Oxfam and the booksellers: a David and Goliath story?

If you thought the literary world was a dusty place populated by quiet, academic types with half-moon glasses and leather elbow patches, think again: it turns out the world of second-hand bookshops is nothing less than cut-throat – particularly in Salisbury in Wiltshire, where there’s a war raging between the cathedral city’s many second-hand bookshops and, bizarrely, Oxfam.

Yes, it turns out Oxfam’s books chain is doing very well – ‘too well’, hisses one seller in this morning’s Guardian, which goes on to explain the charity’s rock-bottom prices are putting other local sellers out of business.

Points go to Marc Harrison, owner of the now sadly-defunct Ellwood Books, who is quoted as saying, only slightly hilariously, that Oxfam is ‘the Tesco of the second-hand book world’.

“It is destroying the industry,” Harrison laments. “Half our business is rare old editions but in a recession people aren’t buying so many. So we pay our bills from the sale of £2 paperbacks or hardbacks for under £5, and Oxfam has destroyed that.”

Peter Moore, the chairman of the Provision Booksellers Fairs Association, complains the charity is ‘behaving more like a business than a charity and that is a concern’. “Many people have worked in the industry for decades but are now finding it difficult to compete,” he adds.

Do booksellers honestly expect Oxfam – which, after all, is set up to raise (and for that, read ‘make’) money, to get by just on the cash they make from grandmothers waving collecting tins outside supermarkets?

Perhaps, instead of whingeing to The Guardian, booksellers should take inspiration from what Oxfam is doing and, well, try to compete. And for God's sake – won't someone take a duster to those shelves?

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