Charity shops they’re called in the UK, opportunity shops here in Australia – both run by charitable organisations, they sell donated goods: there can’t be more fascinating shops than these. There are, I guess, plenty of people who have never entered one, never given them a thought. If some of these hypothetical people were recently listening to the BBC World News at the same time I was while preparing lunch one early afternoon – insomniacs they’d have to be in the UK – they might have been even more surprised than me to hear that a parliamentary committee has recommended to the British Government that it restrict the number of charity shops in any one high street. Charity shops a threat to social order? So it seems. The impulse on the part of the non-charity shop frequenting listener might well have been to get down to one as quickly as possible to see what’s going on – before they’re possibly banned altogether. I wasn’t tuned in at lunchtime the next day, a Sunday, to hear of any further developments – social order, one hoped, prevailed along the high streets in the dead of night, Greenwich Mean Time.
The rationale for restricting the number of charity shops – by limiting rate relief – was based on the fact that during these economically difficult times – debt, unemployment, anxiety, unrest all high – these shops are booming. They’re attracting bargain-hunting customers as never before, in numbers that neighbouring commercial retailers, now struggling, can only dream of. The charity shops are copping some blame for this – directly hurting the retailers of the new and therefore in turn worsening the economic doldrums. In short, they are a drag on product churn. I hope this barmy idea doesn’t find expression, a lobby group, here. For this hope I must declare a personal interest: I have at times been an enthusiastic user of charity/opportunity shops. Not an addict of them exactly, like some in my social orbit, but on the fringes of addiction, if that is what popping in occasionally – irresistibly if passing by – to satisfy my curiosity amounts to. In other words, restricting their industrious and good work would not cause in me unmanageable agitation. Though I’m equally sure such action would not more lead me to speed through doors receiving insufficient use in the commercial retail sector.
When I enter the nearest opportunity shop – a ten minute bike ride from where I’m currently living in an inner suburb of Melbourne, a concern for the needy or the far off starving is not at the forefront of my mind, even though the organisation which runs the shop is named after the patron saint of the poor. The Brotherhood of St Laurence has been creating opportunities since 1930. When I enter, I’m wondering what useful or, even, useless artifacts I’ll spot and, if so driven, buy. I may then have faintly remembered that my cash is not profiting some monster company that covertly runs sweat shops in a developing nation.
The Brotherhood opportunity shop, in a semi-industrial zone, is actually the size of a large warehouse, so there’s a lot of territory to cover, and a lot of donated stuff regularly arriving by truck at the back entrance. The blokes who unload it are full of blarney and bluster. No problems there with workplace relations. They unload clothes, furniture, books, electrical goods, paintings and prints, white goods, sporting equipment, crockery, records and cds, millinery, knick-knacks galore – pretty much whatever durables in working order can be lifted into and out of a truck. The size of what I can manageably transport is normally restricted by the fact that I’ve arrived by bike and therefore what I can fit into my backpack: books (occasionally first editions!), rare old records, small paintings – a couple, finely executed by anonymous artists, now on my wall – wooden picture frames, earthenware items, and the like.
Once, for a couple of weeks, I binged and furnished the studio apartment where I recurrently live. This required a van and the added strength of a friend. The occasion: I’d moved back to Melbourne, leaving behind a leased, furnished house. My second set of furniture needed to be found quickly – at the Brotherhood it was all to be found under one roof – and cheaply: easy, should the time come, to jettison it. I gave myself a budget of a low, low $500 – lower than the average weekly wage. There could be a reality TV show for a challenge of this kind: furnish a house for five hundred bucks, the winner being the contestant who accomplishes the feat in the most stylish fashion. In my eyes, after all of the lifting and shifting, I reckon I’d have been in the running for the final. I was especially pleased with the black leather couch and an armless easy chair, probably made in the 60s, reflecting Bauhaus design – and no-one with any taste could possibly sneer at the rectangular tables. Or, for that matter, at any of the other fine items we manipulated into position. But I kept the place TV free: more reality about without one. Then, having achieved my aim, I blew it, and began handing over sums of money not destined for charity. For a hand-woven Pakistani kilim, a late nineteenth-century Chinese low table, should there ever be an occasion to take tea with guests, sitting on the floor, cross-legged – and then I bought a large painting, after a sudden rush of blood to the head at an exhibition opening, by a leading Australian artist I’ve long admired. The cost of the whole enterprise had now rocketed into the stratospheric region of five figures. But still, in the proximity of these luxury items, and to emphasise the quality and range of goods available at the Brotherhood shop, the furniture still looked great – the comfortable chairs suitable for sitting back and appreciating the painting.
The French disapprove of bargain-hunters moving in on goods considered, in their equivalently styled and stocked shops, to be reserved for the poor. Here and in the UK the doors are cheerfully open to all who’ll generate income for charity and with extra thanks added should a happy customer refuse her change, one donation attracting another. These are not gloomy places. From among the long rows of clothes racks at the Brotherhood shop you can often hear laughter, even shrieks of surprise from women of several ages delighted to have spotted a retro chic item – a dress perhaps one of their aunts might have taken very seriously. Younger women, with brightly dyed hair and pale faces, explode through the changing booth curtains to show off a sudden combo of clothes whose juxtaposition would be assured to make some aunts nonplussed. Men, in their section, generally keep their emotions in check, so one can only guess at the strength of any subterranean eruption of delight at a find, say, a tie. The fact is, every deeply satisfied customer knows that the staff who price the items – a Bauhaus-style chair for ten dollars, a women’s twin suit from the ‘swinging sixties’ for twenty – have no eye for a truly valuable item. At least that’s the experience on a good day, since the bargain-hunter must have beaten the opportunistic second-hand dealers to find it.
These fascinating places – often large-scale in Australia, small (but threatening) as befits high street shop fronts in the UK – bring out our primitive impulses to hunt. Think bison, think leather couch. These impulses don’t on an average day at any particular urban postcode get sufficient chance to be satisfied. The moaning UK commercial retail outlets could learn a thing or two from charity shops, especially with regard to clothes. Goodness, they’ve had long enough to do so: Oxfam, the first of the charity shops, has been around since 1947. When living in north London, I can’t resist the opportunity to frequently check out the nearest, not because I want to bag a bargain for the sake of it – the consumerist trap – but because of the choice and quality of the apparel. In middle-market Gap clothes shops, to provide a representative example, the range of clothes is confined to the style settings of the current season, take or leave it, and try to forget the third world factories where the single-label stuff likely originates. In charity shops the seasons are many and varied, from the recent and going back to, well, possibly all the way back to 1947. So no one set of styles is imposed on the customer disinclined to be trapped in a product straightjacket. Furthermore, the variety of brands is without bounds. Examples: I have an Italian-made Armani jacket without having had to tap my bank manager for an extra line of credit, and another jacket, now gracing one of my coat hangers, by Thomas Nash – also a natty brown corduroy suit and on its label, Harrods. The beneficiary: charity. Admittedly, the shop I go to is located within a fairly classy demographic but if members of it choose to discard a recent season’s clothes still in the state in which they first went on display in some posh shop, then go out to buy more then that’s their business. The parliamentary committee recommending the restrictions would, I am sure, congratulate such customers on their absurd lust for consumption.
One of the most successful baggers of pre-loved or re-loved attire in the north London neighbourhood that supplies the charity shop I go to is a famous English actress with a pedigree which comes with a double-barrel surname (but super classy, no hyphen) and establishment connections. Her award-winning performances are mostly in period dramas where, swanning about aristocratically, she’s dolled up in the most elegant looking outfits suitable for the time. Out on the high street, now, close to where she lives, it’s a different matter. So much so, that I didn’t immediately recognise her. She goes in for what I would perhaps ignorantly describe as a gothic look, emphasis black, hair in attractive disarray. My theory was that she dressed down, covered her petite and desirable person in unruly rag-tag gear to avoid being spotted and therefore gain the personal freedom that comes with anonymity. I thought I’d done well, spotting her while pretending not to. This became quite regular on the busy high street now that I was savvy to her game. Way back, when my mother – who had an eye for elegant outfits – was approximately the actress’s age and I was still in lovingly pressed shorts, wearing an item of clothing that had adorned a previous owner was considered to be ‘common’. Hand-me-downs were our privilege to hand down. I don’t know who we thought we were, living, as we did, in a modest semi-detached house in an outer-London suburb but I did know there was a lot, and ever growing list, of ‘common’ behaviour about. I was made aware of this because I brought some of it home. Now here was a member of an establishment family, the sort of family which we presumably once looked up to, exhibiting the very kind of street behaviour, fancy free, we looked down upon.
How times change! But from where, I wondered, from which recycled clothing shop run, I supposed, by a charity – maybe the Heart Foundation or Save the Children – did this pretty woman get her remarkable gear? I don’t check out the women’s racks, so maybe I’d missed the availability. I brought the matter up with a friend of mine who, as former curator of dress at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, would surely be interested. She was enlightening. My mother would have been pleased to hear her words – so would the parliamentary committee. I’d provided the actress with a role she didn’t know she was playing in a kind of shop she’d quite possibly never entered. In short – and if I bothered with celebrity news in the media or owned a TV, I might have known this – her memorable attire, its apparently scruffy unironed dark folds and frills, was bought new. Designer-made. Possibly one-offs. Truly expensive. This goes to show that, in my eyes at least, there’s not a scrap of difference between getting about in haute couture and the latest bargain from Oxfam. Perhaps the actress, after some heady opening night, treading the red carpet in mismatched shoes, and now weary of her latest, new, over-photographed outfit has, on a whim, let it go. I can visualise the kind of thing hanging on a rack in the kind of shop I recently, naively, assumed she frequented, and, pinned on its sleeve, the charity shop price tag shows it’s going for a song – and who cares about the identity of its former owner.
The parliamentary committee would be pleased to hear that in the UK I don’t restrict my own clothes shopping to such shops though it might be unhappy to hear that, no matter what the outlet, I don’t buy much. Someone who leads a peripatetic life, as I do, is not likely to be a keen accumulator, a virtuous consumer. Had the committee, I wondered, considered the role charity shops play in the business of recycling goods? If so, it would seem the members are against it. Or perhaps in their daily lives they’re cognisant with the widespread, big-picture view that rampant consumerism, now driving the UK economy not quite fast enough, is ill-suited to the speed with which the finitely-resourced planet, on which in insupportable numbers we inharmoniously live, can recover from the consequential environmental degradation to which consumerism contributes . Maybe there was no point in trotting out such a view – heard it all before, thank you Guardian – in the committee room, small pictures on the wall. But, of course! – the committee had to come up with something new. That’s what committees do. It must have been a relief to seize upon charity shops as sucking the life out of high street consumption. The resourcefulness of this analysis was what made me lift my head from my lunchtime preparations, better to get the drift of what I was startled to be hearing, and threaten with a knife the continued existence of a finger. But, to be very charitable, perhaps the committee’s deeply secret interest is actually in the survival of the charitable organisations it has its reportedly mean eyes trained upon. For there’s no denying that if high street consumption takes a real knock – less money about or a change in attitudes towards consumption – it will be the charity shops that will be first to be short of good stock. Good enough that is, in my eyes, for a classy actress to show off.
Andrew Sant is the author of a dozen collections of poetry, the most recent being The Bicycle Thief & Other Poems (Black Pepper, Melbourne 2013). His essays have appeared in Best Australian Essays 2010 and 2011. He lives in Melbourne.