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Calm downsizing. By Charlotte Metcalf

Features | By Charlotte Metcalf

When Charlotte Metcalf moved house, nobody wanted her old books – until she found a magical answer

A re you downsizing?’ asked the estate agent sympathetically, as I squeezed past her to view a potential flat. As a fellow oldie, she had guessed right.

Like thousands before me, I was having to face up to the fact that the time had come (accelerated by the termination of an eye-watering interest-only mortgage) to surrender my family home of 25 years.

I’ve moved several times, but never before have I been forced into a small space that’s precluded most of my books, paintings and treasured possessions.

As a journalist and writer, I found losing my books especially upsetting. I had amassed a hefty collection, augmented by my inheriting many of my father’s first editions from the fifties, when he was a literary reviewer. Racy, lurid dust jackets of novels such as John Braine’s Room at the Top or John Masters’s Nightrunners of Bengal had long held pride of place on my sitting-room shelves. Meanwhile, my study boasted two entire walls of floor-to- ceiling bookshelves. I’ve always adhered to Anthony Powell’s maxim ‘Books do furnish a room’ and feel a reassuring rapport with anyone whose home

I discover to be full of books. Books are so important to me that I note in them when and where I read them. When it came to deciding which ones to keep, I rediscovered that, in the late eighties, I read Lawrence Durrell’s Clea when living in Peshawar and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South while filming in Cairo. I remembered how comforted I was to immerse myself in A S Byatt’s Possession one lonely, rain-sodden weekend in rural Ethiopia.

I turned to Molly Keane’s Bad Behaviour to stop feeling scared when stranded in a remote, isolated village in the mountains of northern Uganda. Little about my recent move pained me as much as shedding my books, but I had no choice.

I began telephoning second-hand-book dealers, from Hatchards to specialists around Piccadilly.

I was confident they’d be interested in my father’s books – but they all demand pristine dust jackets and most of mine were worn, faded or tattered. My local Red Cross charity shop asked me to stop bringing them sacks of books because they were clogging up their storeroom.

The British Heart Foundation sometimes come and collect boxes, but they texted to tell me their storage facilities were overwhelmed, leaving me with a teetering pile of eight boxes to get rid of. Then I discovered the Ziffit app. Download it for free (it takes about 20 seconds) and it’s ready to use. Moreover, it’s a joy.

‘Urgey’ is a word I made up at school to describe things that give you such pleasure that they urge you to keep using them, and it applies perfectly to Ziffit.

Tap on the app and a scanner appears on your screen. Point the scanner at any book’s barcode (regrettably, my father’s books were all too old for barcodes) and, within a second, Ziffit will identify the book and tell you exactly how much it will pay for it. Or else Ziffit will inform you it’s not accepting that book at the moment, leaving you to discard it with a freer conscience.

A book’s condition does not seem to worry Ziffit. So I happily scanned away, even paperbacks with creased, bent spines. Art, design, photography or coffee-table books are likely to be the most valuable. An enormous, weighty book of David Yarrow’s photographs fetched me £10.91. Ziffit also values books on film on gardening – it gave me £5.70 for Richard Schickel’s retrospective of Spielberg’s career and £5.96 for Jane Pruden’s book on Capability Brown and Belvoir Castle.

Cookbooks average around 50p, though Ziffit pays more for popular chefs such as Ottolenghi. Paperback novels, of which I had thousands, tend to fetch between 20p and 50p. Once I’d filled three or four boxes with about 100 books, I pressed ‘Complete Sale’ and received an order number and a date for the pick-up.

I did this seven times or so, and earned around £60 a box (ranging from just over £30 to well over £80). Ziffit even takes CDs and DVDs, though Ziffit eschewed most of mine, which tended to be box sets of Mad Men, The Sopranos or The Killing.

Oldies like me who loathe the idea that books are worthless – and would shudder at the mere thought of burning a book – will find Ziffit alleviates the wrench of parting from them on multiple levels. Knowing that a book will be read by someone else rather than end up in landfill makes it easier to let go. The free pick-up service makes it hassle-free, too, and there’s the added bonus of earning a few quid.

Many oldies inevitably face downsizing. At least Ziffit can soften the brutal moment when harrowing choices have to be made.

Still, just when I was finding it unbearable to part with my beloved school copy of T S Eliot’s Collected Poems (complete with battered, sellotaped dust jacket and my earnest pencilled notes in the margins), I remembered I couldn’t scan it. It was too old for a barcode. I had the perfect excuse to hang on to it.

Charlotte Metcalf is The Oldie’s supplements editor

This story was from June 2024 issue. Subscribe Now