My husband and I are both book worms, as a result of which our house often resembles the local library. Book shelves overflow onto the floor, then rise in volcanic stacks, the summit growing ever higher. Elsewhere, ruthlessly culled boxes, full to the brim, await transportation down to the local charity shops. Not any more! Having recently spoken to a number of disgruntled elderly friends and acquaintances, many subsisting on a state pension, I have discovered that they are being priced out of the charity shops. The £3.00 and £4.00 price tag for a second-hand book is, quite simply, beyond their meagre resources. And, whilst I accept that the charities’ aim is to raise money for their particular cause, I would also contend that by pitching their prices beyond the affordability of the majority of their customers, they are biting the hand that feeds them. Okay, so we all know there are also well-off canny people who trawl the charity shops for vintage or designer items they can sell on Ebay for a nice big profit. Others, more worthy souls, flash their green credentials at the drop of a pre-loved hat in a bid to save the world’s resources by choosing to re-use what is already in existence. But, the majority of charity shop users are elderly people on a pension and low-income families whose needs are basic and nothing whatsoever to do with profiteering, moralising or saving the world.
However, rather than just moralise, myself, for the past few months I have been on a scouting mission around the local charity shops of Thanet and Canterbury. The results were mixed but, overall, the picture emerging tallies with the experiences of my elderly friends. Books, in particular, have been hiked up to a ridiculous degree, the price structure seemingly plucked out of thin air. An anorexic book of no more than a couple of hundred pages is often priced the same as a massive tome, and a book by a well-known author regularly priced at two thirds (and more) of the original cost. Bearing in mind, (and as an author I know this all too well, to my own cost), that brand new books are often discounted to an enormous degree, pitching used books at the higher end of the scale begins to look less like shrewd business and a damn sight more like greed. Let me make it plain, I am talking about ordinary paperbacks and hardbacks and not rare, out of print, first edition, signed by some great, now-dead, literary giant.
Often, it is the big chain charities that are the more culpable in this regard. In Canterbury, one very well known outlet, had priced its books to such a degree that it was cheaper for the customers to visit the discount book store a few metres up the road and get three brand-new, current books, for less than the cost of two used ones (in various states of disintegration) at that store. That is not just bad business. It’s sheer stupidity.
As a donor, it’s important to me that the books that I paid good money for and which I am donating free gratis, be priced reasonably and placed within the grasp of those in most need. The same goes for clothing and bric-a-brac, both of which seem also to have suffered a seismic rise in pricing. For example, I saw items of used clothing priced HIGHER than their original selling price. What’s all that about! With stores such as Primark, the supermarket clothing brands and street markets, it is becoming a toss-up as to which is cheaper to buy – used or new. Given the choice, I think I know which the majority would plump for.
In Ramsgate, one charity shop has a number of pictures for sale. There is nothing special about them. They are pretty, but pretty ordinary. Prints. Not originals. Not limited edition. Not particularly desirable. Not new! All carry price tags in the upper twenties and more. Six weeks on, not one has sold. I’m not a gambler, but I would lay good money on it that six weeks further on, six months further on, they were still be there and the charity will have profited not one whit. Greed and stupidity again! Lower the prices, make the sale. ‘Don’t ask the price, it’s a penny’, was the mantra used by Michael Marks when he opened his first bazaar in Leeds in 1884. He later teamed up with Tom Spencer and the rest, as they say, is history. The charity shops might do well to revisit that particular school of thought. Pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap. Obviously, I am not advocating that everything be reduced to a penny, but a judicious lowering of prices will bring in more punters and result in more sales. Better the heel off the loaf than no bread at all!
And, before someone comes back and hits me with the cost-of-administration card, let us not forget that charity shops benefit from exemption from corporation tax on profits, a zero VAT rating on the sale of donated goods and 80% mandatory non-domestic rate relief. This 80% relief is funded by central Government. A further 20% rate relief is available at the discretion of local authorities. They are also staffed, in the main, by a wonderful army of civic-minded, unpaid volunteers, so a little latitude price-wise would not go amiss. After all, we are in the grip of an economic recession. There is a real danger that charity shops run the risk of donors finding alternative methods of disposing of their unwanted goods and disheartened buyers dwindling away.
I have also noticed an attempt by a number of outlets to make their store look more attractive, more boutique-like. Fine. Nice. We all like attractive surroundings. But a change of decor, an artistically arranged shelf, better quality air freshener, does not confer the right to charge boutique prices. Second-hand is second-hand, dress it up how you may!
As I type, I can see two large boxes of books gazing forlornly at me from the floor of my living room. A further hunt will, I have no doubt, result in as many more, all on the lookout for an appreciative new home. I will invite my friends to come plunder, and whatever is left I will distribute direct to hospitals and care homes, and to the few charity outlets I found where reality still holds sway. Sometimes, the cost of charity is not to be borne.