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?
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.