Charity Bookshops: what are they for?

You may be scratching your head and wondering why on earth I should ask such an obvious question. There are lots of books out there, many of them unwanted, they could find a new home with a new reader so why not donate them to a charity who can recycle them and in the process raise funds for their other operations. Obvious? End of story? Well, not quite.

There’s plenty that could be said about the role charity bookshops have played in undermining the traditional second hand bookshop – they do, after all, have tremendous advantages on the high street because their stock is donated, their rent and rates discounted and they are staffed by volunteers. But that’s not my beef on this occasion.

I’m also not directly concerned in this piece at least with their often eccentric, frequently ill-informed and inconsistent pricing of books. The use of online book market sites like Abebooks and its various equivalents is clumsy and no substitute for a real understanding of the books and their supposed value. But again, that’s not what I want to focus on.

Having said that though, I am going to say something about the prices they charge in as much as it’s an issue that leads me to my main topic – what these charity bookshops are for.

It’s pretty clear that different charity bookshops use different ways of pricing the donations they receive – as I’ve suggested, some use reference to online price comparison while others use, for newer books at least, a proportion of the original published price. In nearly all cases this results in books being put on the shelves at prices that are beyond most of those people who have to rely on benefits or are for other reasons on the lowest incomes. Even prices that might be described as ‘modest’ – £2 or £3 – represent a proportional bite out of a limited income that makes choosing a book over food or clothing unlikely. So, the very marginal and excluded groups many of the charities have been set up to support are the ones unable to access and make use of their bookshops.

The unspoken reality of the charity bookshop is that they exist to pull in funds from readers who have disposable income to spend on books and who like to pick up a bargain. What they are not, and what I’m arguing they should be, is a network for redistributing books to everyone who wants them regardless of their ability to pay. And I say this because encouraging and enabling reading should be seen as a core part of any anti-poverty or social inclusion strategy – in other words selling or recycling books shouldn’t only be a fund-raiser it should be part and parcel of any charity’s core mission.

What frustrates me is that it wouldn’t be hard to reconcile both the need to raise funds through selling books and actively making books accessible to those who want them but can’t afford them. The two functions need not be mutually exclusive.

At the Letterpress Project we know there is a demand for books amongst those who simply can’t afford to buy them. We regularly make donations of adult and children’s titles that can be taken away free of charge by anyone attending food banks and this has become a popular feature of the service. It surely isn’t beyond the wit of charity bookshop organisers to have some part of the shop that sells books to those who can afford them and some part that acts as a free book exchange – allowing people to take and return books without charge.

I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of books that find their way onto charity bookshop shelves that don’t sell at the prices they are marked up at and eventually get removed. I’m not sure what happens to them: I would guess some get sent off to other shops in the hope that they catch the eye of a different audience but I bet some get sent off to be pulped. Given that these books were donated for free in the first place, why not just make them free to take away within the shop itself?

In the end this all boils down to how the charity sees books and reading. If they only think of books as a useful commodity that can be used to pull in much needed funds then the poorest will continue to be excluded from the potentially life-changing and life-enhancing pleasures of reading. If, on the other hand, they stop for a moment and see spreading reading, literacy and ideas as a central plank of their raison d’être, the reading environment could be transformed by a high street network dedicated to putting books into the hands of everyone who wants them.

Terry Potter

December 2018

(This article was first published on The Letterpress Project website)

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