Well I’m back, as you may have guessed. A pile of new stuff to listen to, which I’ll work my way through over the coming days. Not a bad break, actually, doing very little, although I was dragged along to the British Museum to see the Staffordshire Hoard by my Saxon obsessed brother (that’s the people, not the dodgy eighties rock band). Must admit to being underwhelmed. Two tables of crumpled up little bits of gold didn’t really do anything for me. I understand that it’s an historically important find, and that I may come over as a bit of a philistine for saying that, but there you go. I consider myself a bit of a history buff, but I’m more interested in cultural, social and political history than I am looking at artefacts (old books, buildings and musical instruments being the exception). Having said that, I support wholeheartedly the campaign to keep this stuff in the UK. Although the BM would have more support on that front if they sent the Elgin Marbles back. Just saying.
Talking of old books, I had my attention drawn to this piece of vindictive bile by Susan Hill in the Spectator today. Looks like Melanie Phillips has got some serious competition in the embittered old bat stakes. This is a woman who went mental when asked to contribute an anonymous short story to an exhibition of literature that would display both amateur and professional writers, feeling it beneath her to exhibit next to asylum seekers and school children, and whining on about how she’s been writing professionally for nearly fifty years – blah blah blah.
Anyway, I digress. This venomous attack on Oxfam (with the inevitable bit of climate change denial thrown in) had about as many hard facts in it as your average National Enquirer cover story. I’m quite bemused by the lack of an official response from the charity, but anyway, here’s my two cents worth.
I volunteer for the bookshop in Glasgow’s West End and have been doing so for five years now. That’s my own time I freely give because I believe in what the charity is doing. Disaster relief (such as the Haiti earthquake) is a very small proportion of what Oxfam does. Most of its work is done working with communities to improve health and education and other important social issues. There is a political (with a small p) side, but then fighting poverty and exploitation cannot be politically neutral.
One of the stupidest comments in an article full to the brim with them is that Oxfam is like some kind of mega-market juggernaut rolling into towns and destroying all competition like some crazed literary version of Tesco. Hill’s beloved little hospice shops need have no fear. The 50p for a tatty paperback market is a completely different one to the one that Oxfam aims for. It’s like comparing Poundland with Waitrose. That’s not knocking the other charity shops (there are plenty on Byres Road, and all co-exist quite happily).
Although paperback fiction forms a big part of our trade (£3.49 is our standard price, not £4.99), we sell a lot of set texts and other textbooks to school kids and students, and have a great deal of out-of-print stuff too. Business is booming because we know our market and cater for it. Her petty little comments about the empty shop at the end of her rant are pretty stupid. How do you think we’re expanding if we have no custom?
The old chestnut about Oxfam putting antiquarian booksellers out of business is another myth that has no basis in reality. We do get some high value stuff, but it’s a very small percentage of what comes through the doors. When you think about it, it’s obvious why. If you’ve got a book that’s valued at, say, £50, are you going to give it to a charity, or are you going to try and get some money for it? For most people it’s the latter – either by selling it to an established book trader, or selling it themselves on Ebay, Amazon or another online book site. Increasingly, that’s what people are doing – cutting out the middle man (including Oxfam and other charity shops, as well as antiquarian booksellers) and getting more cash for themselves. Using Oxfam as a scapegoat is about as relevant as blaming Record Fairs for the current state of the music industry.
Happily, most authors are not as embittered and paranoid as Hill. At Byres Road, for example, we have great relations with a number of local writers including Alasdair Gray and AL Kennedy, both of whom are regular customers and donors. And the local book dealers aren’t above snooping around looking for bargains, either.
So stick to writing your generic, sub-Midsomer Murders potboilers, Hill, rather than ranting about things you know fuck all about.