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Belfast Books Blog

Are Belfast Charity Bookshops ‘Real’ Bookshops?

This isn’t a rant about the advantages that charity bookshops in Belfast enjoy over Belfast Books, but an opinion on whether the charity bookshops in Belfast are ‘real’ bookshops, and whether they are maximising their sales and philanthropic potential.

I can’t comment on charity bookshops outside Belfast, and will leave it to the U.K. and Irish book buying and bookselling communities to see if there are similar issues where you are.

This blog post is also not a polemic on whether the State should be providing the services that the overarching charity provides. It should. End of.

I myself am a social entrepreneur, who passionately believes in the incredible community and voluntary sector in Northern Ireland. That’s what you would expect from someone who double (volunteer) jobs as a director of the Community Interest Community who are members of NICVA and Social Economy NI.

Now that the passive aggressive stuff is out of the way, let’s move onto why charity bookshops in Belfast aren’t ‘real’ bookshops, and what they can do  better.

There are many reasons, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll use the following headings:-

1. Charity Bookshop Staff
2. The Glass Cabinet
3. Poor Product and Price Knowledge
4. Business Model
5. Failure to Engage With Local Bookseller Ecosystem
6. Paucity of Outreach to Local Community
7. Those Bloody Stickers Over the ISBNs
8. Discount Free Zone

Charity Bookshop Staff

As a bookshop owner myself, anytime I hear bookshop staff talk in a high fallutin’ way about pompous, ethereal and artistic things more suited to University Challenge than conversation, it puts me right off. I want all customers to be met at their level and want knowledgable staff who can hand sell books, not stand passively at a till looking emo. 

It also seems that charity bookshops in Belfast will take literally ANYONE as a volunteer, as is evidenced by their constant call for volunteers, which up until the time of writing this blog post, the ads for which have never mentioned any bookselling experience being required. This constant trawl for volunteers is odd given the overarching charity already have a huge pool of volunteers, with the volunteers assisting a part or full time paid employee who draws a decent salary.

If you are weird enough to volunteer at Belfast Books, no one gets paid - we’re all the same. If you want to run the place or try new ideas, you’ll be listened to. There’s are no head office decreed procedures to follow if you volunteer at Belfast Books. If you are good at doing memes, crack on and do that at ours. Good with YouTube? Work away. We use the highest level of skills of our volunteers if that’s what they want. However, if a lawyer is just looking for some time away from the stress of their day job, then shelve some books. A vet who likes the beep of a scanner? Come on down. A nurse who wants to tackle our Classics like one of our Twitter followers did? You’re all welcome and deeply appreciated. You can join our volunteer mailing list here.


The Glass Cabinet

Contrary to what seems to be charity shop best practice, putting dusty old books in a glass cabinet doesn’t make them more valuable. It just makes them less likely to sell, and more likely to make non-fusty dusty books fusty by putting them together with fusty, dusty books.

Also, there isn’t much of a local market for signed copies of most books, and certainly not at £100. Especially when an unsigned copy is £5 on Amazon. And the reason you know that it’s £5 is the £5 used copy on Amazon or Ebay hasn’t sold, even at £5. Otherwise, there’d be no price to see. Get that?

Business Model

Imagine having a business where you have two books of a trilogy, but are never able to spend money to complete the troika, and have to wait until you get the missing one donated to complete the set? Bonkers. Complete bonkers. Infuriating, shortsighted and counterintuitive.

There are a lot of book scouts out there who trawl charity shops for underpriced books from all over the island of Ireland, buy them, then offer the books for sale to us. We buy a lot, some we don’t. We don’t much care where the book came from if it’s been acquired legally, and what price the book scout paid for them. We mostly care about the condition, the buy price for us, potential sale price and what we believe are the chances of selling the book fast.

Failure to Engage With Local Bookseller Ecosystem

Also, imagine a world where you don’t help other booksellers at all because you’ve got your arm over your homework? We couldn’t live like that. We’ve bought books from and donated books to The Book Reserve which despite receiving massive amounts of funding from the Department of Justice, is now closed. A bookstore upstairs on the Lisburn Road was never going to break any Delph guys, and was always a folly. I told their guy that at the beginning.

We’ve also put many tens of thousands of books into Oxfam Ireland over the last 3 years and a bit (this post was written before the recent revelations about Oxfam, and we have suspended our Oxfam donations) We’ve also highlighted a book on our Twitter that War or Want bookshop in Botanic had -and it sold for £16. We’ve also bought books at Oxfam and War on Want on Botanic, and asked to be kept informed about certain other types of books. The calls never came. That’s on top of us donating books to Cancer Research and putting out many calls on social media for charities to take donated books.

Here’s a wake up call to the two charity bookshops on Botanic - you are not our competitors, and we are not yours. Unless you sell equine endoscopy books worth £150 to Germany or books on calculus to Italy? Or we secretly have a shop in south Belfast that we don’t know about.

Belfast Books are international sellers, who started the #BuyLocalSellGlobal hashtag. The world’s a BIG place. Get out of your silo and engage with us, and others in the used book market locally. Sell to us, buy from us. Talk with us. Support each other. We’ll buy books you can’t sell locally and sell them globally.

Those Bloody Stickers Over the ISBNs

We need to scan the books in to get the price and sales data. So, just stop it. Now. 

Paucity of Outreach to Local Community

When was he last time you heard of a charity bookshop up Botanic way running anything remotely literature or literacy related for a disadvantaged local community such as Donegall Pass or The Markets?

Please give something back to local communities, as you’ve been gifted quite an advantage over commercial booksellers, both used and new.

Discount Free Zone

There’s a book by a used bookseller titled ‘What Can You Do That For’. It’ll come as no surprise that the bookseller in question was a commercial, not a charity bookseller.

It’s common knowledge that here at Belfast Books, we’re #cheaperthanthatsouthamericanriver

In short, that means when you pick a book at ours, no matter what price is on it, we scan it in at point of sale, and if it’s cheaper for the same grade on Amazon Marketplace, we limbo under that flaming bar and go cheaper again. We never go higher in price, even if the book has risen in price since we originally priced it. Used books are like locally landed fish - the price can change by the day. 

Contrast that with every charity bookshop in Belfast where in many years of buying well over a thousand books, I’ve NEVER been offered a penny off.

Before you all jump on the Twitter outrage bus, and chastise me for daring to want to ‘steal’ money from a charity; discounts for retailers off retail price is how retailing works. And the charity is no stranger to discount itself, as it applies for and accepts discounts and exemptions from the state in the form of Corporation Tax benefits, rates exemptions and from private individuals including donations and Gift Aid.

I would then come back and ask whether the charity shops that pulp the books you donate to them lose any sleep over the potential sale price against the pulp paper price? Or whether the charity you donate to sell those books at a small penny pittance to internet book behemoth World of Books? Do they tell you that that’s what might happen to your books before you donate them? Did they ask you whether you want your books to go to pulp or go for pennies to World of Books? No, I didn’t think so. You gave them in the expectation that they’d be sold for at least a £1 or so each.

Some charities are effectively short-changing those that they help, as well as their donors by using those two methods of dealing with books they can’t or won’t display.

A much more efficient way is to let local booksellers like ourselves make an offer for some or all of the books before they sell them for small change to World of Books. I make that point to the charity shop sector in general, and not just the charity sector in Belfast.

Of course you’ll be saying, but...but you’re going to be buying books for a pittance and selling them for more!! That’s outrageous profiteering!!! I then reply, “What, like World of Books do?” At that point, you take a fake call and get back on the outrage bus - destination unknown, but heading home via Self Righteous Street.

For me, some Belfast charity bookshops are at best very poor retailers, far from innovative, dull, introspective and not ‘bookshops’, with all that entails. At this stage of their development they’re merely places that I go to scout used books from, and the fact that they are fitted out with bookshelves and cash you at the till when you silently bring your chosen purchases to the front of the shop is as close to a real bookshop as they get.

Harsh? Probably. On the button? Maybe. A permanent state? Hopefully not, and our friends in the charity used book sector in Belfast will take this on board and improve their offering by examining whether the things I’ve identified are real or imagined. And the next time the sales figures from the charity bookshops come in, call the manager and regional manager in and have them present to the Charity’s board using our headings. There’ll be some redenners that day!

I think you’ll find that if you address the small number of systemic issues I’ve identified, your profits will increase.

And me, I’ll forever be remembered as the Mary Portas of used bookshops...and get a nomination for an OBE...or the offer of a book deal or a TV show...all or either of which I’ll gladly accept.

23 February, 2018 by John Junk
“But John, where else would I get a unicorn balloon at half three in the morning?”

“But John, where else would I get a unicorn balloon at half three in the morning?”

The above title must be up there with the weirdest of the odd blog post titles of the week.

The title comes from a question posed in our last blog post about Belfast denizens’ folie à plusieurs addiction to buying books and other items from Amazon, despite this impacting negatively on local independent booksellers and retailers, and possibly facilitating a diminution in worker’s rights at Amazon warehouses.

Have we really reached such a somniferous state of co-dependence that our first thought is, “Amcorp will have it, and it’ll be cheaper than buying it locally” or “I can’t be bothered looking locally, as I’m so pressured for time, so I’ll just get it delivered from Amcorp or TreeBay” (if they deliver to N.I. at all or are looking an extortionate shipping price).

Have we seriously thought where all this Amcorping may lead us?

To a retail wilderness, and a dystopian and wholly avoidable death, that’s where.

We’re already heading in the direction of a local retail wasteland, as our city centre and inner city retail grimly testify.

But let’s say you didn’t get the unicorn ballon locally...

Your Bezos Balloon arrives from Amcorp after a trip to Tomb St to get it from the Royal Mail Sorting Office, as apparently, there was no one in to sign for it, despite you being at home all day waiting in for the parcel to arrive. You pick up a £90 fine (or £45 if paid within 14 days) for parking illegally. Disappointingly, there isn’t a ground of appeal that states that the queue of like minded Bezosian money savers was longer than you thought it would be, and thus you have no case to answer.

You then head to your very local party shop to get your Bezosian Balloon filled with helium.

Your first rage is when you notice they have the very same balloon - and it’s cheaper.

Your second burn comes when the shop owner impolitely and publicly suggests that you take the balloon to where you bought it from to get it filled.

Customers in the shop laugh at your obvious discomfort, and you shake with self righteous rage, get straight onto Bakebook and TripeService to share what you view as a horrendous and humiliating experience.

However, by and large, commenters agree with the shop owner that you’d a brass neck to expect him to fill someone else’s dirigible.

You’re running out of time, and we’re 90 mins from the start of the party where the Bezosian Balloon was to be the visual centrepiece at.

After getting short shrift from a fast food joint that ordinarily has a thing for filling balloons, you admit defeat, and reserve and pay £19.99 at a national catalogue store for a helium canister to inflate Bezos’s Balloon.

As you didn’t fill the ballon the recommended two hours before the event to maximise the rigidity of your Bezos Balloon, it sorely disappoints, and your social media feeds are replete with flaccid foil images, mostly reflecting your tear streaked face.

If this weren’t bad enough, your Bakebook Live feed goes viral due to barbed comments from your OH’s ex that your listless, floppy Bezos Balloon reminds her a lot of your current OH in the bedroom department. The video rapidly becomes a meme and self actuates as a GIF.

Belfast Live ring you at your lowest point, and a recording of you swearing like a docker cross bred with a builder trend.

You delete, unfriend and soft block every mofo at that party, every commenter, and all who liked and shared. You retreat into a self-imposed, semi-agoraphobic exile.

As there’s a lot of helium left in the helium canister, you decide to chance your arm and take it back to the catalogue shop for a refund. Only, the attentive shop assistant notices that the valve seal has been broken: so you’re sent on your way, not knowing that your name and photograph are now on a UK & Ireland wide list of assorted fraudsters, panhandlers and reprobates.

You then have another brainwave, and decide to list the canister on E-tree as new. Unfortunately, all you get are offers under a pound, a short course in txt spk, various levels of unwelcome sexual propositioning, and an unmet desire to think of a collective noun for tyre kickers.

After your unsuccessful attempts to cash out, the helium canister sits unused and unwanted in your utility room.

Until one night with drink taken, and with none of your remaining dozen broken followers fave-ing your attention seeking subtweets, you decide to ride the Bantmobile, and use the helium canister you originally bought to inflate your Bezos Balloon, and do that squeaky voice thing.

As you become hypoxic in the 0.22 seconds it takes to fatally overpressure your lungs, your life flashes by you, and ends at the frame where you could have shopped locally, but didn’t.

*Tales of the Unexpected theme music plays*

YOUR END
16 February, 2018 by Brian Lee
Belfast Loves Amazon

Belfast Loves Amazon

Our book buyers survey is in, and in the bit where we asked you what you would like us to do, you’ve suggested we change some things, and if we do that, you might come visit us more often. You’ve collectively suggested that as a volunteer led bookshop, we open on Thursday night and Sunday...oh, and that we somehow we find the funds to open a coffee shop on the first floor.

Er...no. Just no.

Why not you ask?”

“Because you’re in love with someone else.” we say.

Whether you accept it or not, this Valentine’s Day it’s clear that Belfast is totally and hopelessly besotted with Jeff Bezos’s Amazon, and love him more than it loves its independent booksellers, and probably by extension, other small local retailers.

Despite us being much cooler than him, more inventive than him, cheaper than him, more available than him (he doesn’t follow ANYONE back on Twitter), you lot seem to be in a stuporific unrequited love bitch relationship with him.

That’s a bit harsh John.”

Not from where we’re sitting. Let me give you a real world example of what happens when Greater Belfast slavishly buys it’s books from Amazon.

In the last number of months you guys have managed to close a social economy bookshop and cafe on the Lisburn Road (in non-ghetto North Belfast, South Belfast) because you didn’t support it. Did you know that? At least partly because you guys loved Jeff Bezos more, a social economy bookshop and coffee shop closed. A meeting place and bookish venue of the highest quality was lost. A bookshop and cafe that if my information was correct got over £500,000 of money from the Department of Justice and other funders now sits empty.

Your love for Jeff Bezos’s Amazon knows no bounds, and you seem totally oblivious to what he gets up to when you’re not around.

Take a wee break from your telling off to read this story...

Amazon workers working 55-hour weeks and so exhausted by targets they 'fall asleep standing up'

Am I really to believe that you don’t care about the working conditions and health of these non unionised workers, and can just blank them out? If so, please don’t read on any further, and just head back to Omelas.

“But John, where else would I get a unicorn balloon at half three in the morning?”

Um... ordering it is not the same as ‘getting’ it. You can see one and feel one and ‘get’ one from any of the loads of party shops throughout the city. Small retailers who don’t have hedge funds and billions of dollars worth of backing, but who have something Bezos and Amazon will never have - they contribute to the economy, lifeblood and social well-being of this piece of land we share.

Take us for example. Over the last few weeks we’ve held a charity to account whose workers harmed women and children. We’ve also helped a number of intoxicated people get safely home, ordered taxis for pensioners, helped a local woman navigate the social housing points maze, are wrestling with a landlord over a lease for a farmers market and donated loads of books to a local social enterprise. Oh, and we’re designing a community magazine and are frequently told that the free tea and chat at ours is the only act of kindness local vulnerable people have experienced in a lifetime. As well as that we’ve also acted as ambassadors for Belfast, directing tourists to various parts of the city. I’m certain other shopkeepers throughout the city are similarly contributing to the greater good of the city and the communities around them. Is Jeff Bezos making such a difference in where you live? Is he planning breakfast clubs and running ballet classes and trying to get a stage school opened in north Belfast? We are.

Ok John, my original messianic rage at being criticised for my choices has abated, and I’m suitable chastened. How can I help?”

Well, we need money to keep the doors open and we need more money to grow.

We can get money from a number of sources.

Equity (where you buy in to acquire a share of the bookshop). I wouldn’t recommend that as there’s no return on investment coming this side of never.

Loan us some money to invest in some areas we’ve wanted to get into, but because of lack of funds we haven’t been able to. Not as crazy as it sounds as thus far, that’s exactly what we’ve done over the last 3 odd years. You may also not get your money back, as we’ve no expectation of getting our investment or loans back.

Donations of money. As some of you did when our shutter got damaged by a hurricane, you can help straight away by gifting money to us by PayPal. Here’s the link... 

We’ll set up a crowdfunder later for bigger projects. If anyone has experience of doing that successfully, get in touch.

Donations of books.

Good quality non fictions books, but that’s not enough of itself to keep the doors open. Trust me, we’ve tried paying our phone and broadband bill with a copy of ‘Lost Lives’. That didn’t end well, but thankfully the restraining order is due to expire soon.

Buy stuff from us at the shop, as we’re always cheaper than Amazon Marketplace.

Order book themed stuff from our website

Volunteer at or on the bookshop. Here’s the mailing list to sign up for that

Got YouTube presenting or video skills? We’ve a special list for that here...

Also, give your high level skills to help us improve things like our website, accounting procedures, stock control and branding. If you’re a creative writing tutor, give your time for free so we can run a course. Or offer to host a book club. Do something. Make a difference. As the Book Reserve and Thinking Cup found out to their cost, the choice is stark...it’s either

 

14 February, 2018 by John Junk