David McCullough, Oxfam’s director of trading, said: “Oxfam makes no apology for running its shop network as an effective, innovative business in order to raise money to help us fight poverty all over the world – the more efficiently our shops run, the better we are able to make a difference to countless thousands of lives around the world.”
His reply comes in the wake of growing concern that Oxfam’s charitable status, combined with its increasingly professional approach to commerce in its shops, puts it at such an advantage that secondhand and antiquarian bookshops simply can’t compete.
Peter Moore, chairman of the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA), raised his members’ concerns in a Personal View in ATG’s printed newspaper (Issue No 1902), and has already persuaded Oxfam to climb down over its website claim that “Oxfam shops are the only place on the High Street where you can pick up everything from the latest Harry Potter novel or Jamie Oliver cookery book through to rare first editions and hidden treasures hundreds of years old”.
The international charity, which opened its first bookshop in Oxford in 1987 and has 130 specialist outlets in the UK, sells more than £1m of books a month from the 70,000 donated a week processed at its Huddersfield bookbarn.
Oxfam’s charitable status brings it 80 per cent business rate reductions, tax advantages, free stock and a steady stream of unpaid volunteers. The department Valued at Oxfam runs training events to enable shop managers and volunteers to recognise potentially valuable donations.
Marc Harrison, owner of Ellwood Books in Salisbury, blamed his shop’s demise on his local Oxfam bookshop, calling the charity “the Tesco of the secondhand book world”. Mr Harrison said that when Oxfam opened 18 months ago his income halved overnight: “Some of our business is rare editions but in a recession people aren’t buying so many. We pay our bills from the sale of £2 paperbacks or hardbacks for under £5 and Oxfam has destroyed that.”
However, Mr McCullough retorted: “Oxfam is not shutting down secondhand booksellers – if a business model is so marginal that an Oxfam shop opening nearby decimates it, then we are not the problem.”
He said that the charity’s bookshops are almost always opened in towns where there is already a successful Oxfam shop working with the local community.
“We have to be accountable for the return on our investment and the investment of our supporters in the community who give us their time and donations,” he said. “We certainly don’t target existing booksellers, we simply look to survive in a really competitive environment. Indeed, we welcome a thriving independent book trade – the turnover of and interest in books benefits everyone.”
Mr McCullough added that “an industry that had operated broadly the same way for 100 years has been massively affected by all sorts of things in recent years: the lowering of retail prices for books, the huge growth in property rates and utility costs, and the rise of the internet and grocery retailers”.
Not every bookseller is against Oxfam. Graham York, who runs one of the two remaining independent bookshops in Honiton, Devon has undercut the £1.60 average price of a paperback at Oxfam, slashing his own to £1. “Instead of complaining, I’m undercutting them,” he said. “There is room for everyone, it’s a free market.”
Dumfries bookseller Robin Munro said: “Although we do not have competition here from Oxfam, the general principle is that they have just as much right to set up bookshops as anyone else. Some of their shops (eg Byres Road in Glasgow) are significantly better than some amateurish bookshops or overpriced books at some PBFA bookfairs.“
Camilla Francombe, owner of Camilla’s Bookshop in Eastbourne for the past 20 years welcomed the Oxfam bookshop which opened opposite her. With a stock of around a million books, she told ATG: ”I don’t mind them at all being there. It’s good business for me and if another independent bookshop opened near me I wouldn’t mind that either. It’s good when you can have a group of bookshops that congregate together.“
Peter Moore is due to meet David McCullough and Suzy Smith, Oxfam’s books project manager, on November 11 to discuss an amicable way forward.
Letters from David McCullough and Valued at Oxfam appear in this week’s issue of ATG’s printed newspaper. To subscribe, click here.
By Joan Porter