Books and charity in Herne Hill

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?

8 responses to “Books and charity in Herne Hill

  1. I’m a big fan of Herne Hill Books, lovely little shop with excellent stock and interested staff. As yet, I haven’t been to the new Oxfam shop, but will try and drop in later this week.

    Certainly it is a challenge for HHB considering Oxfam have the benefits you clearly outline above. The difference, which HHB need to capitalise upon, is that they can chose their stock whereas Oxfam have to come up with the best from a pile of cast-offs.

    If HHB continue with their up to date, varied and thoughtful shelves then they can still prosper.

  2. I haven’t been to either, but my favourite book shops are those with a cafe, where you can drink hot chocolate and browse through the books. A possible niche for HHB?? And extra points for brownies/scones?

    Sasha @ The Happiness Project London

  3. I’ve always assumed that Oxfam Books get to choose from a massive centralised pile of cast-offs, so there is some selection there. Would be interested to see how the process works.

    Sadly, HHB is too small to even contain a teasmade let alone a cafe. it’s about the size of a toilet!

    But both shops are very good and I think HH is big – and book-loving – enough to sustain them both.

  4. Oxfam don’t get to choose from a central depot of books, all the stock is sourced from local people.

    The reason Oxfam opened a bookshop in HH is because the tiny book section in the existing Oxfam was so successful that after trading for 3 years it was decided to expand.

    As you say they are both appealing to slightly different markets so there is no reason why the Oxfam bookshop should affect the business of HHB.

    Perhaps HH could replicate the excellent bookscene of Greenwich in the 80s.

    In my mind the more bookshops, the merrier…

  5. I think both are different experiences. If I am looking for a specific title or subject area I wouldn’t go to Oxfam. The selection is fairly limited there. But if I am there already, I wouldn’t mind picking up some popular fiction.

    I can’t see Oxfam – with its jumble sale atmosphere – as a serious threat to a proper bookstore that stocks itself with new and interesting titles, has knowledgeable shop assistants, and knows and understands the book business.

  6. this IS an extremely tricky issue- hopefully the two can co- exist somewhere like Herne Hill where people do try and support local shops (I used to live nearby) and also where there aren’t big chains nearby. This won’t be the only town where this happens though with the availability of retail sites and the tax breaks available to charity shops. In smaller towns where a book shop might already be struggling to fend off the local Tesco and the internet it might cause real trouble.

    I love it when I come across an Oxfam books and I’m sure they do pick their areas- and I’m sure they wouldn’t want to harm a local business but they have to make money don’t they. Perhaps they could try and work together to some extent. After all if no one ever buys any first hand books they won’t be able to give them on to charity to sell them second hand.

    NB Oxfam books and Daunt seem to co-exist beautifully on Marylebone High St- but I guess that is Marylebone High St- not your average place.

  7. I’ve worked in both the charity bookselling world and the commercial one, and I’m not sure there is an issue here, though I’m sure it feels like there is.

    In both worlds, I was delighted if more bookshops opened in any particular area – and I know that Oxfam, along with any other retailer, will actively look for places where there are thriving book businesses. The reality is that physical bookshops benefit from others in an area. Book buyers tend to congregate where there are good bookshops to browse – and one is often not enough to draw you in. A few together makes a detour worthwhile.

    The chances of anyone looking for a specific book finding it in the Oxfam bookshop and therefore not buying it in a commercial outlet is very slim. If you’re looking for a particular book, then head to your good independent bookshop and they’ll get it for you. But the independent bookshop gets the benefit of the browsers brought in to the local Oxfam bookshop. Where it works well, we built up an excellent relationship between us all and generated mutual business very successfully.

    If you add all the sales from all the charity shops in the country together, they add up to less than 0.1% of retail sales. If you’re looking for why its hard for an independent, high street bookshop to survive then point the finger at Amazon, Tesco and Abe (for instance) long before you target the charity market.

    Meanwhile, I suggest the two shops just look at how they can help each other to make Herne Hill a focal point for bibliophiles.

  8. absolutely, Murray.

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