“Let me put it this way: I can’t imagine a heaven without books. That’s how much I love them,” says Tim, an Egyptologist and manager of the Coptic Culture Centre. Not long after arriving in Australia in 2006, Tim found a little slice of heaven on Hutt Street: the Oxfam Bookshop. Ever since then, he has been a regular customer; he’s one of the first people new volunteers and visitors meet. He drops by a few times a week, with Ramses, his three-year-old long-haired Jack Russell, at his heel.
“I still remember the first book I bought,” says Tim. It was a history of the Church of England, and was the first of hundreds Tim would come to own in the years to come. He says there is a Japanese word for his situation, tsundoku, which describes collecting more books than you could ever possibly read.
For people trying to break their tsundoku habit, the Oxfam Bookshop is an outlet. It is stocked entirely through donations. Hundreds of thousands of books have crossed the threshold over the years, and every year the number taken in grows. The funds raised by the bookshop also continue to grow; records show that the first book sales – paperbacks for 20 cents, hardbacks for 40 cents – brought in around $1500. This past financial year, with most books priced between 50 cents and five dollars, the Oxfam Bookshop raised $249,389.
It is the only Oxfam bookshop in Australia, due in large part to its unique real-estate situation: the building on Hutt Street was purchased by the Friends of Oxfam in June 1992, and deeded to Oxfam Australia in 2008, with the guarantee that there would be a place for the bookshop after the handover. The bookshop remains volunteer-run – approximately 130 people donate their time – and, with no rent to pay, the bookshop’s outgoings are absolutely minimal. Every dollar that comes into the shop goes to Oxfam Australia.
“Since 1986, the bookshop has contributed more than $1.8 million to support Oxfam’s work tackling poverty in communities around the world,” writes Helen Szoke, Oxfam Australia CEO. “But more than this, the bookshop volunteers are our best ambassadors for the work that we do. They know about us, they raise money for our program work and they are truly part of our success.”
Oxfam Australia turns 65 this December. The organisation’s long history began in 1953 when Frank Gregory gave Father Gerard Kennedy Tucker, a Melbourne-based Anglican priest, two shillings to put toward good works. Father Tucker took Gregory’s shillings and began to accumulate donations; once $80* had been raised, Tucker sent the money directly to a village hospital in Uttar Pradesh, India, where it was used to buy protein-rich food for patients. This began the Food for Peace Campaign, which would raise $10,000* by the end of 1959. In 1962, Food for Peace was renamed Community Aid Abroad (CAA), and it was by this name that it would come to South Australia.
Late one night in 1964, author Christobel Mattingley sat up in bed and wrote a letter to Father Tucker’s nephew, David Scott, the then-director of CAA. She asked him about the organisation, and he in return asked if Christobel and her husband, David, would be willing to convene a public meeting with the potential outcome of starting SA’s first CAA group. That meeting was held at the Mattingleys’ home, and the Burnside group was established. This Burnside group would later be the first to hold a book sale – a fundraising fluke that turned out to be surprisingly successful.
In 1972, Community Aid Abroad became the Australian affiliate of the international Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam) network; 20 years later, CAA merged with Freedom from Hunger to become one of the biggest international development organisations in Australia. At the time of the merger, Don Dunstan was the national chairperson of CAA. After a further name change in 2001, the organisation settled on ‘Oxfam Australia’ in 2005.
South Australia’s CAA was struck by tragedy twice in its first two decades. The very first fundraiser involved growing crops of barley in Morphett Vale to send overseas; these were destroyed by fire. On 3 August 1980, fire would strike again: the CAA handcraft shop and office in Gay’s Arcade were destroyed in the inferno that ripped through the shopping strip.
Despite these setbacks, Community Aid Abroad continued to gain support. The pop-up book sales were a particular area of fundraising interest and there was a growing desire to find a permanent home for a shop.
In 1980, Brian Lofler, the state secretary for Community Aid Abroad in South Australia, wrote of the book sales: “These are ideologically justifiable in that they encourage recycling, which is consistent with a sustainable and simpler lifestyle. […] The only problem at present is the large number of phone calls offering books.”
Not long after Lofler wrote his note, the bookshop found its first home in an unused hall of the Presbyterian (later Uniting) Church in Townsend Street, Parkside. Nearly a decade later, in November 1992, the church decided to sell the space and the bookshop needed to move again – luckily, CAA had purchased the Hutt Street building five months earlier.
Throughout December 1992, volunteers helped to move books from Parkside to Hutt Street. The narrow space was soon lined with books, and shelving split the walkway down the middle. It was lovingly described as “cosy”.
One person who remembers those early days is Miranda, another regular customer. She believes her first visit to the shop was in 1997. “The old bookshop was an Aladdin’s Cave of literary treasures – you never quite knew what you would find if you had the patience to look long enough. Which I did. And I was always rewarded with something unique to take home and read.”
The bookshop moved to the larger north wing of the building in 2008. Miranda says the new shop has just as many treasures, but they’re much easier to find.
Tim agrees. “I’ve found really great books in here – books that are out of print that you can’t even get on the internet. And twice I’ve been called by [volunteer David Adams] to say that, after five years, a book that I’ve requested has come in.”
Dr Jennifer Court, who was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 2015 for her work with Oxfam, has found that anything can be treasure depending on who finds it. “I was walking through the shop one day with a pile of books I was about to recycle – really old ones on engineering, mechanics, technology – and a guy stopped me and said, ‘Oh my god! Look at those gems!’ And that made me realise … they’re not necessarily worth a lot if you were to have them priced, but people love them because they bring back memories and have other value.”
This connection to the books is one that donors feel as much as buyers. “I think it makes people feel good,” says Court. “People love their books, and they don’t want to think of them not being put to good use.”
Miranda finds that more than books bring her back to the shop. “I’ve had a 20-year relationship with the bookshop and it has been a very happy one. I come back for both the books and the friendships that I have made with the volunteers and other dedicated book people who visit the shop almost as often as I do. The element of discovery (and surprise) is also an enticement as the stock changes almost daily with new donations. I also love that new life gets breathed into old books. Forgotten authors are found again and stories that may have lain dormant for many years are dusted off and enjoyed by a new reader. And not to forget that the intent of this well-oiled book machine is to raise money for the wonderful causes that Oxfam supports around the world, so it really is a win–win situation.”
“The people are very friendly, very nice, very kind,” says Tim. “There is a particular atmosphere that is not the same in other bookshops. I feel that the shop is my second home.”
5–7 Hutt Street, Adelaide
Tuesday to Saturday, 9am to 5pm
Sale event – $1 books: Saturday, October 20
*Records show dollar amounts, though the currency at the time was the Australian pound.
The author is a bookshop volunteer.
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