Sunday, August 16, 2009

Why Primark and poshness have ruined charity shops

I was in a charity shop in glorious Levenshulme last week dropping off a bag of 40 books. I walked in the door and waited for the lady in charge to poke her head out of the back room and look at me. The conversation went something like this:

Me: "Is it okay if I drop off some books?"

Lady: "There's nothin electrical in there is there?"

Me: "Just books. Lots of books."

Lady: "We can't take electrical. Have to refuse anythin plug in."

Me: "Only books." Walking backwards out of the shop, abandoning bag of books. "No electrical books. No moving parts, not even a pop-up book."

I ran away. She could throw them in the bin for all I cared. I'd made an effort to recycle my books back into the world. She could try and plug in my battered copy of The Magus if she wanted. Although I think you might need a European adapter before you'll get any enlightenment out of that ropey old Swedish detective book. Still, that's what you want from a lady in a charity shop. You want her to be a bit batty, not have a clue about what anything is really worth, and you probably want her to tell you off when you hand her 20 quid's worth of stuff. It's a proper charity shop is that. Just like the lovely one in the League of Gentlemen.

Here's what a charity shop should be like:

  • A bit untidy, the sort of place with a faded toy donkey in the window and possibly a gollywog hidden under a pile of unmatched gloves. When you hold something up and ask how much it is you want the shop staff to look in surprise & wonder at what you've just found. They will need you to explain what it is. They will need to find their reading glasses to check how much it is.
  • The charity shop is the place for old people to work and mingle with the rest of society so they can feel useful & needed and keep warm in the winter.
  • After all, you want the shop staff to be slightly out of step with modern fashions and trends. You don't want them to be talking about asymetric jacket lapels and Busted dvds - you want them to appreciate doilies, sad faced pierot dolls & nice cardigans.
  • Because you want to find something weird and wonderful. Something you WOULD NOT be able to find somewhere else. That is the point of charity shops. "How much is this rubbish old vase?" you ask, trembling slightly as you hold up the genuine Ming vase you've just discovered in a Sue Ryder shop in Openshaw. Perhaps.
  • They DON'T sell stuff you can get somewhere else. They sell stuff that isn't for sale any more. They sell stuff from the past. They are the Bagpuss of shops. The staff there are like the Wombles - they collect what other people throw away.
  • The books will be 99% predictable and bent out of shape, but if some local reader has just popped his clogs you might have the chance to pick up loads of high quality stuff at low prices.
  • Because traditionally charity shops are not just there to make money for good causes - they exist as a cheap place for POOR PEOPLE to shop in.

I got my school blazer and tie when I started at big school from a charity shop. Well my mum got em from the charity shop anyway. I was mortified, but no one ever knew, so it was fine really. No one pointed at me and said, "Ha! Ha! Charity shop blazer boy!" They were too busy being impressed by my monkey boots and bowl haircut. Probably.

When I was in the sixth form and wanted to be a rebellious 17 year old - I scoured many many charity shops in the hope that some old fella around my size had died. I yearned to find old suits, shirts, cardigans, Manc indie kid style coats and silly 'old men' style hats. And usually if you did find anything interesting you could buy it for a few quid... when I were a lad etc.

And over the years I've found a few weird and wonderful items in charity shops. Oftentimes stuff that you buy - then realise it's completely useless or ugly - and so give back to another charity shop 6 months later. But, y'know, it helps the economy...

Here's what most charity shops are like these days:

  • Organised. Generic. Tidy. Expensive! Fairtrade chocolate. Wooden bricabrac made in Kenya.
  • An Oxfam shop in Aldershot looks like an Oxfam shop in Aberdeen - well, probably, I haven't actually checked - and that's fine, but...... boring. The front part of an Oxfam shop isn't a 2nd hand shop - and I used to think that's what a charity shop was. Now it's a place to buy unbleached linen bags made in Bangladesh and bags of dried bananas. Which again is fine. I like dried bananas. I'm dead healthy and dead right-on me.
  • (Actually I need a new linen bag to put my sun-dried bananas in.)
  • They employ experts to check through the clothes and books and siphon off the best books & 'classic' clothes to the more expensive specialist charity bookshops & 'classic' clothes shops. So it's rare you'll ever find an interesting old man hat these days..
  • Having said that. It's not just the shop's fault. OLD MEN!!! Listen! If you're planning on dying and giving away your old wardrobe any time soon - smarten yourselves up!!!
  • Tracksuits? Shellsuits? Sweat shirts? What the heck is that all about? Dying old people just don't dress like they used to. Where are the 3-piece suits, ay, old men? Where are the rakish trilbys? Shame on you...
  • The clothes in charity shops are a bit shit these days. They're generally Primark cast-offs. Or similar poor quality throwaway clothes. Rarely will you pick up a jacket that has the name of a tailor stitched into the lining... Fair enough - the Modern World etc...
  • But the charity shops price these Primarky clothes like they're high quality merchandise. And, umm, they're not! Primark clothes are actually more expensive if you buy them 2nd hand than if you buy them new. Humbug!
  • It can't be possible to make a shirt and sell it at a profit for £3. Surely, Primark, surely? No doubt I will take advantage of it if it is, but how do you do it? Tiny children working their tiny hands down to their tiny bones? Apparently not, you say, so obviously - it's MAGIC! Do you magic them into existence? Hmmm?
  • But what can the charity shops do about that? Poor people don't shop in 2nd hand shops any more. They go to Primark. Rebellious youths don't bother either. They buy their crazy emo clothes from the internet.
  • I'm making this up now. I have no idea where you buy Emo-based fashions really. I just know it's all wrong.
  • Everything about the Modern World is wrong!
  • There's a temptation to have a go at people and organisations that clearly do a lot of good for the world. And sell excellent fairtrade chocolate. I support them, I really do, I'm just a little sad - in the old fashioned sense of the word.

Personally, I'm just going to buy things from jumble sales from now on. That'll learn em, eh? Coz isn't that where the really rubbish books & clothes and highly-illegal electrical items end up? Or else on - the internet's own peer-to-peer charity shop.


  1. I used to love the Oxfam shop in our town, it was like an emporium, and the staff were kindly and nice and slightly 'vacant' but in a sweet way.
    There was always an old pram outside, or a bike for sale, and inside there were fur coats and vintage clothes, and sometimes the odd piece of really nice jewellery.

    Now I don't use them because as you say, they have been steamlined and poshed up, and the staff are on the career ladder, so there is no time for banter, or idle chat.

    By the way, you sound like a Grumpy old man these days :)

  2. I think a lot depends where the charity shop is.

    In places like Harrogate they are 'posh'.

    But in somewhere a little more basic like Rothwell (Leeds) they are as you would wish; a little fusty and plenty of tat amongst the gems along with a lady in a cardy at the counter who will stand and chatter for hours.

    My wife loves the latter.

  3. Um, every oxfam (and friends) I've been to/seen/snubbed of late is as doughboy described: new stuff, virtual gifts and a tiny selection of shoddy old stuff you wouldn't buy. And shockingly I've been, and lived, places worse than Leeds.

    Nicer charity shops are obscure ones, the independent one-of charities; they still sell decent second hand things and have eccentric volunteers manning the shop. Not oxfam.

  4. Point being, location has very little to do with it. My godmother who lives in ascot gets many designer cheapies from her local shop. It depends on the charity and the decency of them.

    Oxfam are unworthy recipients anyway.

  5. I agree: I hated that bloody Mary Queen of Shops programme (didn't they repeat it earlier this year?) And I didn't like the way she used to "corporatize" people's independent boutiques, either.

    Some were crap, I just don't prefer "impersonal and corporate"!

    Mind you, some people both young and old are the most awful fracking cheapskates. You try making any money at a car boot or "table sale" down in Cornwall;| it's like pulling teeth to make your stall fee. Even outside of recessions. It's been like that for decades; too many mean middle-aged men (if you ask me!); earning plenty of money ripping people off as tradesmen; yet scorning/stinting to pay out a couple of quid on a stall "manned" by a woman; that's my experience anyway. And to the person (might have been on the Guardian website) saying about how some pple sell stuff for 10p.. well maybe they do, but they shouldn't, bcos you won't make any money like that, for your school or anything: it's wasting your time to price things like that. Even charity..