It’s an uphill battle, keeping up with Dalston. And what with XX sightings, rumours of Beyoncé and Jay-Z at the Shacklewell Arms (there for Beyoncé’s sister’s gig), it’s easy to forget the smaller-scale, local art projects that make our neck of the woods so full of good stuff to do.

In this light the DLR sat down with Kevin O’Neill, who organised Bookfest earlier this month at the Oxfam on Kingsland Road. Originally a project to encourage book donations to Oxfams, the events comprised poetry readings, radio broadcasts and bookbinding workshops in the charity shop after (and during) hours. Below the DLR talks to Kevin about how it all went, future plans for the Oxfam and the ‘tragic hipsters’ who plague his shop.

Hi Kevin, thanks for meeting with us. When did Bookfest go?

Very well, I think! All the events had decent turnout and those that attended had lots of nice things to say about the shop. It was a lot of work but it feels like it was worth it.

When did you turn the Oxfam shop into a cultural centre of sorts?

I like your qualifier ‘of sorts’! I’ve been interested in using the shop as a space that can take advantage of the local creative culture (for lack of a better term) for a while, but this is the first time I’ve pushed it through successfully. Dalston and Hackney more generally are obviously very active areas just now, and it’s nice that we get to put something back. Our local residents are very generous to us in donating items that help us raise funds for Oxfam, so to be able to do some things for the area is awesome.

Oxfam Bookfest: mainly about books, apparently.

What other events have you done?

We did a literary quiz (with the website forbookssake.net), a bookbinding class (with locals Festinalente Books), a radio broadcast (with ntslive.co.uk) and a more ‘straight’ reading night.

What other events do you have planned?

The most obvious thing to continue is a reading series — I’d like to keep hosting local writers in the shop, and it’s probably the most low-maintenance type of event to host. If someone has an idea for something else, though, we’re keen to hear about it.

What kind of an audience do you get?

Mostly ‘tragic hipsters’, as someone on Twitter commented after our reading night! Locals in their mid-20s to 30s, with a few older customers as well.

Do other Oxfams also do readings ?

Loads! I used to work in the Marylebone High Street Oxfam shop, which has a poetry series and is actually the shop that launched the whole Bookfest idea for Oxfam. A lot of the bookshops do regular quizzes and readings, not just during July, and we’d like to keep up our events past the festival too. I met the people organising the poetry readings in Oxfam Books Highgate this month and we attended each other’s events, in a nice charity-love-in style.

Is there something special about the Dalson Oxfam that makes it conducive to this kind of programme?

We have a lot of floor space? There’s definitely enough going on around Hackney to provide the content for what we do, but there’s maybe a danger of competing with so many other events in terms of creating a sustainable audience for our readings! These are the kinds of lame thoughts that keep me up at night, anyway — we should probably just keep doing it till no one comes.

Your own research interests are in small-scale publishing. [Kevin is doing a PhD on McSweeney’s and the community it’s created around itself.] Could you tell us a bit more about that, and how this relates to your work at the shop?

I guess there’s a rudimentary connection in that I like small, local things that don’t come from the mainstream. Doing most of my shopping from Oxfam means I rarely have to go to Oxford St, for example, and never have to order books from Amazon. But mostly it’s just something that pays my rent while I struggle through a part-time PhD at Goldsmiths.

The DLR was granted exclusive, all-area access to Oxfam's basement, where the magical process of book-sorting begins.

What percentage of your wardrobe would you estimate is from Oxfam?

Ha! I sometimes try and calculate this and come up with terrifying statistics (I own somewhere in the region of 30 shirts and maybe fifteen coats/jackets, for example). It’s not just Oxfam, though, I frequent a few other charity shops because I know from working here how much nice stuff people are happy to give to us. If you want a figure… definitely over 50%.

If you had to save one book from an Oxfam East London Line-related fire, what would it be?

David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest – I keep buying it for friends when it comes in and have massive (DFW-style) ethical dilemmas rattling around in my head because I want the shop to have the cred/caché of selling DFW books — but then I want to force my friends to read the book to make them understand why my head sometimes works the way it does… like having massive ethical dilemmas about selling or buying DFW books…

What do you think of St Vincents’, down the street, rebranding themselves as a hipsterish secondhand shop? Are they intruding on your market? 

I don’t think so, no. We don’t go out of our way to brand our shop, partly because we can never guarantee having a regular type of stock. One week we’ll be rammed with 1980s M&S cardies, the week after a mix of Primark and Topshop, and the next we’ll get a load of last-season stock from a Shoreditch designer. The most fun thing about our shop is that you will find anything you’re after if you come back often enough. St Vincents’ are trying to focus their stock a bit more (and there’s an argument that you get in in donations what you put out on the rails) but we still get lots of great stuff. And if it attracts more people to our little strip of Kingsland Road, all the better.

More information on events at the Dalston Oxfam can be found on O’Neill’s blog: http://oxfamdalston.wordpress.com/
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