Weldmar have taken a long term lease on the bookshop.
This means that Richard can apply for the job of shop manager (rather than shop assistant). Temporary shops don't have managers - which has been a source of endless frustration to us. (It's not about the pay, it's about being treated differently from every other shop and having less control over how things are done.)
Before anyone says he should get the job automatically, I should say that they're obliged by law to advertise it as it's effectively a new job for a 'new' shop. I fully expect him to get it. It took us a year to get sales to this level, and it would be extremely hard for anyone else to match the level fine-tuning that we do to get those figures.
Charity shops are very different from other book shops. Some knowledge carries over, but some is useless. You don't order your stock, you have to make best use of what arrives at random.
Anyway, a few photos to celebrate.( 4 photos behind cut )
So, we've drawn up a detailed list of pretty much every single job in the shop, from selling greetings cards to cleaning the sink.
There's a lot of detailed oddities in charity shops. Just something like gift aid requires four separate skills to be learned: customers with gift aid key fob; customers with a printed card with their number ( these were issued before key fobs were introduced - no bar code); customers who have never gift aided before and customers who have gift aided before, but who have lost their number.
Each of these gift aid options needs to be learnt separately and then revised several times.
We have a high gift aid rate, largely because we make the effort to teach the volunteers all the ways of handling it.
The new training list seems to be going down well with the volunteers. As well as telling us what they already know, it allows them to know what new areas they can gain skills in. I spent part of Saturday teaching two people how to price vinyl records. No one has to train in areas they aren't interested in, ('D' would never want to go on the till, for example, and 'F' has bad knees and can't run up and downstairs to do shelf restocking) but people can ask to learn new things and from the reaction so far, they seem keen to do so.
The other thing the training sheets highlighted was who had had proper training in fire procedures and who had not. So I also spent part of Saturday on fire training. I try and go a long way beyond the basics ("Get out of the shop and go to the fire assembly point") and teach them stuff that may be useful in other buildings. The key thing is always to avoid becoming a casualty, so getting out the building is generally the correct action. In the case of really tiny fires, it may be okay to use a fire extinguisher to put it out, but the principle function of a fire extinguisher is to help you reach the exit alive.
It's been interesting to see what people know about different types of fire extinguishers. Most people correctly worked out that CO2 was safer than water for electrical fires, but only one volunteer worked out the risk to avoid on CO2 extinguishers (apart from the obvious one of not taking in lungfuls of it). Gases get cold when they expand - touching the metal cannister of a CO2 extinguisher can cause a freezer burn.
Also, people tend not to think of alternative ways of escape. I asked people what they'd do if trapped upstairs with the stairs on fire. No one so far has spotted the option of breaking a window at the back and climbing down onto the roof of the shed below. (A CO2 extinguisher would be a very useful tool for breaking double glazing)
Next week, I'm going to see who knows the shop address. If you're calling 999 the first thing they will ask you is the address of the premises: 32 South St, Dorchester.
It's a whole combination of things. We've got more volunteers; we're better at spotting what will sell; we've got display tables outside the shop whenever it isn't raining; we've gained a reputation for friendly service and we've got a lot better at pricing. We still use Amazon and ABE as a guide, but we also have become better at recognising when the pricing there is being done by guesswork and have a lot more confidence in knowing when to price above or below the Internet prices.
It's very good for morale.
We definitely caught more of the tourist trade this year. We're learning which books are seasonal. Children's books sell much better in the summer as families are on holiday together and children of working parents are often out with their grandparents.
University text books also sell better in the summer as the students are home from university. We've had good sales of things like recent books on organic chemistry. I still don't know how we came to have a donation of a large number of high quality books on university maths and chemistry, but that particular donor has helped us raise a lot of cash - it's a real shame that there was no gift aid on it.
If you're a taxpayer and donate anything valuable to a charity shop, make sure that you fill in a gift aid declaration (and ask for a form if staff forget to offer). We'd have made over a hundred pounds extra for the Hospice if there had been gift aid on the text books.
Over the year I've been there, I've got to know several of the regular customers by name and to know the books they like and to chat when they come in.
There's C, who loves military history, especially naval, but likes first hand accounts. He also likes interesting books on a wide range of subjects and often buys quirky older ones.
S, who drops in with his wife every few weeks is a natty dresser and likes industrial architecture and shares my love of canals.
P has a deep interest in social history, as well as a range of other subjects.
We used to have Mr A. His interest was classic movies and the history of the different studios. We often used to save books for him and he'd pay for them in installments out of his pension.
We haven't seen him in several months now. He's not young. I've no idea if he's okay, or if he's sick or even died. I hope we'll see him again, but I fear that we won't. He usually dropped in once or twice a week.
During the last week, they've been losing items from the back room and from lockers: valuable items, jewellery, etc. No means of entry was seen, so staff were falling under suspicion.
Last night, the thieves struck again. This time, they knew exactly what they were after. They stole the till, the PAT tester (charity shops cannot sell electrical items unless they have passed a Portable Appliance Test), removed the safe, and even took the credit card reader.
In short, they not only stole valuable items from the shop (these will cost a lot to replace), plus all the cash taken on Friday, but they also have greatly reduced the shop's ability to raise money to care for the dying.
Right now, they are struggling with a manual till that can' t record details of gift aid when donated items are sold; they can't take credit card payments; they can't test donated electrical goods, and staff morale is in the pits.
About the only good thing is that they've finally discovered how the burglars were entering the building, which at least means the staff are no longer suspects.
I really haven't got words to describe how I feel about this.
I've occasionally come across people who feel it is somehow okay to steal from charity shops as the items were given to the shop for free (the fact that the donors often choose to give items they know to be valuable because they want to help a specific charity is clearly irrelevant to them), but surely even those people would never take items essential to the running of the shop?
What kind of a person would steal the till from a charity shop?
There are some interesting differences between what Amazon can sell a book for (or not sell as the case may be) and what you can get in a bookshop.
Here's two classic examples.
This book is a minimum (inc postage) of £4.24 and the next cheapest copy is a pound more. However, if you look inside it (which you can't do on Amazon), you discover that it has no pictures and looks totally boring. You won't be able to get more than £1.50 for it in a bookshop.
However, good quality children's pop up books will sell in the shop for more than the second-hand Amazon price. In the shop, we can display pop-up books to full effect - on Amazon, you only see the cover.
There's also a lot to learn about older books - the ones that are too old to have any chance of Amazon showing the contents.
Amazon prices are almost entirely driven by algorithms (and ABE is starting to go that way, though prices there generally reflect the experience of actual human booksellers). Thus, an Amazon price is generally inaccurate (and usually far too high) if there are less than 30 copies for sale. This means that you have to get really familiar with what your customers are buying and what they are willing to pay for it and use that knowledge as your guide, in addition to seeing what online prices are.
I heard late Saturday afternoon, about third or fourth hand, that you were dead. I hope it isn't true, but I fear that it may be.
It's only last week that you had to go into hospital because of the fibromyalgia. I heard you were out again, but knew it could easily strike once more.
I owe you so much. You made such a difference to my life that it's hard to describe it.
A year and a bit ago, I was feeling really bad. Unemployment was doing horrible things to my stress levels and I just felt crap all the time. I made a decision to start volunteering again as a way of trying to improve my morale.
I went to the Red Cross shop in Wimborne (picked because it's a very good shop and I often buy stuff there) and did a few sessions working on their books, but their back room was unbelievably small and cramped and the books were stored in containers that were totally inappropriate and made it difficult to reach anything. It wasn't helping my stress levels (I was almost at the shaking/stammering level) and the manager (in retrospect) was wise enough to recognise this and say that it wasn't a good idea for me to continue working there.
So, I upped stakes and walked around Wimborne looking for another shop to volunteer with. I picked Weldmar because they had two copies of 'Angels and Demons' by Dan Brown on the shelf.
Why was this a selling point?
It meant they really, really needed me. Dan Brown books are printed and donated in the millions. Every charity shop has more copies of the Angels and Demons than it can ever sell. To have two copies on the shelf showed that they weren't turning the stock over and that no one had any idea of which books to put out.
So, I offered my services. Zona welcomed me with open arms. The shop had only been open a month or two, there were hardly any volunteers (It takes quite a while for a new shop to get a regular staff) and she knew nothing about books.
We got on like a house on fire. We shared the same sense of humour, both appreciated the others skills – the other reason I picked the shop was because the window display looked really good. Zona came from retail and was a true professional when it came to display. She could take a load of complete tat, arrange it by colour and form and suddenly make it look exotic and valuable.
She gave me a completely free hand when it came to the books – which was exactly what I needed. It allowed me to utilise all the tricks of price and display that I'd leant from working in Oxfam and other charity shops over the years. It wasn't long before we were selling higher value books for £30 or more and the book turnover per week had tripled. Zona was delighted. Her manager was pleased too.
I ended up coming in two full days every week. Zona was fabulous. We made each other laugh, shared our joy in books/fashion (books for me, fashion for her), cheerfully griped about anything that bugged us and it wasn't long before my dose of anti-depressants was falling dramatically.
Sales overall were on the low side – it takes time for a new charity shop to get known, to gain volunteers, and to get local people donating. There's a lot of competition in Wimborne which had 9 or 10 charity shops at that point. We used to look at the sales figures for other Weldmar shops and joke that at least our sales were better than the Dorchester book shop! Another reason why I loved her – getting sales figures out of some managers is like getting blood from a stone. Zona gave me a log-on and let me check the figures directly – which meant I got instant feedback when I tried new tricks on the book display.
By Christmas, we were close friends. She gave me a delightful little angels ornament, powered by a candle. (I loved it, physics and prettiness combined)
In the new year, the Wimborne deputy manager decided to leave, and Zona and I were delighted as this meant I could apply for the job – two days paid work would allow me to still do some volunteering on top and would give me a small (and much needed) income. She started putting me through all the basic training that I would need for the job: how to make up a float; bank money; keep sales records at the end of the day; refresh the window display, etc.
I was bitterly disappointed when I didn't get the job. I gather it was a close-run thing, but it went to someone with slightly more retail experience.
I can't even remember now who asked me to take a look at the bookshop. It may have been Zona's manager – I'd included a reference from an Oxfam bookshop manager in my CV and I think this finally woke them up to the amount of experience that I have in this area.
I said I'd look, but insisted on travel expenses. Dorchester isn't that close... So, in February 2013 I got my first look at the bookshop as a volunteer.
It was dreadful.
The shop was a total mess. Books for sale piled up on the floor in the shop. Books piled all the way up the stairs. Boxes and bags of newly donated books cluttering up the shop floor. The stock on the shelves was poorly laid out. A lot of the stock in the best positions was unpopular fiction hardbacks and out of date celebrity biographies. The staff member on the till wasn't interested in change and didn't want me (a lowly volunteer) to tell her what needed doing.
Once back home, I basically wrote my ultimatum. I was willing to take on the bookshop, but I was not willing to do it as a volunteer. I wanted to be a paid member of staff (thanks to Zona, I already had the necessary training). It was going to take a massive amount of work and I'd have to be there several days a week to have any chance of getting it back on track. I also needed the authority to make the necessary changes.
Zona was rooting for me all the way. We both knew that it would mean I could spend less time in Wimborne with her, but she was still delighted that I had a chance to work with the books I loved. And she was totally convinced that I could turn the bookshop round.
I managed to work both shops in parallel for a couple of months, but I needed to spend three days a week in Dorchester and it was just too exhausting to do Wimborne as well. I called in whenever I could to see Zona and to pick out the best books for her top shelf display.
Then she went down with fibromyalgia. I called into the shop and she wasn't there. I was told she was ill, but I had no way of contacting her to find out how bad it was. She wasn't answering her mobile. All I could do was to leave a letter with the shop telling her how much I missed her, asking her to get in touch and giving all my contact details.
It was over a month before I heard from her. She'd been really ill, didn't know if she'd ever be able to work again.
She recovered gradually. I'd call into the shop and she'd either be off sick, or there, but looking exhausted. I helped her set up a gmail account so that we could keep in touch even when she wasn't in the shop.
By November, she was looking a lot better and had applied for a new job in a Fair Trade shop in Blandford – less heavy lifting and more control over what stock you get. But this morning, Monday 22 December, I know for definite that she'll never see that job. Part way through writing this, I realise I'd already accepted that she'd gone. I've just had an early phone call from our area manager who knew I was close to Zona. She confirmed the news. A heart attack.
If it hadn't been for Zona and her willingness to welcome a stressed, depressed woman who demanded total control of a corner of her shop, I would not be the relatively sane woman I am today.
This Saturday, Richard, myself and our team of volunteers broke both the bookshop record for best sales in a day (over £400) and best sales in a week (over £1600).
It was also the day I heard about Zona.
I've lit a candle under the angels and I'm watching them fly.
I shall remember her every Christmas.
We had a Polish customer in the bookshop earlier this week looking for a concise British history book that was written before WW1.
We found him one and he bought it, but he was also talking about how he was looking for a particular paper delivered by a Polish politician at Oxford just after WW1. He'd failed to find a copy of it anywhere. As the shop was quiet, I looked it up for him on Google and managed to find the text of it after a bit of searching. He donated the charity a couple of quid and I emailed him the link so he could print out the file.
Yesterday, he was back again. He was convinced that my computer (the till) is better than the one at the local library because I can find historical things on it. I explained that it wasn't the computer (which is pretty crap as computers go, but it does the till work and allows us to research books on Amazon, etc), but it was me because I'm good at researching things.
This time it was a speech by his politician at the Versailles conference. That took me several minutes, but I tracked down what looked like a transcript of the speeches at the University of Wisconsin. I think it's what he's after (the list of talks includes the one he wants), but as the file is a photo of the text rather than converted by OCR, it can't be searched for individual words and it's a massive file - far too big to scan quickly. I gave him the link so he can try and print out the bits he wants.
Another couple of pounds in the collection tin. (I've explained to him that I can only do his research when there aren't other customers in the shop, as I need to focus on helping/serving them.)
If he comes in again (which I half dread as he does take up an awful lot of time), I can't help wondering what he'll want next. I've deliberately not named his politician here, simply because I don't want to show up on Google searches for the name, but he was clearly an important person in Polish history at that time - very much a Polish nationalist (though worryingly anti-Semitic).
I may have to tell him that I simply don't have the time to do any more. Although he's only been in during fairly quiet times, he can hang around for quite a while, and I do need to get on with book pricing.
It's partly due to costochondritis, which I've had for months now and is taking its time about going away. It is improving overall, but it still means I tire very easily, and lifting heavy things like babies and boxes of books is generally a bad idea and makes my chest hurt.
Oswin is gorgeous. She takes a real interest in things around her and likes me singing songs to her. She's very strong legs. She can support her own weight, but you have to hold her to stop her toppling sideways. She can't crawl yet, but I'm sure she's ready to take over the world once she gets mobile.
The bookshop is doing well, though our biggest problem is getting good quality stock. I'm getting better and better at predicting which books will sell and I'm getting a lot more confident on pricing. Usually we price just below Amazon/ABE, but several time recently I've priced a book a few pounds over the Amazon minimum and sold the book in a couple of days. Likewise, some of Amazon's high prices are also wrong. The people selling on Amazon often price using computer algorithms rather than actual knowledge of books and this can lead to very silly results on occasion.
We've got a fair number of regular customers now, and we're getting to know what they like. We don't reserve books for people, but we'll often point out ones we know they'll like and we have boxes in the back room for Observers/Ladybird/Enid Blyton/Agatha Christie/fishing and a few other things that won't all fit on the shelves and we regularly bring those down for people to look at.
Taking the time to chat to customers and find out their interests can really pay off (both for us and for the customer). Sold several 1940s knitting books to a lady I was talking to, as she mentioned the interest in old knitting patterns and I knew I'd priced several recently. Likewise, a conversation on old books led to the sale of a lovely set of 100 year old gardening books.
We're selling a lot of Folio Society books this week as we've got them in the window. We could really use more of those as they're lovely editions, but we don't get that many donated.
Old books with lovely bindings always fetch a reasonable price, though it helps if the subject is interesting.
Just put a 1908 copy of A Midsummer Night's Dream in the cabinet for £80. The cover is in poor condition, but 33 illustrations by Arthur Rackham are absolutely lovely.
The improvement in sales figures meant that the Weldmar powers that be made the decision to renew the shop lease for 12 months and to appoint a permanent staff member (as opposed to ‘bank staff’ which is what I was doing).
As I’ve been suffering from costochondritis, which could last for many months yet and leaves me very tired and unable to lift things, we decided it would work better for Richard to have the job and for me to volunteer. (Until that point, I’d been the paid person and Richard the volunteer)
They interviewed both of us and we were able to convince them that Richard had the necessary skills. He’s not got as much charity book experience as I have, but he does have quite a lot and he’d been with me at least two months in
So, Richard is now working five days a week in the shop (including Saturday) and I’m usually with him for four of those days. We’re slowly gaining new volunteers – our most recent one is excellent. She’s only been with us a couple of weeks, but has already mastered all the basic jobs on the till - which is a lot more complex then you might think. The oldest stock has hand written prices and the recent stock is bar coded (so can be scanned in) and there is some hybrid stuff with a bar code for category and a hand-written price. Plus there are different tricks needed for greeting cards and again for Christmas cards. She can also handle incoming stock and set up new gift aid accounts, sell raffle tickets and I’ve now got her pricing basic paperback fiction.
None of our volunteers apart from me do more than a half-day a week, but they free us up to do the more complicated jobs like pricing old books and sorting the back stock.
Most of my time at present is spent on the till. The costochronditis means that anything else is too tiring/painful. Poor Richard currently has to do all the carrying of heavy boxes – and there’s a lot of that. As the shop has improved, our incoming donations have increased. Half a dozen bags of books a day is pretty typical.
Sales have been improving slowly, but steadily. The running mean for the last month is nicely above last years figures (though the sunny weather may have helped). Last week was a new record, aided by an auction sales of a postcard collection for £160 and a £90 book sold in the shop.
It will be interesting to see how things work when the weather gets worse. We’re doing very well off the tourist trade at present –
We’re now doing weekly window displays with regular changes of subject. This week is knitting and craft books. We had some good donations in this area and they’re selling well. Last week was fishing. Popular subject, but poor books – we didn’t sell many.
We’re also putting specific subjects on a table outside the shop. The aim is to sell books where we have a lot of back stock that is of relatively low value, but reasonable condition. We tried it with travel writing last week (books worth a max of £2.50 as there’s always a risk of them getting wet when we have a shower) and they sold well. Books that had sat for ages on the travel shelf sold really fast on the outside table. We’ve now shifted most of the excess travel back stock and are starting on biography instead.
The only occasional problem is that we also have a £1 basket for fiction outside and every so often (in spite of a printed notice above the table saying that books there are individually priced) someone will take a book off the table assuming that it is also £1 and get annoyed when it isn’t.
It was also a good day because Richard found a copy of this book:
It/s a tatty copy and worthless in itself even though it is a first edition. However, it's signed by the author, who is better known as Lawrence of Arabia...
What that makes it worth is anyone's guess. Lawrence was a prolific letter writer, so there may well be enough copies of his signature around to satisfy all the collectors. (It's possible that the signature isn't genuine, but it certainly bears a resemblance to examples I managed to find on the web)
There are examples for sale on the web for fairly silly money, but they're usually attached to books in much better condition. And. of course, that's the asking price, not the selling price.
Still, it's rather an exciting find and we've left the book in the care of the local auction house who are going to do a bit of research for us.
We have a few pictures for sale, they're mostly there to make the shop look attractive, but we sell one every now and then.
We sold a picture of some foxes on Tuesday morning, so I went over to the other Weldmar charity shop in Dorchester to pick out a few possible replacement pictures from the donations there. One of the pictures was a rather amusing cartoon of dogs queueing to use a lamp post. I tucked it under my arm and was about half way back, when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a women in a cafe turning her head to see it (I was carrying it upsidedown). I turned it the right way up and held it to the window so she could see it better and said she could have it for £6. A minute were were having a quick conversation inside the cafe to establish that the picture was being sold for the Weldmar Hospice, that she could pay by credit card and the bookshop was only just down the road.
Four minutes later, she was the happy new owner of the picture!
We've definitely improved our sales of greeting cards. Weldmar do an excellent range of multi-purpose greetings cards at £1 each. I moved them next to the window, stuck up a sign in the window to say they were all £1 and sales have leapt. They're very attractive cards and all come in a sealed pack with an envelope. Massively better value than cards elsewhere.
Richard and I are working round the shop, a display unit at a time and overhauling the display. Today, I've just taken all the English geography books out of the window (apart from Dorset books) and replaced them with collectable annuals. We've some early Rupert annuals at around £15 each and a Captain Scarlet and a Thunderbirds board game (though sadly with two pieces missing).
I've also got tricks still to apply on the paperbacks. I've worked out a cheap way to get lots of face-out books. Take a couple of paperbacks that aren't good enough to sell, wrap paper around them and tape it on, then place them sideways as a block on the shelf to support a nice new face-out paperback.