drif field's Guide to Charity Bookshops

If the charity bookshops of London are failing it is not my fault. I am holding folding and ready to roll, but they are failing to tempt me. Most have taken to studying internet listings on Abe, Amazon and eBay and pricing their books accordingly. The trouble with internet research is that the bookshop managers don’t understand the importance of condition, edition, or marketing. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The purpose of having a bookshop is to get impulse buys and to get the customers to return. If you have books too cheap it is not a mistake as the buyer will return and buy something else. An example of over-pricing can be found at Chiswick Oxfam. In their window sits a set of eight large leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare for £500. There are thousands of sets of Shakespeare like this. The only ones you can sell these days are the very attractive smaller ones. Chiswick might eventually find a sucker who will buy their set, but it will take a long time, and that person will end up very unhappy when they see other, more attractive sets more sensibly priced.

Oxfam has the biggest chain of charity bookshops, but the number has severely diminished over the last decade. They opened them in areas where there were already second-hand bookshops. They soon discovered that even though they got the books for free, and the premises cheaply and the rates lowered they did not know how to make a profit. Anybody can sell expensive books, they are only that way because people want them. But it takes skill to sell the junk! It now seems that the shops Oxfam run are intent on getting the maximum price at all costs, when the best strategy would be to get the most money in now for their causes. After all, the ostensible object of Oxfam and co is to raise money for the hungry, not to get the highest price they can. If you wait until you get the best prices, then the problem of hunger will have been solved, the people you are meant to be feeding will all be dead.

A few years ago Oxfam, attempted to join the PBFA - the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association - which is the biggest organization of second-hand bookdealers in the UK. None of the bookfairies wanted Oxfam as a member. Many had had their struggling businesses ruined by Oxfam opening up their bookshops nearby. But as Oxfam had more secondhand bookshops and were larger than anybody else they could hardly be refused entry. However, one astute member of the application committee asked what they were going to do about discounts It is standard practice that a fellow dealer will automatically get ten per cent off and that books over £50 will be open to offers. Oxfam was having none of that, and their application for membership halted, at their own request. I have never liked the bookfairies, but I was very cheered when I heard that.

With regard to the book trade, it was not Oxfam alone that killed off the second-hand bookshop in London but they certainly put the boot in when they were down. Now is a great time to be a book collector, as long as you do not go to charity bookshops. If you have the cash and the space, the price of ordinary books is being forced down daily by the internet. But for the rare, oddball items, charity shops still offer surprises. The best charity bookshops are in the Home Counties, really. But I shall start with a tour of North London.

In the Red Cross shop in Palmers Green I was deterred from buying a book that seemed cheap because they had researched all their stock to death. I assumed they had done so with this one. After this fruitless visit, I walked from Wood Green underground station towards Turnpike Lane. I intended going on to one my favourite charity shops, RMVF. But before I got there I found five books in the Heart shop on Green Lanes. I snapped up the lot for £20. The advantage for shops of having a premises on a high street is that you can get impulse buyers. Of the five books I bought only two were really financially worthwhile and they will pay for the rest. But at the time it seemed like a good idea to buy them all.

The same day as I was visiting the two charity bookshops in Blackstock Road (see below), I bumped into another bookdealer in Second Chance. This is a charity shop further along towards Finsbury Park station. He told me he never goes into either of the two in Blackstock Road, and he lives in the area! But he was spending £20 on cheap books at Second Chance.

The following two shops are undoubtedly the best in London.

FINSBURY PARK

House of Hodge [see Map in Menu Bar]. This is undoubtedly the best stocked charity bookshop in London, and open to discussions. If only it was open more often, although it does claim to be so on a Sunday. 

Animal Aid [see Map in Menu Bar]. Unreliable opening hours, but open to discussions about the prices. 

Second Chance [see Map in Menu Bar]. Well worth visiting if you are in the area. Very reliable about opening hours but does not open Sundays. It regularly holds half-price sales.

From Finsbury Park station it is possible to get a bus to Crouch End, where you can find the Oxfam bookshop.

CROUCH END

Oxfam Bookshop [see Map in Menu Bar]. It is reliably open but the stock seems to be declining. If anything I think the eight charity shops in the high road are more rewarding.

MUSWELL HILL

Oxfam Bookshop [see Map in Menu Bar]. Seems more commercially minded than other Oxfam bookshops, but can be expensive.

PALMERS GREEN

Red Cross Bookshop [see Map in Menu Bar]. This shop has a high calibre of books, and indeed looks more like a book fair, but it has similar prices to match. There are bargains to be had but you have to wade your way through several thousand very ordinary books first. All the books are in extremely good condition, a fact that becomes noticeable when you compare it to the Oxfam bookshop in Wanstead and you have to wonder what has happened to the books that are not deemed A1. (Charity bookshops are regularly turning down acres of books because they don’t have the space and yet they are all larger on average than most of the old style bookshops. But they make the mistake of filling their shelves with books that you can find on the internet at far lower prices.)

KENTISH TOWN

Oxfam Bookshop [see Map in Menu Bar]. Not exactly outstanding.

For THE REST OF LONDON AND THE HOME COUNTIES, please see the Map in the Menu Bar.

 Article by drif field.

Animal Aid

Animal Aid

200 Blackstock Road N5 2LL
020 7359 0294website
Unreliable opening hours, but open to discussions about the prices. [Ed’s note: According to their website, this bookshop is run by “a voluntary animal welfare group, committed to rescuing and re-homing abused and stray cats in the North London area”.]
Bloomsbury Oxfam

Bloomsbury Oxfam

12 Bloomsbury Street WC1B 3QA
0207 637 4610website
This place is appalling, I had not been in it for years, as the prices were so high. I could not even afford to look in the window. When I went in recently I could scarcely bear to stay, they have priced everything to its upper limit. However they have a stock that is better than most of the few antiquarian bookshops that are left in this part of London. The only way Oxfam can have kept this stock is by over-pricing the books, and hanging onto them for years. It is noticeable that there are no books in less than perfect condition, and you have to wonder what has happened to all the books that don’t measure up to this ridiculous standard? At a quick appraisal they had books that were priced up to a total of roughly £250,000-£500,000. The other difficulty with charity bookshops generally is that most of them are not open to offers. It is their divine belief that somehow they should be exempted from reality. They want to be in the commercial world, but they do not think they should have to join in with commercial realities. If you are prepared to do deals or give bargains then you will get the customers back! Giving discounts is not a mistake, it brings the customer back. Oxfam claims that it is there to help the poor, and yet they are now sitting on a stock that if they sold at sane prices they could help people now!
Fara Charity Bookshop

Fara Charity Bookshop

34 Broad Street, Town Centre, Teddington TW11 8RF
020 8943 0876website
Very reliable with their opening hours, but mainly paperbacks and shiny dustwrappers. Having said that, I have found bargains here.
Heart Books & Music Shop

Heart Books & Music Shop

94 Streatham High Road, London SW16 1BS
020 8664 7490website
Only worth it if you are in the area. The Heart shops are now going in for books more and more but have some bizarre practices like asking £15 each for a two-volume set. The only thing to do in situations like this is buy the first volume, and wait until they reduce the price of the second. The problem is that most charity shops are not sane enough to do so.
House of Hodge

House of Hodge

174 Blackstock Road N5 1HA
020 8127 4765website
This is undoubtedly the best stocked charity bookshop in London, and open to discussions. If only it was open more often, although it does claim to be so on a Sunday. [Ed’s note: Suzanne, one of the volunteers, told me that the last major donation from House of Hodge went to a cat sanctuary in Kent called Rhodes Minnis. The shop is named in honour of Hodge, Dr Samuel Johnson’s favourite cat, immortalised by Boswell in his Life of Johnson and by a statue outside Johnson’s house on Gough Square. The shop’s founder was Dr Doreen Rolph, a “well-read cat lover”.]
Kentish Town Oxfam Bookshop

Kentish Town Oxfam Bookshop

166 Kentish Town Road NW5 2AG
020 7267 3560website
Not exactly outstanding. [Ed’s note: Nick is back on Thursday]
Oxfam Bookshop Crouch End

Oxfam Bookshop Crouch End

22 Park Road Crouch End N8 8TD
020 8347 7942website
It is reliably open but the stock seems to be declining. If anything I think the eight charity shops in the high road are more rewarding. [Ed’s note: Chris, the manager, said: “We do best in art and design and the humanities. This is a reflection on the Crouch End community which has a lot of people in the media and entertainment. We serve a recycling function, taking unwanted books. We find homes for them. The money we raise goes to Oxfam. We support artists and have exhibitions to support arty projects. We are also a music shop. We are at the heart of the vinyl renaissance. We have been plugging vinyl for twelve years and now everyone wants it. But the enthusiasm started with shops like us. Next week, we will be doing a window with an old radiogram complete with all the vinyl they would have had in those days.”]
Oxfam Bookshop Muswell Hill

Oxfam Bookshop Muswell Hill

376 Muswell Hill Broadway N10 1DJ
020 8883 5171website
Seems more commercially minded than other Oxfam bookshops, but can be expensive.
Palmers Green Red Cross Bookshop

Palmers Green Red Cross Bookshop

385 Green Lane N13 4JG
020 8882 5215website
This shop has a high calibre of books, and indeed looks more like a book fair, but it has similar prices to match. There are bargains to be had but you have to wade your way through several thousand very ordinary books first. [Ed’s Note: Martine the manager, says: “People keep telling us how nice the bookshop is because we have a good variety. We don’t just do bestsellers or fiction. We try to have as wide a range as possible. Generally customers say we are better than the other charity bookshops. We try to stock not just the books that sell but to keep the shop interesting with variety and quality. When people come they know they can browse and find something unusual. There’s a bit of mystery of it.” Les is the assistant manager. He runs the media department “amongst other things” and says the strength of the shop is “in its donations”. The other lady who volunteers there is Yolonde. She is from Luxembourg. Martine is French. They are all very friendly.]
Second Chance

Second Chance

161 Blackstock Road N4 2JS
020 7359 8129website
Well worth visiting if you are in the area. Very reliable about opening hours but does not open Sundays. It regularly holds half-price sales. [Ed’s note: Shanawaz, the Minister of Highbury Quadrant Congregational Church told me: “We have this shop in order to be visible in the community. It’s been open for twenty to thirty years. Money raised goes to Open Doors, Christian Aid or towards Macmillan’s coffee mornings and International Leprosy.”]
Wanstead Oxfam

Wanstead Oxfam

1 Clock House Parade, High Street E11 2AG
020 8530 3413website
From Wanstead tube exit on north side towards Snaresbrook. The shop is on the right. This is about the best of the Oxfam bookshops. It is not obsessed by having everything in mint condition, but it is still quite highly priced on average. The good news is that it opens on Sundays. As far as I am aware there are no other secondhand bookshops in the whole of East London. I would be happy to be proved wrong about this.