When I moved to Herne Hill three years ago the one thing I thought it lacked was a bookshop. In Waterloo, we’d had the excellent Crockatt And Powell (now sadly closed) as well as numerous shops selling second-hand and remaindered book. In Herne Hill, all we had was the brilliant but not-for-adults Tales On Moon Lane, a children’s bookshop.
Fast forward a few years and we have not one but two grown-up bookshops. Rejoice! But this bliss for booklovers, has not come without controversy.
The Bookseller has the background, but for those who can’t be bothered to click through, here’s the story. Shortly before Christmas, Herne Hill Books opened near the station. It’s a lovely shop albeit in the smallest space I have ever seen, but with good stock and helpful, friendly stuff – exactly what an independent should be like. It did well before Christmas and was seen as a welcome and overdue addition to the area.
Then, last month, a competitor arrived around the corner on Half Moon Lane. But this was no ordinary competitor, this was a branch of Oxfam Books. I was delighted, the more bookshops the better say I!, but Alastair Kenward at Herne Hill Books was less pleased. I bumped into him last week while he was out walking his dog, and we discussed the problem, which boils down to this.
Oxfam Books are not like any other business. They are a huge company with all the economies of scale that go with that, but they do not pay staff and do not pay for stock, which gives them an even greater advantage over their rivals. And to cap it all, they are a lovely fluffy charity, so you can’t criticise them without being called an evil sod who steals shirts from the backs of starving orphans, as happened to Kenward when he spoke out in The Bookseller.
I have a lot of sympathy with his position, especially given the threats indie booksellers already face from the internet and supermarkets.
So here’s the issue: should Oxfam go about their business like any other company even though we have established they are not actually like any other company?
Should they, as a charity, be beholden to a higher moral principle, one that is perhaps ludicrously idealistic and impractical but which is that they endeavour to only open in areas where there no existing local independent businesses to threaten?
Or does being a charity mean they should exploit every loophole and advantage they can, because at the end of the day all the money they make will theoretically make the world a better place?
I take the middle view, with many caveats, but that won’t stop me using both shops, which in the end do serve slightly different markets- new and second-hand – and together with Tales On Moon Lane make Herne Hill south London’s answer to Hay-on-Wye.
Perhaps all three shops should get together and organise SE24’s first literary festival?