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Monday, 17 March 2014

The profitability of catflexing guides, and other things I learned working in a used bookstore

The definitive fantasy antiquities bookstore, St. George's Books of Jane Jensen's
adventure gaming classic, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

One of my dreams has always been to run my own hybridised bookstore/teashop. Antique stained-glass windows, chintz teacups suspended from the rafters, an elegant tufted armchair set before an open fireplace... and one of those bitchin' ladders on rails for swooping dramatically during spontaneous sing-songs.

Like Belle. Not Nigel Thornberry.

I'd actually considered this to be one of my more down-to-earth dreams, but given the proliferation of online book giants and the dwindling presence of high street indie booksellers, it now seems about as likely as my teen aspirations of edging out Mrs Bon Jovi.

Nevertheless, the appeal of being paid to spend my days surrounded by books never quite left me (if the Kingyo Used Books series has taught me anything, it's that the life of a bookseller is a continual voyage of self-discovery with neat, metaphor-rich tie-ins to each episode's book-of-the-week). So, when I found myself "between jobs" and discovered that my local Oxfam was recruiting book team members, my book-nerd senses got a-tinglin'. Here's what I learned in my first few weeks:

Get past the Fifty Shades shelf-fat and you'll find some gems

The large chains might have the indie and second-hand bookshops licked when it comes to profits and high street presence, but it's in the second-hand shops that the treasures are holed up. Sure, there's your obligatory mid-nineties Michael Owen annuals and your Nicholas Sparks/Fifty Shades shelf-fat. But for every redundant reality TV personality and their quarter-life "memoirs", there's a unique out-of-print edition of a classic novel, or a pristine copy of an unmissable recent release that someone has binge-read over the summer and no longer has a use for.

Big book chains only stock books that they know will sell, which often means cutting tragic amounts of worthy titles in favour of recent big-screen tie-ins and The Next Big Thing. Just the other day, my local WHSmith told me they'd axed Raymond Chandler from their shelves. Chandler. One of the foremost founders of hardboiled detective fiction. This is where second-hand bookstores, which, alongside independents, form "diversity outposts", have the upper hand.

Their books aren't too shabby, either. London publishing houses habitually give away surplus copies of brand new releases to resident charity shops for free, and well-located branches have the luxury of cherry-picking the finest examples of each title. This means that, bar the vintage selection, only those that are in very good or excellent (so, brand new) condition make it to the shop shelves. Other treasures that have passed through my local branches include a rare 1960s looking-glass/pop-up edition of Alice in Wonderland and a 300 year-old atlas priced at £2000 (which, incidentally, is also a contender for world's longest book title).

A rare pop-up edition of Alice in Wonderland that found its way into the
store, illustrated by Czech artist Vojtech Kubasta 

Books are about as popular in-store as bookworms are in school

True fact of truth: despite its treasures (and the success of dedicated Oxfam book branches), the books sections in generalist second-hand stores rarely, if ever, meet sales targets. This probably shouldn't have surprised me, but then I'm the kind of person that judges the quality of a second-hand shop on the size and range of its book section. Which should probably give you a clue as to how popular I was in school.

Desperate members of the book team (ahem) have even been known to scan greetings cards under the books category on the till to swell sales results. Entirely self-defence, of course, old chap; there isn't really a category for greetings cards (the closest, homeware, is also one of the most popular), while the books category has weathered enough hits to justify a break here and there.

After all, children's books are popular enough that they have been removed from the books section entirely and are instead used to support the children's items category (leading to reprimands if they are mistakenly scanned under their more obvious category). Music team members, meanwhile, have been known to scan books related to music, however tangentially, into their own category, the long-haired rogues.

Sales targets? That wasn't part of the fantasy, Kingyo.

Not all books are created equal

While charity shops foster relatively inclusive, diverse book collections, the books on display are selected surprisingly strategically, given the miscellaneous nature of stores. Shelf space is at something of a premium, so book condition and range is important; Fifty Shades of Eat, Pray, Love may be a mandatory part of the second-hand experience, but copies are unlikely to ambush the shop floor in their legions in more organised outlets with the luxury of choice.

The downside to store strategy is that staff also scale back on less "popular" genres to combat lethargic sales. This means that poetry, literary criticism and the classics have been relegated to the radiator zone: a sad, crotch-high shelf above a radiator behind a wicker basket full of men's lumberjack shirts (boo).

Gardening, biographies and cooking, meanwhile, dominate the shelves, occupying wall-to-wall space (incidentally, these also some of the most frequently donated categories, making for higher turnover rates).

Philosophical thought of the day: if it is automatically believed that certain genres don't sell and they are immediately relegated to the radiator zone, are they actually unpopular, or does the fact that they are situated at uncomfortably warm crotch-level and obscured by bad plaid become a self-fulfilling prophecy? A chicken or egg situation if ever there was one.

Still more in demand than Dickens.

"Unsellable" books meet with an unfortunate fate

One of the saddest places in the shop is the (soon-to-be-defunct) Book Barn recycling box - a cardboard box where books go to "die" (and are later reincarnated into, well, more boxes). Some of these might include dated academic titles, or books containing dubious political messages (this might be contentious, but recycling/storing/de-emphasising certain titles is nevertheless a reality in most bookstores and libraries. Besides, Tintin in the Congo does seem a tad inappropriate for a company that supports international aid and development).

However, I've also been tasked with "offing" Stephen King and Terry Pratchett novels in the same way a put-upon employee might be forced to dismiss a colleague they once shared a glorious karaoke duet with. Granted, some of these books did have dubious yellow stains, used Q-tips and stray pubes inside of them, but still.

N.B. Individuals who come in with stacks of boxes of donated books are, surprisingly, not the book team member's friend. While contributions are always appreciated, more often that not, these types are more in the business of "offloading" than "donating", leading to some of the aforementioned sticky situations.

The weirder, the better

What do the titles How to Be a Pope: What to Do and Where to Go Once You're in the Vatican and Catflexing: The Catlover's Guide to Weight Training, Aerobics and Stretching have in common? Other than being weirdly specific mouthfuls, they're both utterly useless-sounding. They seem like deserving candidates for the Book Barn bin for having the sheer audacity to exist. But to at least one person, some wonderfully weird, slightly unhinged individual, they're gold dust. They might spend a while on the shelf, but wily book store assistants will hold on to them in the knowledge that they are liable to eventually sell for a tidy sum.

Caption not required.

£1 isn't the small fortune it once was


For most mainstream second-hand bookstores, the days that you could purchase the Choose Your Own Adventure anthology, a 99 Flake ice cream for 99p and still have money for the bus ride home are long gone. A minimum price of £1.99 stands for most books on the Oxfam shop floor, and gone are the days of doddering but well-meaning older dears under or overpricing stock. Each book is priced according to a periodically updated price guide, or checked against the lowest currently available online prices (with added p&p costs taken into account).

Charity shops were teeming with these bad boys in the 90s. Today, nary a
trace of CYOA books can be found in physical shops. I'm still mad at my
mum for giving my collection away.

"[A] good bookshop is just a genteel blackhole that knows how to read"

"As organised as a second-hand bookstore" is a rarely bandied-about term. Terry Pratchett even has his own name for this happy chaos; L-space, or library-space, the phenomenon that occurs when large quantities of gathered books cause space and time to warp around them.

The mind-bending physics of my local Oxfam book shelves include diverse and nonsensical patterns of arrangement, which form eco-systems of arcane logic unto themselves. There are at least three different A-Z fiction sections, for example, differentiated from one another by size only. Notable lack of James Patterson? You want to look in the other, other general fiction section. Genuine fiction sub-sections are non-existent; sci-fi is shamefully undersized, while classics and poetry are blink-and-you'll-miss-them affairs.

There's an unmarked shelf for books that share no obvious relation other than their largeness, and another for books that happen to be terrifically old - the sort of categories that can only have been conceptualised by someone who has clearly never before seen a book. I wouldn't be surprised if shelves sorting books by colour or text point size sprouted overnight.

The huge volume of motley titles slot into limited categories with varying levels of success. While sub-categories do exist, I've perched foreign language editions of fiction novels alongside language reference books and wine-tasting guides alongside car enthusiast catalogues for want of more specific sections. Should book team members be feeling a bit saucy, they can compensate by grouping books into more specific makeshift sub-categories. Nevertheless, many books incestuously straddle multiple categories anyway. Fiction, or lofty literature? Some hardcore titles don't feature a descriptive blurb, or any apparent defining characteristics whatsoever. 'Cause books are open-minded like that.

Meanwhile, music, cooking and magazines are, for some unknown reason, located at completely separate parts of the store. It can only be assumed that the strain the sheer number of books has placed on the fabric of space has led to some kind of tear, resulting in fragments of the book section breaking off and migrating to other parts of the store.

But then again, where's the fun in a bookstore that's easy to navigate (or sort)? It's about the journey, not the destination, brah.

Pratchett's Discworld series postulates that "[I]n large quantities all books warp
space and time around them."

Book team members are nothing short of champions

I'd always envisioned book sorting as a relaxing, if somewhat ponderous, task. In a second-hand setting, it's a librarian's nightmare. There aren't always easy pre-defined prices or categories to file books under, while there will always be a certain type customer who will expect the same standards in a charity bookshop as they would in a multi-storey Waterstones.

Book team members spend their days casting love eyes at everyone who walks through the door, willing them towards their section in the hopes they'll be able to single-handedly make up those underwhelming sales figures.

To make matters worse, we're also often lumbered with the task of magically squeezing cartloads of books into non-existent shelf space, which can be likened to that time I was shown a "helpful" comparative diagram of the circumference of a newborn baby's head in relation to a generously sized melon.

Yes. Hail to the book shelfer, book shelfer (wo-)man.

"A lone reed, standing tall, waving boldly in the corrupt sands of commerce..."

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