During my first week at the University of Warwick in October 1975, I noticed the secondhand bookshop, tucked in a corner of the Students’ Union shop. It was in the brand new Union Building, which had a quirky, angular design, with plenty of unexpected and interesting spaces where students could indulge their favourite passion, drinking. Naturally, within days the floors of this shiny new place were sticky with spilt beer.
The secondhand bookshop was a sad affair. There were a few tired old books in a wooden cupboard, and it was obvious that none of my economics course books were there. The shop operated as an agent: it didn’t buy books outright – that would be very risky without knowledge of the currently recommended textbooks for each course. Instead, the seller was given a numbered ticket, and its counterpart was placed inside the book. When the book sold, the ticket was filed in order, and when the student checked back, he or she would be paid out on the tickets in the sold box. They could reclaim their unsold books at any time.
This was a sensible enough system: it would be asking a lot of the pleasant but rather undermotivated shop staff to put a price on every book which came in, when reading lists could change so suddenly. So a rigid pricing scheme was enforced: the books were offered at 60% of the original cover price, of which (if they sold) the seller would receive 5/6ths, i.e. 50% of the cover price, with the shop keeping the balance for administration.
There were problems with this structure. In 1975, UK inflation was running at 24% – an interesting time to be studying economics. So if a student had bought a textbook new for, say, £6 two years ago, that book could easily have a new cover price of £9 by the time they decided to sell it – often virtually pristine. Yet they would receive only £3. The problem was worse for older books, such as classic literature paperbacks, whose cover prices were by now absurdly low.
As a result, the textbooks which did change hands were mostly from handwritten lists on department noticeboards. This was a time consuming, hit or miss affair: the buyer would trek across the widely spread campus, often to find that the seller was out, or that the book had already been sold.
Although I noted the flaw in the pricing scheme, and the lack of energy in the presentation and promotion of the shop, I did nothing about it. It wasn’t my problem, and I had other things to do – like finding some friends in my first year, gorging on mediocre gigs in the lean years between glam-rock and punk, the odd bit of coursework, and a brief and unfortunate flirtation with Newcastle Brown.
But when my final year began in October 1977, the university careers service got in touch to remind us that an unforgiving real world awaited us eleven months later. They pointed out that employers liked to see a full CV, packed with interesting activities and useful experience. I hadn’t joined many societies: seeing films, doing crosswords and getting drunk didn’t seem likely to cut it. That’s when I remembered the bookshop.
The shop seemed if anything to have contracted over the previous two years. I steeled myself to approach the Students’ Union with my pitch. I proposed to take over the running of the shop, allowing sellers to set their own prices – perhaps with my guidance as I gained experience – to which the shop would add 10%. In addition, I would publicise and promote the revived shop on campus noticeboards.
I was invited to the Management Committee of the Students’ Union, no less, to outline my proposal. It turned out that the Vice President (Academic Affairs) had come to the same conclusions just four weeks earlier. The main difference was his statement “I do not believe that a service such as this should be run with an ad hoc student staff.” A student I was, but didn’t see it as “ad hoc” – I saw it as my personal project. Otherwise, it seems I was pushing on an open door.
Although the members broadly welcomed somebody prepared to try to revitalise this feeble business, some raised potential legal, practical and financial problems. Only doing their job, no doubt, but I could feel my enthusiasm draining away – committees always have that effect on me. But I gritted my teeth and persisted, vowing to ignore much that was said and push on with it on my own as planned. If I could make some kind of success of it, no-one would complain.
The Union agreed to let me have a go at running the bookshop, and allocated the wonderfully named Pugwash Lounge each weekday between 12 and 2. The location wasn’t perfect – not exactly the main drag of the Union Building. I would need to turn it into a destination. The first task was to acquire some decent stock, so people wouldn’t turn up at the grand opening to find nothing of interest. So I advertised on the noticeboards that students should bring their unwanted books to sell on the opening day.
On Wednesday 9th November, I collected a cash float from the Union office, arrived at the Union Shop to take possession of the stock, and more importantly, the wooden cupboard which would initially display the books when the shop was open and keep them safe when it was closed.
The Union Shop was at ground level, the Pugwash Lounge was two levels up. Happily the building had a disabled friendly design, with plentiful ramps. But it was a large and heavy cupboard: I wouldn’t be able to get it there on my own. I trundled the cupboard to the bottom of the ramp, and approached a group of three lads at a table, perhaps waiting for the bar to open. Would they mind helping me get the cupboard up to the Pugwash Lounge?
They readily agreed and the job was soon done. In my relief and gratitude I set down a pound note – enough for a round for three at Union bar prices in those balmy days – suggesting they reward themselves with a pint. But one of them waved it away, saying it had only taken a minute. I noticed one of the others looking balefully at him as I retreated with my pound note.
Opening up the new shop was a predictable anticlimax. I set out the stock, got the desk ready with the cash box and books of tickets, opened the door on the stroke of 12, and then…nothing. After a while, a few students wandered in, had a desultory flick through the books and left. But then a fellow came in who had seen my publicity, with a bag of ten or twelve books to sell. They looked saleable. I got busy writing tickets, and put them on sale at about two thirds of the cover price. We were in business.
He was the first of a steady stream of sellers bringing their books in. Within a few days there was a decent level of stock: we acquired critical mass, and word got around that it was worth visiting to save money on your textbooks. After a couple of weeks, some of the sellers checked back, and were surprised to be paid out on half or more of their books. A scary looking but good-natured punk with the surname Dembinski, on the fringes of Warwick’s resident (later charting) band the VIPs, was especially pleased with his payout: I like to think he put it towards an electric guitar.
Over the weeks and months of 1977/78 the shop became modestly successful, and a steady if modest earner for the Students’ Union. Of course, it had the advantage of free labour and rent. I often had help, frequently from one of my flatmates when things got busy. Others got in touch offering to help out: one girl only attended for a couple of days. Perhaps she found it boring, or she just wanted something to put on her CV.
By June 1978 I had graduated, and I left Warwick. The bookshop was my baby, and I wanted to leave it healthy and in good hands. With about one third of the students leaving for good – and taking their textbooks with them – it was time for one last campaign: to persuade the leavers to put their books into the shop before they left.
Nor did I leave it at that. I wrote letters to the Students’ Union officers outlining my concerns about the display facilities in the shop: I paid a flying visit from my London flat one Saturday morning in September to help put out the stock: I requested a progress report near the end of term. I just couldn’t let it go. I should have been directing this energy at my struggling early accountancy career – the Students’ Union guys must have thought I was a right pain. Nevertheless, the Treasurer took the time to reply, with what I thought were some decent numbers in 1978 money.
At last I moved on, and stopped pestering the staff of the place I had left six months ago. But what did I get out of all of this? Apart from my original motivation – something I could talk about at job interviews – there was also, believe it or not, an element of altruism. The shop helped sellers get a good price for their books, and helped buyers save money on their textbooks – saving a good deal of money for students and reducing waste. I also received a surprise £10 Christmas bonus in recognition of my efforts from the Management Committee.
And I found a way to make some profit for myself. My habit had been to regularly visit the junk shops of Coventry looking for discarded treasures among the albums and singles, and now, once or twice I also bought a cheap selection of paperback thrillers and Agatha Christie novels – probably from house clearances – to offer in the shop. They earned a tidy little margin, provided the ancient cover price was blocked out. If customers knew the book had once been for sale at 2/6d (12.5p) then they were reluctant to pay 25p, even if the new price was now 70p.
But the main benefit of managing the shop was experience running a business in a safe environment. I didn’t have to put up capital or take any personal financial risk. The customers were, by and large, friendly and educated. The Students Union managed all the tedious administration, and even provided some lockable metal cabinets when I mentioned that we were struggling to display our stock properly. I could run my little business, experiment with what worked and what didn’t work, all under the protection of the university campus bubble.
In some ways, it provided a template for my later career, managing the preference and fixed interest department under the administrative umbrella of Collins Stewart and later Canaccord. I’d even say that my experience running the bookshop was more helpful in my profession than all the economics I learned, or didn’t. University, I discovered, is not just a place of academic learning – it’s a sandpit where you can practise for your life.