Oxfam Could You Just Re-Think?

There are times when it seems that the people in the high echelons of Oxfam have just not quite thought through the introduction of a new system.

So what probably seemed like a good idea in a senior managers’ meeting sometime, has turned our shop into a bit of a walking disaster area.

So, as I am quite het up about this, I will explain.

(If you want to go away and fume about your own organisation’s inability to make sure the people – in our case not even paid – at the coalface have an input into decisions which directly affect their day-to-day working lives, feel free.

But if you are lucky enough to not face these issues, you can feel smug and gently superior as you read through mine.)

Regular readers will know that however hard it may be to hear, we do have to throw away a lot of books.

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Either they are in such bad condition no one would pay good money for them, or they are in fine condition but no one wants to buy them anyway – please read last blog for more details.

And if you read the last blog, you will know we were facing a re-cycling sack shortage.

So, I was very pleased on Monday when the man turned up to take away the full sacks, and leave us some empty ones.

But he didn’t leave sacks, he left a pile of flat-pack boxes.

So, I called the re-cycling contractor who said, and I paraphrase, –
‘sacks are so yesterday, we are now using boxes.’

That was news to me.

Now if you think about it, which I am sure you don’t unless you are a fellow Oxfam book sorter, sacks have big advantages for volunteers but are not good for the ‘health’ of books.

You can hold a sack in one hand and put in all sorts of shapes and sized books with you other hand, tie it up, put it in the pile of sacks and get on with the next one.

And if you have just had a hip replacement, for example, you can drag a sack but can’t drag a box.

But every book in a sack is likely to be bashed about and come out at the other end in a pretty sorry state of repair, whereas books in boxes are protected.

Then again, if you have a flat-packed boxes you have to make up each one with the requisite tape to make sure it is strong enough, and then pack it with books in all the right size and shape to fit in – then you have to lift and move it.

That is fine if you get one or two bags of incoming donations during your shift that you can gently sort through and enjoy the symmetry of making a range of book sizes fit together.

This, in Oxfam terms, is the equivalent of gently dead-heading the roses around your beautifully manicured lawn.

In fact, most of the time book sorting is more like desperately digging your way out of a big hole while people are throwing more and more earth in it – and on your head.

Or more accurately, a deep but very narrow hole.

Our sorting space is not much bigger than a phone box – if you are old enough to remember those – through which you have to preserve access to a fire exit, the toilet and the lift which, in case you are thinking otherwise, is just big enough to move books, not people.

And I know there are shops with even less space.

I am not sure how many of the high echelons who decided this plan was such a good idea, have spent a shift recently in a busy bookshop, with confined space and a lot of incoming donations, sorting the wheat from the chaff…….

Now, to be fair I understand one of the motivations – as explained to me by the man I spoke to at the re-cycling company – a necessary explanation as we had no other advance warning or explanation.

There are books we sack which would have some value – say paperback fiction which is not in a good enough state for us to sell at £2.49 but if you have a shop where they could go for £1.00 or 50p, I am sure they would sell.

And so I can understand a system which says, ‘please put into these brand new boxes, some books we might stand a chance of selling in other circumstances than your shop.’

We could do that – and it would gladden the heart to give those books another chance to raise money for Oxfam.

But the rubbish – the damp, the bedraggled, the scrawled over, the out date of legal text books, the Readers’ Digest condensed novels, the Which Best UK Hotels Guide 1985, the guide to Chatsworth House 1991 – give me a break.

Am I supposed to spend time making up these brand new flat-packed boxes to fill them with those books, so someone else somewhere can throw them into a sack?

How mad is that?

And what is more the re-cycling company has printed firm instructions on their lovely flat-packed boxes, they only want nice books, in good condition, that they can sell.

So, I asked the re-cycling man, what were we supposed to do with the rubbish books.

‘Oh,’ he said and this is not a word of a lie, ‘ I don’t know. I guess you need to put them in separate boxes and label them as rubbish.’

Really?

Now, boxes of books are heavy. I am not sure what the average age of an Oxfam volunteer is, but I can say that I am not surrounded by the gilded youth of Petersfield.

So, these boxes will hardly often be full because volunteers can’t lift that weight.

So, more lovely flat-packed boxes will have to be ‘built’ and most of them will only be half full.

Apparently after complaining, we were told we may get a large bin from the council which we will be able to use for rubbish books – when and if though, is a question.

These big bins need someone to hold open the lid whilst someone else puts the books in.

Obviously you can’t leave the till unattended and so you will need one person on the till, one person holding the lid of the bin open and another putting in the books……..

And the council charges for bins.

Anyone else thinking – for goodness sake just give them some sacks?

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In the vain hope that someone in those high echelons, maybe the very nice Trading Director gets to hear the plaintive, exasperated, desperate cries from the shop floor – or more to the point, not the shop floor but those many of us who are behind the scenes trying to cope with this system – I say this:

I quite understand the need to get as much money from our donations as possible – and we know that money raised in Petersfield is to help people with a whole lot more to worry about than boxing books.

And there is a system which could work:

Please supply us with some boxes and some sacks.

We will fill the boxes with books that have potential for sale and we will fill the sacks with the books that no one will want to buy.

And next time, could someone just ask us for our ideas of how to make the system work better?

 

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Oxfam Trials, Tribulations and Surprises

There have been a few trials and tribulations in the Oxfam bookshop of late – and then one really nice surprise with a rather spooky twist.

Oxfam’s trials and tribulations nationally and internationally don’t seem to have filtered down to Petersfield – there seems to be pretty much the same number of people donating to us as ever there was.

Turning out aged parents’ home, downsizing house and therefore books, bibliophiles with a one-in-one-out policy and the collections of religious books with the surprisingly frequent copy of the Kama Sutra tucked in……

(Yesterday was the 5th time in my Oxfam career, I found a copy and usually they are small and rather pretty but this one was the full works including – I had only a quick glance – advice on scratching……)

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No, that wasn’t the surprise with the spooky twist.

Neither was the very nice man, Terry, from the Chichester shop.

For this ‘episode’ of the story to work you have to know that we are ruthless about the books we put out for sale. And that means a lot of donations go into recycling sacks.

The book may be in perfectly good order, clean and bright, as we say, but to the best of my book-selling knowledge no one in Petersfield wants a copy of the book about the fairytale marriage of Charles and Diana.

Nether do they want the 2011 Top Gear annual, nor indeed, and it pains me to say this, any of Michael Palin’s books of his travels – although once I sold a copy of Himalaya.

So, the recycling sacks are an essential part of the shop’s DNA but low and behold when the nice East European man came to collect them on Tuesday he didn’t have any empty ones to give us so, by Wednesday ,we had run out.

That means that we had boxes and boxes and bags and piles of books with no long term future sitting around and taking up space.

And it turns out we weren’t the only shop with the problem. I took a call from someone from the Chichester shop asking if we had any spare. But we had none.

We, luckily, get two re-cycling collections a week so I left rather stern instructions that when the man came on Friday we needed two sacks of empty sacks.

He only had one.

There is apparently, a national shortage of the right recycling sacks.

Anyway, we got all our ‘waste’ books into sacks and still had a few leftover and on Saturday I was on the till when a man walked in with a picture.

He told me he was Terry and he had brought us a picture ( a print, not the real thing) by Flora Twort – Petersfield’s only famous (and dead) artist.

He said that he expected we could get more for it in our shop than in Chichester. I was very impressed he had taken he time and bother and so I raided our precious bag of recycling sacks and sent him away with our last armful – he seemed to think it was a fair deal.

Right, to the surprise with a twist.

A colleague had put aside a book for me with a note on it saying someone had priced it at £3.99 but she thought it might be worth ‘a bit.’

Indeed, it is.

So far, our book expert ( with me as his assistant, of course,) think that it is worth in the region of £750 to £850.

It is a large and 1933 version of a A-Z of London with added stuff such as the parliamentary constituencies, legal boundaries, London administrative districts and so on.

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And and this is a delight, a tube map pre Harry Beck which is particularly interesting as Beck designed it in 1933 – this book would have gone to print as Harry was busy thinking up his brilliant design.

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I suspect, given what I can find by Googling about, that the book will be taken apart, the maps framed and those sold off at a considerable mark up.

But the real spooky surprise was found when I was showing it to a fellow volunteer and we were looking at the maps of where she was born and grew up – then we turned to map of Peckham where I lived for a while.

This book is pristine and someone had a slipcover made to keep it that way. There are no internal markings except one – a biro mark along the road where I used to live in Peckham.

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Six Things

We recently spent a weekend with friends in a satisfyingly echo-chamber of our own views and values.

(The food was lovely, the wine was too, the conversation was interesting, the dog was great, the afternoon out was a delight of art and alms houses ( get me on to that in a later blog) and tea in Soho-meets-rural-village was a very nice surprise –  and so on and so on.

We left feeling our good friends were doing so much more with their lives – and so much more good – than either of us were.

Peace and reconciliation work, acute mental health work with damaged children, rescuing imploding charities, a pop-up centre for the town’s people who had nowhere else to go, project managing a development for older people to live well to the end of their lives…

We couldn’t compete but then it wasn’t a competition – just a get together – and we left doffing our imaginary hats to our friends and their lives.

Anyway, a public doffing of hats is not what I was going to write about.

It is (alarmingly and unbelievably) a special birthday for me at the end of the year and I am not gong to have a big party.

(It is too near Christmas, everyone makes an effort to come because it is a big deal and so many people are there that you never get chance to talk to them etc etc.)

Instead I decided that in this year and next year – the run up to and the run into years – I would do six of a variety of things so that at the end of these two years, I would have achieved a good list of things to celebrate.

At the weekend, I told my friends this and explained that so far, I had thought of reading six sci-fi books – not a genre I know.

Seeing six good films – we don’t often make the schlep to the cinema given that it is at least 40 minutes away. And, we have already seen Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri which was fantastic.

Going on six walks to amazing venues with my best friend who also faces this big birthday. The first will be to Hampton Court.

Learning six new things including how best to poach and egg and to throw a pot of some sort ….

And then I left them, with a notepad, to think about what else I could do while I went into the kitchen to help with supper.

Eating supper took over – and talk of the fallout of Brexit, the nightmare that is the reality of the planned idyll of co-housing, how you should never, ever, refer to the Sami people of Finland as Lapps, and so on.

In all that, the list they had drawn up of six things I should do, only got examined when I got home.

Yes, to visiting six islands – apparently only to be reached by boat, as a bridge was a cheat.

Yes, to six places important in Brexit terms – Lisbon, Maastricht, Dublin but I am not sure why somewhere called Leibach is – scrawled on the page ( much wine had been drunk…)

No to six premier rugby grounds – I am guessing that other people’s six of the best lists were coming into play here.

And  six leper colonies? Really?

Anyone with good ideas of six things to do is welcome and indeed encouraged to let me know – and anyone who knows of six leper colonies ……

 

 

 

 

 

Things you see on a bus trip

We recently went to Krakow and that meant – at least for us – we had to go to Auschwitz.

At this point, I am going to tell you that I am not going to write about what I saw and felt there, because I cannot ever match you watching a newsreel from the time, hearing real life accounts, reading a Primo Levi book ……going yourself.

So I am just going to tell you about the bus trip to Auschwitz.

We didn’t do one of the many organised tours and decided to get there and back under our own steam as it were.

We had been advised (via the internet) to get there early to avoid the arrival of massed crowds of people on coaches.

So, we went to the bus station by 7am and got a seat on a minibus – de-regulation of buses has really got going in Poland.

The ‘bus’ took just over an hour to get there and looking out of the windows I noticed, particularly, a couple of things – the houses, and the number of learner drivers.

The houses were larger and more had more space than ever would be the case in Britain unless you were looking at the richer part of an area – and maybe we were.

(Given that we were heading to Auschwitz, I rather hope that the outskirts have not become a des-res area…)

They were mainly detached and large – I mean I looked at them and thought ‘five bedrooms, maybe six even..’

And the Poles ( at least in this area) are not gardeners.

Their gardens were grass (at best) with a boundary demarcated by – and brace yourselves – all too often by leylandii.

Occasionally you would get a bit of topiary…. but where were the kitchen gardens, the fruit, the veg, the stuff that would feed the (I am guessing, given the size of the houses) three generations of the family?

In other (yes, I admit) Mediterranean countries, you could not go anywhere without seeing stuff even in February poking their veggie shoots through the soil – but not in this part of Poland.

And I have no proof, but I am guessing that these gardens did not have flowers in spring and summer – there certainly didn’t have evident flower beds.

Now perhaps if I went back in the summer, there would be an abundance of produce but I have to say I doubt it – no evidence of raised beds, tilled soil, in fact any interest in the outside at all.

The first learner driver I noticed, with mild interest, had an L plate up on the top of the car – signalling for all to see that here was someone who needed to be treated with road care.

And then there was another one, and then another, and by the time we had gone there and back, I had counted more than a dozen learners out and about on the roads between Krakow and Auschwitz.

Is this a learner driver specialist area? Are there a lot more learner drivers in this part of Poland than anywhere else? Is this a particularly good place to learn to drive?

Why don’t the Poles interest themselves in vegetables and flowers in their gardens?

Who knows?

Despite the fact that our driver had spent 13 years living in Bath, I didn’t get the chance to interrogate him – in his very good English – as to why there was a surprising preponderance of learner drivers and no vegetable and flower gardening.

When we got to Auschwitz we were indeed just ahead of the coach arrivals, and had the place more or less to ourselves, but as we were leaving, they were arriving.

As we headed to the bus stop go back, we saw coach arrival after arrival.

One group were Israeli schoolchildren, and all their coats had bright green stickers on them.

Of course it was to make sure they din’t get lost or mixed up with another group but the irony of ‘labelling’ Jews with identifying stickers on their way into Auschwitz stuck with me.

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A view from the shop floor

Haiti is a long way from Petersfield.

Indeed the connection between the day-to-day running of our Oxfam bookshop and the people working on the frontline of famine, war and disaster has always been a very long, and sometimes invisible, thread.

Many of our volunteers – including me – volunteer in the bookshop for our own reasons and they often don’t much include daily thoughts about crisis in Yemen, the Syrian nightmare, the disaster of an earthquake or Tsunami.

But every book we sell is a small piece in a gigantic jigsaw that helps Oxfam to help people – and Oxfam is a good thing.

Oxfam is a big bureaucracy and it gets things organisationally wrong – we see domestic bits of that in the shop.

Every big organisation does too. The lines of communication, feedback mechanisms, the transparency of decisions, the view from the top and the differing views from the sharp end – it doesn’t matter if you are IBM or Oxfam, these are always issues.

Someone perceptively said on the radio this week that when you set up a charity on day one your focus is the ‘client’ – by day two it is protecting the reputation of the charity to keep the money coming in.

And I am sure that protecting Oxfam’s reputation played a part in how the organisation handled what happened in Haiti – and no doubt, other bad stuff elsewhere.

I was in the pub last night and was talking to someone who said his wife had worked for another charity and had seen frontline workers coming back from some war torn nightmare or another and their behaviour showed their strings were very taught –  and sometimes snapped.

They had people repatriated for wrong doing – there won’t be an international charity out there of any significant size that has a not faced very wrong behaviour by some of its staff.

Someone also said to me that if the Ministry of Defence was asked to account for the behaviour of every British serviceman who was serving abroad or on peace keeping duties, there would be a very long list of sexual misdemeanours.

This is not to excuse what happened in Haiti but it is to say that charities, like Oxfam, have people who go places the rest of us won’t, to help in ways that we hope make life better for people who have little.

And, yes, yes of course no one in the position should exploit those people or their colleagues – in any shape of form and of course too, the vast majority of charity workers on the frontline, don’t.

And, yes of course, Oxfam should have acted better at the time – Oxfam has apologised, profusely, and if any charity will get its safeguarding act together now you can bet it will be Oxfam.

And, I expect every other charity in the sector is racing around trying to make sure that they stay out of media sight and get their house in order too.

Meanwhile, using Oxfam as a stick to beat the aid budget, is just plain wrong.

Penny Mordaunt, the relevant minister who, as a colleague said last week, ‘ sees a bandwagon a mile off and races to get on it,’ should of course demand more action and transparency – but what good does it do to reduce Oxfam’s funding?

Back in Petersfield, I was in town the other day doing errands and was stopped three times by regular customers saying they felt that Oxfam, though not coming up smelling of roses, was being unfairly hit.

I had not been in the shop for a few days so called in briefly this morning, and was gratified to see that donations had kept coming in, there were customers in the shop and that Oxfam’s trading director was due to come in to talk to people about what was happening.

I am very much hoping that our customers – many of whom probably see us as a good second hand bookshop first and foremost – stay with us and think, as they usually do, that buying from or donating books to Oxfam, is a good deed as well as a pleasure.

 

Hand Me The Flustertute

The planning for our annual village festivities has begun.

Regular readers, and there are a few, will recall the fractious relationship I had with the church, its wardens and vicar last year, over the siting of the bookstall – this year I decided to leave that to someone ( anyone ) else.

But I did agree to take over the booking and organising of the other stalls – we apparently have quite a lot.

These stalls go along the village street, which is closed for the event and have to be cajoled, slotted, moved about a bit, fitted in and generally made to happen.

Here is my venue:

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And this was like many other things I agree to – seemed like such a good idea far in advance of having to do anything and much less of a good idea when I have to get into action.

( See also waves of visitors over Christmas and New Year.)

The previous stall manager has moved, and though he is on the end of the phone and email, and endlessly helpful, it is not quite the same as having him down the road doing it – and me able to tug on his coat-tails asking how this and that was sorted out.

I have this awful image of the event this year with me running around trying to squish a gazebo in here, move a potter over there – and badly needing everyone to stand up straight, keep quiet and listen to instructions. (See below for what I need.)

And like all village stuff, there is a lot of history about who has what pitch and why, the village flower stall having a fight with a newcomer etc etc etc …..

Today I am trying to set up a database of potential (and hopefully, real,) stallholders and sort out pricing and location and what I need to send them and whether they need a link to the website.

Well, I did some of it and….

Always one to make displacement activity into an art form, I found myself going through my desk drawer and found a note of a few German words – you know the ones where they put a whole phrase into one word.

We have German friends and the words come from meeting up with them – well the first two do – I am not at all sure why I got  the third one…

So, just before I go downstairs to make supper, polish some shoes, write from scratch a legal contract for my upcoming ( rare) piece of work – anything but sort out the stalls, here are those words:

Flugbegleiterrufknopf – flight attendant button

Flustertute – megaphone – isn’t that great? Hand me a Fluster Tute at the festivities I say.

Insolvenzverschleppung – now, am pretty sure you are not going to get that one.

No?

Well, I’ll tell you – delayed filing of insolvency.

‘Damn,’ you are thinking, ‘of course!’

 

 

 

 

A Few Mysteries

 

We have had a few mysteries in the bookshop recently.

At this time of year, we often get unwanted Christmas presents and that can only be the explanation for two copies of the same – rather unusual cookbook – in separate donations on the same day.

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(Perhaps there are a few hungry dogs in deepest Sussex as we speak – and no, though Jessie, our’s –  and Mungo, not our’s but here now and then – would have been very pleased to see me walk through the door with it, I have not brought one home.)

 

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Whilst we are on animal books – who would have guessed there would be such a book as this:

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Then, we had quite a few boxes of sci-fi books – a rarity in our neck of the woods.

Now, at the risk of heaping down on my head accusations of arrant sexism and stuff, I would have expected them to have been donated by a man.

But no, they were donated by a woman of a certain age who brought them in over several days with the help of a sack truck – all carefully boxed and labelled.

As it happened, the day after we got them all Ursula Le Guin died – one of the few famous women sci-fi writers.

Now, I feel I should read more sci-fi – well, any, actually – but I really know nothing much about it.

Yes I did know who Ursula Le Guin was and that she had written Earthsea, and Iain M Rankin, Neil Gaiman and his collaboration with Terry Pratchett who I have read  a lot, and I was looking for a good copy of War of Worlds……so I am not altogether ignorant but pretty much so.. )

By coincidence, a fellow volunteer who happened to be in at that time, said he was a bit of a sci-fi fan – a surprise to me  – and would sort out the wheat from the chaff as it were.

So, all those coincidences added up to a table display.

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Then this, – donated separately but had to be displayed together. I hesitate to say Pauline was being indiscreet – but who knows?

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Meanwhile, our antiquarian book expert told me a while ago that old crime novels could be quite valuable so when some came in, I though I would look them up and we could do a table on crime – not least because we have a boxful of those old green penguins which are mostly crime too.

Who would have thought that someone called Clive Witting was so much in demand – the covers though are a delight and someone will want them just for the look of them.

( No, I haven’t read them…nor did I remember to photograph them so just let your imagine run riot and meanwhile appreciate this, and yes I do know that it is of its era:)

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Then there was the Nabakov donation.

Everything he had ever written as far as I could tell, along with a few biographies of the great man.

But not a copy of Lolita – the most famous book he ever wrote and indeed the only one that most people have heard of.

So, now we have two boxes of Nabakov waiting for a copy of Lolilta to appear – something like this first edition – preferably signed…..

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This little booklet is no mystery – except why anyone would give it away – what a little delight.

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And this, another lovely little book, has all its fold out maps intact – again, why would you give that away?

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Of course, we are grateful to everyone who does given them away to us, allow us to ‘re-home’ them, and raise money for such good causes.

Mind you, I am not sure who needs this book in their life – any aspiring civil servants out there?

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