I belong to lots of online groups that are related to books and reading, and one topic that comes up again and again is buying books from charity shops. I’m always surprised at how much misinformation is out there: charity shops don’t want any more books because they have too many, charity shops pulp 70% of the books that are donated, charity shops shouldn’t charge so much because they don’t have any overheads (and that last one really gets my goat). There are lots of misconceptions about what happens to books when they are donated to a charity shop and whilst I can’t speak for all charity shops, I thought that writing about what happens to books in my shop may help to dispel some of those myths. (And when I say ‘my shop’, I of course mean the nationwide charity retail shop of which I am manager. I’m not going to give away the identity of said shop for privacy reasons, although I will not be saying anything negative, nor passing judgement, but merely explaining the process).
So let’s begin with those few I mentioned in the beginning. Charity shops want your books! In my shop, books account for more than 10% of overall sales, so they are not a small part of the shop and it means that turnover of stock is high. So this nonsense of not wanting any more books is just that: nonsense! In our shop in particular, we are always desperate for more books and just like the Dog’s Trust, we never put a healthy book down. Which of course means that pulping 70% of donated books is an insane idea! The only books that we discard are those that are unsaleable due to damage, being written all over (although a dedication or side-notes are acceptable – I do love to find these in second hand books), or occasionally because we have thousands of copies of the same book donated each month (50 Shades of Grey comes to mind, or perhaps The Da Vinci Code). In fact, we don’t pulp any books, damaged or not, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
Finally, this idea that charity shops have no overheads is a lovely idea, but an idea is all it is. Regardless of what you may think, charity shops still have to pay business rates, council tax, and rent. There is still the electricity bill, the staffing costs, and the general costs of day-to-day running. Yes, costs are reduced because stock is (for the most part) donated and the staff (for the most part) are volunteers, but prices are also greatly reduced compared to standard high street stores. And yes, we’re a charity but we don’t exist to help people buy cheap books, we exist to help children in need/people with heart disease/cancer sufferers or whatever the particular charity. Just a little thought for the next time you complain about paying a pound or two for a nearly new book!
To help you understand the process a bit better, I followed a bag of book donations through the day, to see what happened to its contents.
A Day in the Life of a Book Donation
We’re extremely lucky that lots of lovely people donate their pre-loved books (and some not-so-pre-loved, as they look like they’ve never been read!). Without those lovely people, charity shops would get nowhere (and you wouldn’t be able to bag that bargain – “The Girl on the Train for £1, when I’m 180th in the library list? How awesome!”) So if you donate: thank you!
When we look through the bag to decide on what we’ll keep and what we won’t, we look out for a few different things. Loose pages and badly damaged spines are obviously a no-no, and likewise when a child has got hold of a Biro has scribbled all over the pages. As mentioned earlier, we keep an eye out for books that keep turning up like rabbits multiplying, because no customer wants to stare at shelves upon shelves of the same book (and it seems the whole world has read them anyway)! So we separate the books into two categories: keep and throw.
When I say ‘throw’, we don’t actually throw any book away and neither do we pulp them. Any unsaleable books (or anything else for that matter) gets put aside and bought from us by a third-party company. In our case, that company is World of Books. So we still make money from your books, even if we can’t sell them directly in the shop. As for what World of Books does with them, I don’t know but what I do know is that they sell a lot of them on eBay and on their online store and as for those that even they can’t sell, I’m sure they have a viable waste alternative to simply throwing them away. This 70% figure that I hear bandied about a lot is an odd one. For us, at least, nowhere near 70% of our donated books get sold on; it’s probably more like 20-30%.
The books that we keep then go through the pricing procedure. We have strict guidelines on pricing and so when you ask how we decided on the price, the truth is we didn’t. We just followed the rules. Sometimes I agree with the rules and sometimes I don’t, but for the most part, they make sense. We also separate books by department, so we have children’s books, general fiction, chick-lit and romance, biographies, and non-fiction. Each has its own pricing structure.
Once priced, books are stored in the back room (possibly my favourite room in the building, since it’s full of books) and are placed in categories for easy access. When ready to go on the shop floor, we organise books into fiction, non-fiction, chick-lit, etc. but we take it a step further than that. Fiction is categorised alphabetically by the author’s surname. Non-fiction is divided into cookery, history, humour, and so on.
On the shop floor, we take time with the displays and try to keep things interesting by putting bright price-point stickers on the front and putting book-marks into them, but if you’re looking for something that’s not there, just ask – there is a chance that it will be in the back room. It’s always worth an ask, and volunteers are always willing to help.
The final step of the process, of course, is you! So come in, browse, pick up your new friend, and leave a happy customer. And if you need a book-mark, we can give you one of those too!
So you see, there is so much more to donating books to charity shops than people think. And whilst we’re on the subject, if you’re a book lover then volunteering at your local shop will be a thrill. Just think of all the exciting new reads you’ll discover!