An enterprising business gives unsold books a second look

An enterprising business gives unsold books a second look
The Herald

So you give your old books away to charity? Good. Do you know what happens to the books that charity shops cannot sell? They go to landfill sites. Not so good. But this sad state of affairs is changing now in Scotland, thanks to a brilliant but simple scheme.

Bookdonors collect all the books that charity shops cannot sell and do not have storage for, then sell them via the internet on sites like Amazon and AbeBooks. Better still, it is a social enterprise – a dynamic business with a social purpose. So it has social aims, trades in competitive markets and reinvests its profits for the good of the community.

Charities must pay their local council a waste disposal fee for their unsold books to be uplifted and taken to landfill sites. As well as saving on these overheads, Bookdonors diverts more than 300 tonnes of waste per year from landfill in Lothian and the Borders and expect this figure to rise to 1000 tonnes over the next couple of years.

The charities supplying Bookdonors make 25% profit on the sale price of the books, compared to 21% when they sell them from their shops. Next month, Bookdonors is set to extend its operation to Glasgow. Founder and director Lawrie Hayworth anticipates the new challenge with relish. ‘I’m looking forward to being able to offer the gateway to our existing charities that have outlets in Glasgow, but also to local charities and community groups,’ she says.

Bookdonors started life in Hayworth’s attic in Galashiels in 2005. Fast forward to this year: Bookdonors had 5700 orders in July alone and has an annualised turnover of more than £450,000, covering UK, European and international markets. The company had to rent capacious premises in Selkirk to house a business which continues to grow at an exponential rate. Although the Bookdonors concept is beautifully simple, its operation is highly labour intensive. The company has 15 employees, of whom over a third have disabilities. There are also trainees and volunteers who have been long-term unemployed because of their disability.

Rona Strathdee, the company secretary, says: ‘We wanted to employ people with disabilities on an equal basis. We don’t have clients or service users: we have employees. It would be so easy to turn this into a sheltered workshop, but we have to keep that balance.’

Some of Bookdonors’ employees are on benefits, but this can be fraught with problems. ‘You’re opening a whole can of worms regarding benefits,’ she says. ‘For example, someone who has profound learning disabilities, who requires staffed supported accommodation – you’re talking just 20 quid that they are allowed to earn. There’s no incentive – in a way it’s a disincentive for people deemed unemployable – that is, people with profound disabilities.’

Bookdonors is not a government employment scheme, so its employees and volunteers are not time-limited. And as the company expands it can draw on its current volunteers as a source of new employees.

As Strathdee observes: ‘The majority of people with disabilities that we have never got as far as an interview with other employers – even under equal opportunities legislation. After all, how do you score someone who has a profound disability and who has never worked?

‘Sure, we make allowances for people, but this is a business. Employees learn: this is what going to work actually means’. Sometimes helping people establish and keep a work routine can be of the most basic nature. We give alarm clocks to some of our new employees to get them up in the morning.’

Strathdee spoke of an employee whose only mirror in his supported accommodation was a shaving mirror. How was he supposed to turn up looking presentable when all he could see was his face? Like she says, basic.

The sorting, grading, categorising, weighing and dispatching of the books all requires Bookdonors’ employees to use computer technology. They received funding from Community Scotland to develop easy-to-use software and now people with profound learning disabilities are using it.

The Glasgow expansion will follow Bookdonors’ current model of operation whereby it plugs into existing voluntary organisation and recycling networks. Indeed, Bookdonors is a recognised organisation within the Scottish Recycling Network. In terms of collecting books from the charities, Bookdonors again uses existing transport networks such as the Glasgow Furniture Initiative, whose vans distribute and collect items in the locale. As Bookdonors continues to grow it will plough profits into employing more people – and ultimately paying more to their supplying charities.

The books stay on Amazon or AbeBooks for a year. So what happens to their books that don’t sell? Don’t Bookdonors end up in the same position as their supplying charities?

Not a bit of it. Hayworth and Strathdee have devised a scheme, Books For All, aimed at giving books to children for free. Strathdee is clear: ‘If you have children who live in low-income families, then the best way out of poverty for them is education, especially literary skills.

‘It’s best for kids if they have books in the house. Of course, they can get them from school and the library, but they have to give them back.’ She argues that it’s good just to have books around the house and that kids will read and re-read loved books.

‘People from low-income families often can’t afford books – even from charity shops. So you give the books away. We don’t care if the parents earn five or 50 grand: if the kids want the books, they get them.’

Bookdonors has also extended the scheme into adult books, contending that if children see adults reading then they’ll read too.

The scheme provides shelves of free books, all categorised into age suitability and large print to various locations; they are not just thrown onto the shelves.

‘In the Borders alone there are more than 50 playgroups and over 70 out-of-school clubs, plus community centres and health centres. We want books in the places that people go to.’

Wistfully, Strathdee says that what Bookdonors really needs is a Books for All Co-ordinator to let the scheme realise its full potential: ‘But I need to find the time to fundraise for this.’

Other surplus books go to charities for their annual fundraising events and to Action for Southern Africa, a Glasgow-based charity that sends books to the region.

Since Bookdonors launched it has given over £51,000 to its supplying charities – there are now 150, including umbrella organisations.

Hayworth is committed to the social enterprise model: ‘Bookdonors is perhaps an example of the potential of social enterprises to contribute to the Scottish economy and the Scottish community in general. Social enterprises can make the same contribution in the 21st century that the co-operative movement made in the 19th.’

Balancing the books

# Bookdonors has an inventory of 100,000 books, which it expects to rise 500,000 in the next three years
# There are 15 employees, and expected to be 35 in the next three years
# Bookdonors presently collects from more than 50 charities and aims to increase the number to 150 in three years’ time
# The charity currently provides 12 volunteering opportunities per week and plans to increase this to 40 over the next three years
# 16% of its trade is to the export market
# 80,000 books are available for sale online
# So far participating charities have received £51,000 in total