Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 05 Oct 2017

The Big University Book Bonanza : giving old books new readers

The Letterpress Project has a long standing partnership with Newman University in Birmingham and every semester we organise something called The Big Book Bonanza where, for a week, we make all kinds of books available for free to students, their families and the local community. In return we leave a bucket collection near the shelves and tables and ask that people offer up their loose change as a donation to Letterpress and one other nominated good cause.

When we first started doing these events a couple of years ago we issued a call for donations – asking staff and students to clear their shelves of unwanted books, box them up and bring them along to be redistributed. The response was both gratifying and overwhelming – we had hardbacks, paperbacks and even audio books coming out of our ears. Equally gratifying was the number of books we then had taken away by new readers keen to get their hands on fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. At a time when everyone was being very gloomy about the future of the physical book, here was evidence that plenty of people wanted them – especially if they didn’t have to come up with large amounts of cash to try things they might not normally read.

This first event showed us something very important – never try and second guess what people want to read. Books we thought would fly away stayed stubbornly rooted to the shelves and the oddest titles we despaired would ever find an audience were gobbled up. We also discovered an insatiable demand for good children’s books – it seems that however little reading an adult manages they still believe their children should be getting access to the best writers and illustrators.

We have subsequently done a half dozen of these events and every time we start arranging the logistics there is a moment when we wonder whether we’ve exhausted people’s good will and generosity – surely they can’t find any more books to donate. And every time we’ve been wrong. In fact, the level of donations seems to gather pace and quantity.  The university has now had to make a dedicated storeroom available to us in keep the donations housed between events.

We’ve also been helped massively by donations from people who wish the Project well but have no connection to the University at all. And a special mention needs to go to Mark Skipper, owner of the marvellous Cheltenham Rare Books who has been generous above and beyond the call of duty – making substantial donations of really excellent boxes of books surplus to his needs.

We are now discussing the possibility of expanding the Book Bonanza events to two per semester and I harbour a possibly over-optimistic ambition that we might even manage to eventually have something permanently available – a sort of rolling book exchange. It seems to me that, of all places, a university should demonstrate that it values books and reading and in the absence of an established bookshop on campus (nor is there one anywhere near) this is at least making books available in an affordable way to students and others who are otherwise strapped for cash to buy new.

The disappearance of established bookshops from university campuses has been alarming and I don’t think that it’s good enough to imagine that students will fill the gap by ordering cheap books from the internet. My experience is that they probably wont. Or, if they do it will be confined to buying titles from their university course reading lists – something which confines and limits their capacity for unexpected discovery. To order successfully from the internet you have to know the details of the book you want but it’s by visiting bookshops you open yourself up to the power of serendipity and curiosity. Some of my very best buys have been unexpected and purchased on a whim when I was browsing the shelves.

The challenge I set for universities is to have the imagination to think about how they can replace the traditional bookshop on their campuses. If the Waterstones model can’t be made to work commercially because of their overheads then a new approach is needed. Here is an chance to experiment with community projects or social businesses that can tap into what we have been able to do at Newman because what we have established is that the books are out there and the demand for them is real. Wouldn’t it always be better to give unwanted books a chance to find a new reader rather than consign them to recycling or landfill? What better mission could universities have?


Terry Potter

October 2017