Monday, 17 January 2011

Second hand books, the slow death

We had a clear out of our bookshelves the other week. We do this every so often and find it incredibly cleansing. We both buy and are sent a lot of books and once in a while you lose sight of the trees for all the wood. Or is it the wood for the trees. Either way, there's a lot of stuff, the shelves bulge, and you can never find what you want.
So we thin them out.
This time we were left with quite a large amount of unneeded and unnecessary. These we split into two parts: the good and the not so good.
Our idea was that the not so good - mass market paperbacks and dodgy old copies of classics (falling a bit a little) were put on the OUT/charity pile. The other went in the SELL/second hand book market pile.
Over the years we've sold a lot of books. There was one occasion when a box of unwanted gleaned a staggering £85 (we had a great dinner out on that). But those days are over.
My SELL pile this time raised just £20, and that was after two bookshops told me they didn't want to buy anything. They wouldn't even look to see what I had. They were simply OVERSTOCKED. A glance around one store confirmed this: piles of books teetered on shelves. The owner needed to do some thinning himself. But where would he go with his unwanted stock?
In the end, most of my unwanted books were split between two charity shops. Oxfam runs a vast bookshop near us packed with everything from grubby paperbacks to immaculate first editions. They also charge 'full price' for these - half the list price, and exactly what the second hand bookshops charge - but as they get their stock for nothing, and are staffed by volunteers, this is supposedly pure profit. (Regardless of the value of the books you donate, they wouldn't even think of offering you something in return, not even a £10 credit note.)
For a charity this should be a great business model, and yet I keep hearing that these outlets don't make any, or very much money for the causes they are set up to feed.
All that is really happening as a result is that the traditional second hand bookshops are getting squeezed and a way of life for many bibliophiles like me is coming to an end.
One of my favourite bookshops, Caledonia Books on Great Western Road, Glasgow, has recently halved in size - with a coffee shop moving into the unit next door which until recently housed the sections on film studies, biography and history.
I hope it survives, but at the same time I can't help but wonder at a business that has remained essentially the same for over twenty years. Perhaps if they innovated in other ways - reduced prices, campaigned, author events? - they might have generated a wider, more profitable following.
The second hand trade simply reflects what is happening in publishing generally. We are awash with books - many, many of them unread. Far from being inspired by the range of choice and inexpensiveness of the products, the general public is I feel put off reading and searching instead for the TV remote control.

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