#MondayBlogs: The Masked Booksellers


Photograph: Mike Finn

For the last decade ExLibris, part of the Federation of Masked Booksellers, have been salvaging disregarded books and selling them to raise money for charity. In this guest blog Bob and Chris Cann explain that the wearing of masks is in homage to Victorian bibliophile Josiah Saithwaite and that books can really change people’s lives in many ways….    

For over ten years, Nottingham people visiting festivals and fairs, and sometimes even wandering Carlton streets, have encountered a stall selling second–hand books.  Maybe not so unusual, until they noticed that the books are very cheap and the booksellers are masked.  What’s going on?

ExLibris, the Masked Booksellers, are book-loving volunteers who can’t bear to see books thrown away.  And they’re aware that too many local good causes are under-funded, and that landfill isn’t infinite.  So, joining the dots, they began rescuing books – first, from libraries and charity shops that were disposing of them, and then also from increasing numbers of friends and well-wishers who had to clear houses or make space on their shelves.  Books were picked off pavements, out of skips, and on one occasion intercepted as they were being chucked, down at the dump. Then more were donated by friends of friends of friends.


Photograph: Mike Finn

ExLibrisers stored all these books in their Carlton home.  Their home (which is also the home of their own very substantial book collections) filled up.  And still the books kept coming.  Sometimes ExLibrisers would return home to find boxes and bags of books piled up outside their house.  Visitors had to sleep wedged in between boxes of books, and relatives complained.

Eventually, for storage reasons, certain categories of books could no longer be accepted,  ExLibris naturally started by rejecting anything by Jeffrey Archer.  Outdated travel guides and computer manuals and tatty books were added to the list, but it proved impossible to predict all the unwanted books that would arrive.  The list now has to include books about Nazi regalia and cookery books with bits of food stuck to them.  However some wildly unpredictable titles have been welcome and aroused curiosity.  A favourite was “The Mastery of Sex through Psychology and Religion”.

Of course, books were not only coming in.  They were offered for sale at very low prices (to be affordable to all) on stalls at festivals such as the Nottingham Green Festival and Lowdham Book Festival, where they were delivered by Polo with roofbox, and displayed under a gazebo.  But this system meant that only a tiny proportion of the stock could be displayed at any stall, and so the Carlton megasales began.

Once a year, in Carlton all around the ExLibris home, the entire stock is offered for sale. The megasales have grown from using just the front of the house and the front of the garage, to using every nook and cranny. Now books are displayed in the garden, in the front porch, in the back porch, in the garage, in the purpose-built shed, in the car boot, under cold frames and in a specially-bought toilet tent – anywhere that a book can reasonably or unreasonably be sold from.  And all books are categorised and sorted, to make it easy to find particular topics.  Saithwaite House (that’s the purpose built shed), was bought to store more books, and is the venue of the booksale café “Josiah’s” as well as somewhere else to display books during the megasales.

This year’s sale will be the tenth. The first megasale in 2007 raised £189.  The ninth in 2015 raised £2023.  With prices starting at 10p, that’s a lot of books rescued, and a useful contribution to good causes.  Since ExLibris’s first ever stall (June 2006, Green Festival, £116), £10,500 has been raised and donated to good causes, mostly local.

Two charities have been the main beneficiaries – Nottingham & Notts Refugee Forum’s anti-destitution work has received over £5,800.  Hayward House, caring for people at end of life, has received over £3,600.  Other beneficiaries have included Stonebridge City Farm, the Sumac Centre, School for Parents, the Sparrows’ Nest, Nottingham Green Festival, other refugee organisations and local food banks.


Over the years, there have been some very special book donations.  Bromley House Library donated some nineteenth century overstocks.  A local businessman and collector of first editions is a regular donor, giving away previous copies if he finds a better one.  The entire personal collection of the late Keith Leonard, Mushroom Bookshop co-founder, was donated by his daughter.  Many of the books belonging to Nottingham writer, activist and broadcasterRay Gosling were donated by his sister.  Some of these books are still in the stock.

This year the megabooksale becomes a megamegabooksale, and moves from autumn to spring.  The first was held on one day.  This soon expanded to a weekend, and then three days.  This tenth sale will be held over two weekends (seven days), so even books which can’t find shelf space to start with can be put out as other books are sold.

The 10th Annual Second Hand Charity Book Sale Weekends 2016 are again in aid of Nottingham & Notts Refugee Forum and Hayward House.

Since the last sale, hardly a week has gone by without a donation of quality books.  These include: books for children and adults; new, genre, unusual, modern and classic fiction; every non-fiction subject under the sun; local interest; books on leisure pursuits such as gardening, crafts and cookery; hardbacks and paperbacks and books in really beautiful bindings; superhero comics, music scores and maps; books in many languages; collectable books at much lower prices than online, and the odd really weird book that you wouldn’t believe could or should exist.

As it’s the 10th anniversary sale, there will be surprises and treats, such as a free raffle entry for people who come wearing a mask.  And again visitors will be able to take a break from their browsing to enjoy refreshments, including drinks and home-made cakes, in “Josiah’s”.  Budding artists will be encouraged to decorate the garden path with coloured chalks.  And anyone who wants is invited to bring a tin of vegetarian food, to be donated to local food banks.

Last year’s sale raised over £2000 for charities.  ExLibris hope to see the celebratory tenth sale raise even more.  There are certainly enough books to do this!

So, why the masks?  ExLibris follows in the tradition of maverick Victorian bibliophile Josiah Saithwaite, who, it is said, rescued and distributed books very cheaply to the poor workers of Manchester, but was always masked because he believed in “doing good by stealth.”

The tenth mega charity booksale started on Friday 29 April and will be at 16 Vernon Avenue, Carlton, Nottingham NG4 3FX, from 11am – 7pm. You can still catch it on these days: Monday 2 May, Friday 6 May, Saturday 7 May, Sunday 8 May. ExLibris on Facebook   ExLibris website 

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

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