Volunteering at Oxfam Books and Music – My Experience

I have been volunteering on and off at my local Oxfam Bookshop for about a year. I just recently packed it in.

Oxfam has many shops which are devoted to second hand books and also vinyl and CDs. The shop I worked in myself is a lovely little cosy shop in my small Georgian market town. As I like books I thought it would be a good place to volunteer and do good for Oxfam at the same time. It would also get me out of the house to meet people and give me material for my writing hopefully.

I really liked it at first. The manager was kind and fun and he genuinely seemed to care about his volunteers. There was a good atmosphere with free coffee, biscuits and cake and we could listen to music and chat as we worked. There were some good sorts volunteering and we had some really interesting conversations. I enjoyed it so much I started volunteering three times a week as the shop was always perennially short of staff.

There was only one volunteer I didn’t get on with. She had been there for years and treated her section like a little empire that nobody else was allowed to touch. I overheard her bitching about me on the stairs one day saying I didn’t do enough to help out when they were short staffed even though I was in three times a week. What a nerve I thought! She used to spread all the books in her section out on the floor while she was sorting them so nobody could even walk past. I found her incredibly rude and selfish. She spent most of the time fussing about what everyone else was doing while doing very little herself. The trouble with nice managers is they just allow people to behave like this. If I say so myself I was one of the hardest working people when I was there. Some people used to just chat and do virtually nothing. I have no idea why some of them turned up.

The nice manager left and we had a succession of managers who all left pretty quickly. I presume this is something to do with the terrible pay that Oxfam give them. Well at least they were getting paid which is more than us mere volunteers were. Lots of the volunteers I liked left as well. I felt quite lonely later on.

The most recent manager wasn’t really my cup of tea. There was no more coffee or listening to music or chatting or breaks. We were there to work. Fair enough but it isn’t much fun when you aren’t being paid. The policies and procedures seemed to be constantly changing so it was hard to keep up with considering everything was different every time you came in.

I remember once the first manager telling me it was a business. I find this a difficult concept because to me a charity is not a business. If it was really a business it would have to pay its staff. The shop I worked in didn’t make enough money to pay its staff so it would have soon been out of business.

I realised that though I love books I don’t really like selling them. Sorting the donations could be quite fun especially if you got something rare but most of the stuff was very low quality and went for pulp. Rare books could be researched on the internet and some of them were quite valuable. I used to love doing the Literature section because I just adore classics but they were constantly taking the section away from me and then giving it back and so on. I would liked to have just sorted my section out in my own way and then go home when it was finished. I always used to feel dirty after my shift as a lot of the books donated were filthy.

I decided to leave after one afternoon spent as the solitary volunteer upstairs sorting through books in silence for four hours. Earlier in the day one of the old guard had been rude to me for absolutely no reason. The way people take a dislike to me is something I will never understand but I decided that I wouldn’t put up with it if not being paid. I would rather just sit in my garret and write. The feel good factor from helping Oxfam wasn’t enough to keep me going. I was also pretty disgusted with a recent news story outlining a scandal in the way Oxfam raises funds – basically conning little old ladies into making direct debits they can’t afford. I sometimes wonder about “big charity”. There also seemed to be no possibility of progression or development. Nobody ever asked me whether I wanted to have a role within Oxfam at Head Office say or be a manager or in fact considered my views or dreams at all.

It is worth volunteering in Oxfam shops if you are unemployed and want retail experience. A lot depends on the individual manager and the team of volunteers if the atmosphere is going to be positive or not. It might be also all right for retired people. In the end I decided it wasn’t really right for me as I have lost interest in being a bookseller. If Oxfam want to keep volunteers they need to think about how to make their work experience a pleasurable one.

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