A reader’s guide to Cambridge charity shops

The fruits of an afternoon's research

The fruits of an afternoon’s research

I have always bought books in charity shops, and, so long as charity shops, books, or I continue to exist, I always will. There wasn’t much spare money around when I was growing up, and besides, I have a perverse liking for things that are out of print.

In terms of books, charity shops are good for:

  • things I have a vague idea that I’m collecting (for example, Blue Peter annuals, or John Buchans in the red Nelson edition, which is the only thing that fits on the second shelf of my big bookcase);
  • last year’s bestsellers;
  • impulse buys.

Charity shops are not so good for:

  • things that have only just been published, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • rare or specific books, though you occasionally get lucky;
  • things you need within a tight timeframe, though you occasionally get lucky.

I spend less time in charity shops than I used to, mainly because there are none within walking distance of my office – at least, not if I want to get out and back and spend a reasonable amount of time actually in the shop all within my lunch break. However, there are always Saturdays. I’ve lived in Cambridge for getting on for three years now, and have explored a reasonable portion of the city in that time. There are two streets in particular that have an abundance of charity shops: Burleigh Street and Mill Road.

Charity shops fall into two broad categories. There are the carefully curated, and the undiscriminatingly chaotic.

The latter are, of course, by far the best for books. You never know what you’re going to find; you pick up things you’d never heard of because you are intrigued by the picture on the spine or because the title reminds you of something you were looking for six months ago. You never find what you’re actually looking for, but the chances are you’ll find something else worth reading.

In the carefully curated category, by contrast, you will find two stingy shelves of books, whose contents will be unremittingly boring, and suspiciously similar to those in every other carefully curated charity shop in the street. If you’re looking for last year’s bestseller, this is the place to go. If not, it won’t take you long to scan the shelves and decide there’s nothing to keep you there. (You will also find some inoffensive and deeply boring clothes, and the ones with an ‘Atmosphere’ label will probably cost a pound more than they were originally sold for in Primark.)

A more promising subset of ‘carefully curated’ is the specialist charity bookshop. There are two of these in Cambridge – the Oxfam bookshop on Sidney Street, and Books for Amnesty on Mill Road. The great advantage of these is the fact that the books are arranged in a coherent and logical fashion, and, if you know what you’re looking for, you can be in and out within three minutes.

However, the chances are that you’ll pay a similar price to those charged by specialist second-hand dealers. Which is good for the charity, of course… up to the point where you don’t buy the book because you didn’t want it that much. And of course, if you don’t know exactly what you want, the choice can be somewhat overwhelming.

My two favourite shops on Burleigh Street are Oxfam and the RSPCA. Oxfam has  a vast range of all sorts of stuff over two floors. The books are helpfully arranged by category, and there are plenty of categories, and there is plenty of variety within those categories. The last thing I got in there was a book of poems by Luci Shaw, and the thing before that was A Murder Is Announced. It’s also, so my father informs me, good for Ordnance Survey maps.

The RSPCA doesn’t have such a wide selection, but what it does have is of good quality. I picked up the bulk of my Buchan collection there. The British Heart Foundation tends to have interesting books. Like all BHF shops, it’s crammed full of too much stuff, both second-hand and the hideous ‘new goods’, but it can be worth fighting your way to the back left-hand corner. I wouldn’t go out of my way to any of the others, and have resolved never to give books to the Scope shop, which sends them (so one assistant told me, at least) for pulping if they haven’t sold after only a fortnight on the shelf.

Mill Road has the Sally Ann, which is a spacious shop with a lot of stuff in it, and another Oxfam, this one affably scruffy. The YMCA is comparatively new. It has hardly any books, but I did get A Book of Escapes in there.

It is worth going beyond the railway bridge, if only for the RSPCA bookshop. This is less like a charity shop and more like something you’d find in Hay-on-Wye. Books everywhere, stacked on the top of shelves, on the floor. Penguins, Pelicans, Viragos, old hardbacks, old paperbacks… It’s wonderful.

I don’t recommend going round all the charity shops in one day. There are, after all, only so many books that can be loaded into a bike basket before the steering goes all skew-whiff.

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