Oxfam, learn some manners…

We supported the Books Are My Bag campaign in our opening chapter

This is a blog that loves reading and in particular the places that make homes for books. Booksellers, for example, can’t apply for grants from the Arts Council to maintain their business even though they are vital in promoting and creating awareness of writers. Booksellers are also lumped into the category of ‘retail’ by local government and pay the same business rates as say a clothes shop, even though they will never make the same returns off stock. This is just one of many issues highlighted by the Books Are My Bag Campaign which celebrated its second birthday on Saturday.

A more suitable classification for booksellers would be education. Just take a look at the diversity of topics and writers appearing at the Five Leaves Bookshop this year, you have everything from transgender studies to Owen Jones. This is more than just selling books. It’s about facilitating debate and creating community. The success of Five Leaves is down to the absolute stubbornness of Ross Bradshaw to persevere when every level of support from above is slowly removed.

Ross Bradshaw appeared in our Byron Clough chapter. Our way of saying thank you.

All of which brings me on to a very different bookshop: Oxfam…

Charity shops receive discounted business rates which is one of the reasons there are so many of them on the high street, neatly wedged in between the Tescos, Costas, Poundstretchers and bookies. Oxfam has transformed itself over the past decade creating niche little outlets that sell bespoke clothing, records and books. They’ve done a fantastic job in changing people’s perceptions of secondhand goods and have created a business model that some of Alan Sugar’s Apprentices would do well to learn from. But I hate them. Oxfam bookshops, that is (and Apprentice candidates).

Orpington High Street

Orpington High Street

I have two major problems with Oxfam. Firstly, their books are too expensive and this boils down to my own personal perception of poverty. Prices should raise enough income for their charity but they should also be affordable for the people who have to shop there. I’ve always used charity shops as a point of principle, seeing it as a means of donating while getting something into the bargain. But £3.99 for a book that originally retailed at £7.99 is taking the piss. Particularly when the cover is creased and the pages have a coffee stain on them. This unrealistic pricing strategy will either drive customers to Amazon or out the shop.

But the thing that irritates me most about Oxfam is their inability to embrace their local community. I recently swung by the one in Nottingham city centre to see if I could drop off some brochures for the Nottingham Festival of Words, of which I am one of the directors. The Festival is a collaboration between lots of organisations in Nottingham, with events happening at lots of different venues. But Oxfam wouldn’t accept any brochures. Their reasoning: ‘We can only have information on events that promote Oxfam’.

This is the kind of attitude I’ve come to expect from corporate chains who obsess over ‘whether it’s neat and tidy, does it follow branding guidelines’, not a charity shop. Waterstones were once guilty of this selfish attitude too, not having the foresight to realise that if they had a board detailing local literary events people would come into their shop and probably buy something. Recently they’ve seen the light and have become a lot more inclusive, stocking more books by local authors and creating a space for flyers. So what’s going on with Oxfam?

You can’t receive special treatment in rates because you’re a charity and then take the corporate line when it suits. That’s just bonkers. And if nothing else it’s just rubbish business sense. Flicking through a literature brochure you might see an event that appeals and then seek out a book by that author. It’s for this reason that I’m currently reading Ali Smith, in preparation for her talk on Friday.

One thing that branding twats never get is that principles are something that are lived, not something you lob up on a website and tick off of a list. The Festival of Words have brought writers over from Syria, Afghanistan and Belfast to debate the problems faced by writers in conflict zones and divided communities. These are the kind of communities suffering extreme poverty, the very thing that Oxfam strives to support and raise awareness of. So why do they insist on creating divisions in their local community? Rant over.

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One thought on “Oxfam, learn some manners…

  1. Pingback: Bag of Randomness for October | Dawn of the Unread

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