It’s forty years since I bought the first of many books in an Oxfam shop. I know that because I have the book open beside me and the date is written inside: ‘July 1978’ along with the place: ‘Birmingham.’ It was a new book, The Oxfam Vegetable Cookbook by Rose Elliot, and it cost 75 pence. Did Oxfam sell second-hand books then? I was a young postgraduate, living alone for the first time in a bed-sit in Moseley, a leafy suburb close to the University, and learning to cook for myself. I certainly got my money’s worth from that book. It’s been worked hard and is corrugated from cooking stains and water marks. There is a recipe for carrot and lentil soup that I still use.
Over the years how many books have I bought from Oxfam bookshops? Hundreds, certainly, more likely thousands, and I’ve donated just as many. I love the idea of sending books back out into world for others to enjoy with the knowledge that they are doing good at the same time. The one in Cambridge, where I taught at Homerton College in the 1990s, was a particular favourite. Academics are great readers of crime fiction and I used to snap up US editions left by visiting scholars.
There is nothing like the frisson of entering a Oxfam shop, not knowing if you’ll find something out of print by a favourite writer or happen upon a wonderful writer who is new to you. My best buy ever was The Man Who Hated Banks and Other Mysteries by Michael Gilbert, discovered in the Sheffield Broomhill branch. It was difficult to get hold of at the time and though it set me back £12, it was worth every penny. Looking on-line I see that there are now copies available from the US for around the same price at the click of a mouse, but where is the fun in that?
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Matlock Oxfam shop and this was written to be displayed there. Perhaps I should add that I do buy new copies of books by my favourite writers, but this is a great way of sampling writers first.