The first time I ever set foot in Balham I was coming to look at the half-built bookshop I was about to take over. I had spent the previous few weeks on a half-hearted ‘induction’, visiting various Oxfam bookshops around London during which legions of volunteers had taken the opportunity to inform me that I was shortly to be working in The Gateway to the South (I cannot imagine how annoying this is for Balham residents). I had also been copied into a series of emails from an irate local business owner which included the phrase “Et Tu, Oxcorp” in reference to Oxfam’s desire to open more shops and make more money (to end poverty and suffering etc. etc.).It was not the most auspicious of beginnings.
In the four years since then I have come to know Balham as more than a Peter Sellers punchline. To outsiders it is a funny, little place, full of estate agents, pushchairs and delectable cafes but to anyone who spends time there it has a real beating heart of a community.
Since we opened, we have weathered floods, exploding fuses, broken phone lines and one particular customer who took all his clothes off on our shop floor (an epileptic fit, not a protest at our prices). There have also been books, thousands and thousands of books. All donated and bought by the lovely people of Balham. We’ve been given (and sold) more copies of Chocolat than you can shake a stick at; a book that was given to Lord Byron’s mother in law by George III; a first edition of The Hound of Baskervilles; books full of suggestions of crafts you can do with excess cat hair; a signed book arguing that women shouldn’t be allowed to wear trousers; and, most memorably, a book about mummificationfor erotic pleasure (we did not try to sell this particular volume).
I’ve also been lucky enough to manage hundreds of volunteers while I’ve been in Balham (at any one time there are around 50 people on our rota, a fact many of our regular customers find hard to believe). These selfless people have sold over 85,000 books and served over 60,000 customers. If you have ever bought anything in our bookshop I can guarantee that it was only on the shelves thanks to these people who are willing to give their time to help Oxfam. Without such wonderful people our doors would never open. As far as I am concerned it is the people that make a job worthwhile and I have been very lucky to have such an entertaining, innovative team to come in to everyday. I will miss them even more than I will miss my morning coffee from Bertie and Boo.