this shop to pick up books that we’ve listed online. They’ve made the effort to find out where they are because they wanted them. They came here and they bought it out of the backroom, effectively. They have bought it online, but we’ve handed it over the counter to them.”
There is, of course, quality control and not every item given will end up on sale. “Obviously we can’t sell everything that because of condition,” said Jim. But there is a little more give and take for wear and tear with the antiquarian books. “The book needs to be in one piece. If it’s a bit tatty around the edges, that’s fine. It’s more whether the book is interesting and saleable,” said Nancy.
And sometimes books can’t be sold due to the nature of their content. “Some stuff either isn’t suitable for the shop – there are books we wouldn’t sell because they may be racist or stuff like that. There are some that come in and the condition is not suitable, so we have a third party, and they come once a week across Oxfam to collect the stock that we can’t sell. Then they sell it online or dispose of it another way,” said Jim.
I asked whether they had received material that was too saucy to put out sale. “We have. These girls here will tell you, but yes, there has been a bit of racy material and of course we have to check it very carefully,” he laughed.
Some Oxfam bookstores are considerably more expensive. Jim says the Shaftesbury team price to sell. “We have a general pricing rule so that we can really rotate the stock. We’ve got to think of our customers. There is no point over pricing because the stock will sit on the shelves. We’re providing paperbacks and we sell a lot of fiction. So there’s a benchmark price of about £1.99 and £2.50. Any book that we think may be worth a bit more we research and then we price appropriately.”
And the store shifts a broad range of material. “The good old traditional things – fiction, crime, travel history – sell really well. And we do also have a very good antiquarian section and we have some very nice old books, children’s books, both fiction and nonfiction.”
Some charity shop book sections are more like a jumble sale, without order and more of a lucky dip. Not this shop. The books on the Shaftesbury Oxfam Bookshop shelves are curated by volunteers who have knowledge in each field. “We have a lady looking after travel who has a lot of experience in that area. I run the history section. I’m an ex-military man with a history degree. We have an expert on coins too, who has recently joined us. We also had a volunteer who worked in the book industry. So he’s brought a lot of knowledge to the shop generally and he’s helping us with that. Everybody seems to go for a specialisation that they have some background in,” said Jim.
“Most of the sections of the shop are run by someone who’s got a degree in that subject or has a keen interest, which I think really shows in all the sections because they’re beautifully laid out. The stock is well-sorted into obvious categories,” added Nancy, a former professional music teacher, who helps select the shop’s sheet music for sale.
As we chatted, volunteers Elizabeth Lewer and Pam Sandford were whizzing through stacks of books and maps in the backroom, marking up the goods with pricing guns. Pam was very fast. Is she military-trained?” I asked Jim, “Partly military-trained,” he replied. “Her husband was in the army.”
The Gift Aid tax incentive system makes your donation worth more to charities and the backroom staff take that into account. “When we get stuff delivered here, we sort it out immediately into the stock that’s gift-aided and non gift-aided. Our priority is to use the gift-aided stock, because that gets us extra money. What the ladies are doing here is going through the gift-aided stock that we’ve been given, some maps and some books, and they’re putting on the gift aid labels, so that when we sell those, we scan them and claim the gift-aid back,” said Jim.
One interesting aspect of the Oxfam bookshop is the number of maps on sale. You could wander in and find a large scale map of a parish in Northumberland or an A-to-Z of an African city. Elizabeth was pricing them up and says they do sell. “I suppose people who are going on holiday somewhere, like myself, I’m thinking of going to the Peak District, come in and ‘hey presto’ a map of the Peak District comes in,’ said Elizabeth.
And as volunteers get ‘first dibs’ Elizabeth keeps an eye out for maps of the places she intends to travel to. “I usually go home with one or two purchases each week,” she said.
Back to the appeal for more stock – if you’re driving in with a boot-full of books, Nancy says there is help on hand. “They can give us a ring beforehand if they’ve got a large load and they want us to help them unload it. They can stop on the cobbles outside the shop, if they keep the flashers going and the tailgate up. One of us will be quite happy to go and stand by the car and tell the traffic warden what’s happening.”
And we shouldn’t forget how the Oxfam bookshop, which is open 7 days a week, is a welcome addition to our town’s tourism offer. Visitors often spend time browsing the shelves. “We open pretty much 362 days of the year. Part of Jim’s contract was to help us to open on Sundays, which enables us to earn even more money. We do open from 12pm to 4pm every Sunday and Bank Holidays. We’ve got a team of 36 volunteers, which is extraordinary. It really is fantastic,” said Nancy.
It seems that Shaftesbury’s Oxfam Bookshop is going from strength to strength. They just need more stock so that continues. “In the last two or three years, our sales have grown, both within the shop and on the internet. So for some reason, the recipe is going well for us,” said Jim. “I think people are generally supportive of Oxfam anyway, because of what it does for charity and the good causes it supports. So yes, we’re doing very well.”