Ever since I was 14 years old, rifling through the dusty local Hospice Shop looking for 50s prom dresses, I have loved charity shops. There is nothing like the thrill of a genuine bargain, particularly when it’s recycled, eco-friendly and nobody else is going to turn up to a party wearing the same thing. So while many have complained in the last decade about the number of charity shops now crowding UK high streets, for me, they’re an all-you-can-eat buffet, providing homeware, designer clothes and books for less than the price of a coffee.
While people queued around the block for Primark yesterday, I am more desperate to return to rummaging in my local charity shop. Especially as donations have been at an all-time high after everyone’s lockdown clear-outs. The good news is charity shops will be “full to bursting”, according to the Charity Retail Association, and while with a 72 hour quarantine period, trying on clothes will be tricky, I hardly ever do- they’re cheap enough to risk buying anyway.
There is an even better reason to buy at charity shops than ‘revamping your wardrobe on the cheap,’ though- a shopping spree here might go some way to save charities themselves. For many, this has been a disastrous three months with no fund raisers, huge charity events like marathons cancelled and no shops open since March these have been desperate times for the sector.
According to figures from independent charity Pro Bono, 10 per cent of UK charities are facing bankruptcy by the end of 2020, after suffering a collective funding shortfall of £10 billion, with further losses of £6.4 billion over the next six months. A combination of raised demand for their services, lockdown and a drop in donations has caused a perfect storm of problems. The majority of the UK’s charities are small, with income of under £100 000 a year. Two thirds have already been forced to cut their services and are expecting worse to come. Even huge charities like Age UK and Cancer Research are concerned, with the latter projecting a huge loss of £120 million in donations over the coming year.
All the more reason, then, to get out and shop. But having seen the queues on the high street this week, as masked-up retail desperados readied for a bunfight over cheap bikinis and mass-produced candle-holders, I’m not sure most people yet understand the pure joy of a good charity shop. The ensuing sense of satisfaction of getting ‘a find’ in one, far outweighs bagging five vest tops cobbled together in the Far East.
Over the years I’ve snapped up clothes and shoes from Boden, J Crew, Coast, and Karen Millen and I won’t forget the mint condition DKNY boots for £10 I found in an Age UK shop in a South Manchester. I almost hyperventilated taking them to the till. I’ve also bagged beautiful china, silk cushions and a Hobbs leather bag which is now my favourite all-time handbag. I’ve learnt to spot a good fabric at twenty paces, examine armpits for stains (I’m sorry, but realism is a factor in all charity shopping) and sort cashmere from merino and silk from slub by eyeball alone.
I have never understood the snobbery around charity shopping. I have good friends who sniff “oh no, everything stinks, ugh, other people have worn those things…” Conveniently forgetting that pre-Covid, the pricey designer item they’ve just bought was probably tried on several times too. Post covid the focus will be on hygeine more than ever and I always just wash whatever I buy, and it’s good as new- or better, because I don’t have to feel guilty about spending money I haven’t got.
As we emerge from lockdown, poorer but with a stronger sense of community, it’s time to forget the huge stores and their interchangeable stock. Go and buy a china cat, an angora jumper and a thriller you’ve been dying to read, and save the nation’s soul instead.
Hurrah – I’ve been reunited with my steam machine
By Julie Burchill
I've had volunteer jobs for more than a decade now, but never one like my cushy billet at the local MIND shop in Hove. For the past five years I’ve gone there five mornings a week to steam hundreds of pounds worth of clothes and invariably bounce back home in a wonderful mood, having laughed non-stop with my co-workers. When we closed indefinitely on March 21, I was bereft. So imagine my excitement when my manageress, the beautiful and dynamic Ms Chuang, messaged me on Sunday saying that we would re-open on Monday!
I was so excited on Sunday evening that I went to bed while it was still light, feeling like a child on Christmas Eve. Odd as it sounds, quite a bit of this excitement was about seeing the steaming machine, who I call ‘Stephanie’ - my temperamental mistress, forever blowing hot and cold with her affections, occasionally spitting at me when I work her too hard. Over the three months we've been parted I'm not ashamed to admit that not only do I dream of her but I've often put my face up against the window of the MIND shop on the off chance I'll catch a glimpse of her.
I can’t believe how the shop has changed; the chaotic Cornucopian-horn feel has disappeared, and it now resembles a minimalist boutique, housing a whopping one thousand less garments. And there in the little ante-room at the back of the shop is Stephanie, looking not a day older than when we were so cruelly separated in springtime. I wonder if our customers will be put off by the change - but many of them tell us how much they like it, even though it’s not the jolly free-for-all it used to be. We’re very grown-up now - only 5 people on the shop floor (1 staff, 4 customers) 1 person at the back of the house (me), all members of staff wearing face masks and customers encouraged to wear them too, hand sanitiser at the door and at till point. Signs are already good; though our hours are reduced from 9 - 5 to 10 - 4, we see around 40 customers and made £256 on our first day back (our pre-plague average of £250 - £300).
That’s not to say we’re back to normal; donations must be quarantined for 72 hours before sorting and steaming, leaving a lot less work for me. Still, it’s a great result and we’re so pleased to be one of the 34 MIND shops opening in the first phase. We do feel that we’re more than a shop: Miss Chuang says ‘I see us as not just raising money for Mind, but also as the face of Mind to clarify people’s awareness of mental health issues and to direct people to the resources that Mind can provide.’
Even before lockdown one in eight shops stood empty as people got wise to the fact that the pathetically-named ‘retail therapy’ solved no problems and created more, from personal debt to ceaseless landfill fodder. ‘All new clothes are the Emperor’s New Clothes now’ I wrote sternly in this newspaper only last year. But considering the mental health problems exacerbated by lockdown, now shopping of any sort really can be seen as an altruistic act as we attempt to save those in the retail sector from joining the ever-lengthening unemployment line - and the Depression/depressions which will inevitably follow. And from a purely selfish point of view, I don’t ever want to be asunder from my Stephanie ever again.