Oxford is a booklover’s paradise. As well as housing world renowned book chains such as Blackwell’s and Waterstones, the city is home to a variety of smaller businesses that offer a unique buying experience. Jake Pumphrey and Nick Walsh, untraditional booksellers and owners of Pumpkin Wholesale, are leading the way in providing this experience, and doing it cheaply.
After working as a buyer in London, Pumphrey returned home to Oxford in 1994, found an empty shop and with his business partner, established Pumpkin Books in Gloucester Green: ‘My idea was to have a remainder shop which sold classy remainders like a proper bookshop would, but cheaper.’ Since then, alongside running their wholesale business, the pair have opened The Last Bookshop in Jericho, a bookshop in Bristol, and in November 2019, The Book Stop on Magdalen Street in Oxford.
‘Publishing is extremely wasteful,’ Pumphrey told me when I interviewed him shortly before the lockdown restrictions on non-essential businesses lifted. ‘So many books are printed and only a fraction of them are bought, and read.’ In 2009, the UK Publishers Association estimated that there were around 61 million unsold books returned to publishers. The industry creates a huge amount of waste every year and thousands more books are printed than sold. That’s where this pair steps in.
‘Remainders are a brilliant way of recycling the unsold books,’ he said, most of which are brand new, not just ‘cheap and nasty’. Recycling books is one option. Another is pulping, whereby books are crushed into a soft, wet, shapeless material which is converted into paper. Even the most popular reads can ultimately face being pulped but Pumphrey set out to save books from this undignified end since the very beginning.
He explained to me that publishers give to booksellers on a sale or return basis, meaning whatever they don’t sell can go back to the publisher or distributor. ‘They don’t know what to do with [returned books] because sometimes they’re not in mint condition or they’re in a mixed palette,’ he said. ‘It’s enormously labour-intensive to unpack it all and return them to stock so they just sell them and people like me buy them.’
In 1997, the publishing industry underwent a big shift when the Net Book Agreement came to an end. The arrangement in the UK and Ireland allowed publishers to set a fixed retail price, meaning if a bookseller sold a new book at less than the agreed price, the publisher would no longer supply them. ‘In the old days publishers could keep books for years and not really care but the need for moving these unsold books on became more acute over the years. … The market opened up under economic pressure due to publishers having to control their costs.’
In the Aladdin’s cave that is The Last Bookshop, there’s an eclectic mix of rare and popular treasures. You might stumble across a new release, a hardback edition of a beloved classic or a dog-eared copy of something you’ve never even heard of before. As well stocking remainder books, The Last Bookshop also has a wide selection of second hand reads.
‘I didn’t really set out to be a second hand bookseller,’ Pumphrey said. ‘What happened was that when I arrived in Oxford in the 90s, there were loads of secondhand bookshops and so the market was well operated, people knew who to go. But they slowly all closed down.’
When The Last Bookshop came on the scene, secondhand retailers were already an endangered species but in a city overpopulated by bookworms a complete demise wasn’t in the cards. ‘When professors die and they’ve got a house full of books, what happens to them? People started to call me because I had shops in Oxford and I can’t help myself, I just have to buy them.’
Throughout our conversation, I imagine their warehouse in Abingdon, where Pumphrey talked to me from, to be so cluttered with books that it would send Marie Kondo into retirement — and I might not be wrong. ‘I can’t help myself. That’s why Walton Street exists because we’ve got this ever expanding second-hand book mountain which we’ve had to try and start selling somewhere.’
The shop closed in the early 2000s before reopening in 2009 and finding its permanent home on Jericho’s Walton Street. ‘When we started again, bookshops had been closing,’ Pumphrey explains. ‘It was before the recent renaissance of independent bookselling, which I’m very happy about. It seemed like soon there might be no bookshops. And then the Kindle came along and everyone thought, “Well that’s the end of books,” and we obviously didn’t think it was the end of books.’ The shop’s name is a kind of joke about the state of bookselling, but Pumphrey and Walsh were the ones still laughing as they prepared to reopen after yet another lockdown.
When first lockdown hit, the two main facets of the pair’s business disappeared, leaving them with only online retail and the time to launch a new online bookshop, billandbenbooks.co.uk: ‘I’ve been meaning for a long time to have a website, well basically a bookshop that was on the internet rather than in a physical setting and there was never enough time in the day. Lockdown seemed like a good time, when the business was a bit quieter and when two thirds of it was not happening.’ As of last Monday, we can browse and buy in store once again, and if you’re not in Oxford, then a scroll through their virtual bookshop might just do the trick.
The company’s online business fluctuated in success during the periods of lockdown but for the most part, Pumphrey says, ‘it has been really busy because people have been stuck at home. The internet is something they can still use and reading is something they can still do, something they can always do.’
The book retail industry boomed last year with 202 million books sold across the UK. Despite this welcomed boost for the industry, ‘books aren’t really a massive money spinner,’ Pumphrey said with a laugh. ‘None of us are here to make a million pounds. It’s a relatively marginal business and we do it because we like it.’ And as an Oxford book-lover, I’m glad they do.