The demise of the second-hand bookshop

From The Critic:

In 1973, Graham Greene wrote an introduction to a bookselling friend’s memoir. As Greene was one of the most respected writers of his day, this was no small gesture, but the author was also a committed bibliophile. The book dealer and biographer John Baxter’s memoir A Pound of Paper contains treasurable glimpses of Greene deliberately signing obscure copies of his works in far-off locations, in the certain knowledge that these items would become hugely sought-after rarities, and he remains one of the few serious literary figures who also understood the glamour and romance of the bookselling trade. In his introduction, he openly acknowledged this, writing ‘Secondhand booksellers are the most friendly and most eccentric of all the characters I have known. If I had not been a writer, theirs would have been the profession I would most happily have chosen.’

If Greene was alive today, he would look at his beloved second-hand and antiquarian bookshops with an air of sorrow, leavened with a touch of bewilderment. The recent news that one of Charing Cross’s most famous booksellers, Francis Edwards, was to close after 150 years, maintaining only a presence in Hay-on-Wye, was greeted without the anguish that it might have been otherwise. After all, covid closures are ten a penny these days, and in the era of Amazon and Abebooks, maintaining an expensive shop in central London without regular footfall might seem a folly. Yet the story of Francis Edwards, which had been allied to another shop, Quinto, since 2008, comes to epitomise the decline not only of a certain sort of retail, but sounds the death knell of an entire industry, which, despite or perhaps because of its unworldly and vaguely anachronistic nature, has remained a constant part of many people’s lives and affections for decades.

. . . .

The Oxfam bookshop on St Giles in Oxford is, for my money, the most likeable and successful of all the many Oxfam bookshops in the country. It is unique in that its stock is not just interesting and desirable, but replenished on a virtually daily basis; it is extremely rare that I walk past its front window and don’t see at least five books that I want to buy immediately. It is especially strong in history, literature and illustrated books, often selling rare and valuable items at surprisingly reasonable prices, even if the big-ticket books, lurking provocatively in a glass case, can sell for many hundreds of pounds. It was founded in 1987 as Oxfam’s first dedicated bookshop, and was opened by the author and barrister John Mortimer; he later returned two decades subsequently to celebrate the shop’s 21st birthday. It is a wonderful place, and I cannot even begin to calculate how much money I have spent there, as a student in the city, a visitor and now a resident. But it, and the other Oxfam bookshops in Britain, sounded the death knell for other, ‘normal’ bookshops.

The reasons why are simple. Every book that the Oxfam bookshop stocks has been donated, meaning firstly that there are no acquisition costs to be borne, and secondly, as the majority of the staff are volunteers, the only costs of employment are that of a manager, who can often be responsible for several different shops. Otherwise, given the charity’s abilities to claim tax relief from the government for rent and bills, it is making a considerably greater amount of profit than any competing bookshop could ever hope to do. Thus, the rest of the bookselling trade, faced with this cuckoo in the nest and the rise of internet availability, faced a simple choice: evolve, or perish. It is a shame that so many shops decided, as if it was pre-ordained, that they would shut their doors and that would be the end of that, thank you very much.

Link to the rest at The Critic