Friday, March 12, 2010

Charity Bookselling - Repost

Originally posted on December 6th, 2006:

As a result of our annual clothes cull that ends in a trip to the Salvos I found myself in the basement of said 'mission' in Jersey City looking through their shelves of donated books. We ended up buying 12 books for $20. All were in reasonably good shape and some were worth more than the amount we paid for them. Earlier this year as a fun exercise (when I found myself with a lot of time on my hands) I set up a bookstore on alibris to sell books I knew I would never read again.

As it turns out, I have sold about $300 worth of books. The store front on Alibris cost $10/mth. I ultimately put some of the books I found at the Salvos in my Alibris store and it was easy to see that if you knew what you are doing you can easily buy low and sell high. There are many people who make considerable amounts buying books at yard sales and charity locations and selling them on. That is too much work for me.

It is surprising to me that Goodwill and The Salvation Army do not consolidate their bookselling activities. I hadn't really thought about this until I received a recent copy of Rare Book Review. Setting up a store front to sell second hand books could be beyond the abilities of Goodwill or the Salvos, but with so many easy online options and even 'wholesalers' such as blue rectangle who will buy titles in bulk (if they need them), it seems strange that these charities wouldn't be considering doing more with books. The story in RBR that caught my eye was on the increasing presence of Oxfam bookstores in UK high streets. Clearly, charities in the UK have recognized the value in selling donated books and have by accident or design taken on the small traditional local second hand bookseller. Not only is the traditional bookseller under cut on price but their supplies are also dwindling because the increased presence of charity bookstores serves to take away potential inventory.

The article notes the presence of Oxfam's Marylebone store which has an annual turnover of over £400K. As the article continues:

Oxfam's bookshops are the clear market leaders in the charity sector. Their transformations from ill-sorted repositories for unloved paperbacks to serious players in the secondhand and antiquarian book market has been swift and icily efficient. Between 1998 and 2005, sales rocketed year on year by 20% giving them an annual turnover of more than £16million, and making them Europe's largest bricks-and-mortar second hand book retailer. About 50 new stores have opened in the past year.

And they are not all in big city centers, as one local vendor in little Dumfies (I have visited) noted there are no second hand retailers left but there are four charity shops.

The crux of this article is the question of tax exempt status and it is a valid one. Regrettably, the poor second hand and antiquarian retailer is not going to garner much political support but it is a fair question whether it is right that charity shops can push for profit businesses out of business. On the other hand, as is argued in the article, perhaps the bookseller needs to compete better. Oxfam may become a victim of its own success with other charity organizations moving into 'their' market. They recognize this and are becoming more sophisticated in approach and have hired some expertise to make sure any actionable items are identified and indeed auctioned at specialist auctions such as Bloomsbury and Dominic Winter.

It is interesting how this phenomenon has developed as a physical storefront and not internet based and it will be interesting to see if the US market follows suit.

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