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Charity Shops

Faith, Hope and Charity

November 29th, 2011 by Helen_Lewis-Mcphee | Posted in Blog | 2 Comments
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Last week, the Booksellers Association hit out at charity shop booksellers, claiming that these retailers are afforded an unfair advantage in the industry. With certain exemptions from corporation tax, VAT and rates, and a staff comprising largely of volunteers, it is argued that charity shops benefit from a unique position within the trade with which less charitable independent retailers are finding it impossible to compete. The Bookseller reports an estimated 8000 such brigands are abusing this advantage, turning profits of close to £20 million from book sales alone.

With our independent and second hand booksellers in such dire straits, surely it’s time to call a halt to such blatant exploitation, and level the playing field a little? I mean, when those Goliaths of the online world Amazon first made noises about taking over their only real competitor, the Book Depository, it sparked national outcry and an OFT investigation at the implications this would have for fair competition within the trade. So why is it one rule for Amazon and another for Oxfam?

I do hope we’re not missing the point here.

BA chairman Peter More has accused Oxfam of “acting more like a business than a charity”, adding that this was “a concern”. A concern? Now, I’m as concerned as anyone else in the industry for the future of indie bookshops. When I have the time (and the money) to spend browsing their shelves, I like nothing better than to pass up the tempting discounts offered by Goliaths and supermarkets alike in support of our struggling book-retailing entrepreneurs. But I also choose to frequent my local charity shops, and I certainly won’t be made to feel guilty about it. I refuse to accept that charities turning a profit and conducting their businesses efficiently and professionally is a Bad Thing. Without their retail turnover, these charities wouldn’t be able to support their work against poverty, homelessness, animal cruelty, heart disease, and cancer, to which we are all indebted at some point in our lives.

When I go to an indie bookstore, I go there for the atmosphere, the ambiance, the whole experience associated with book buying that first attracted me to the industry as soon as I was old enough to spend my own pocket money. This is not the same reason I go into a charity shop. The customers who are spending their hard-earned pocket money and pensions in the charity shops are not the same ones abandoning their high-street independents in favour of a cheap read. And I believe I’m not the only person who feels this way. I have faith in the Great British bibliophile and their loyalty to local independent retailers.

Maybe we should be more concerned with the competition presented by the deep discounting and heavy marketing favoured by the chain stores, online retailers and supermarkets. Maybe, instead of lashing out at those businesses still turning a profit, booksellers could take a little more time minding their own. Maybe the indies should to take a leaf out of the charity shops’ books.

Helen Lewis-McPhee