Saturday, 31 October 2009

Confessions of a charity shop worker

This was an article I wrote for the Liverpool magazine Plastic Rhino some time ago. It might be a lazy way to fill out this new blog, but what the heck. I need to get a few posts in, and this piece explains a lot about me and my interest in old things:

Confessions of a charity shop worker

Charity shops saved my life. No really they did. From the ‘thrift shops’ on the various RAF camps where I lived as a child, to my student days and beyond, I would have struggled to clothe myself, equip and furnish my numerous shabby bedsits, read as much esoteric and trashy literature or listen to as much esoteric and trashy music without them. Charity shops fed my obsessions with an unpredictable supply of lucky finds, nurtured me as a collector and provided a smugly satisfying contrary form of elitism. All through the eighties, I sneered at the designer label obsessed masses, and never missed an opportunity to crow about how little my new acquisitions cost me. As unpleasant as this perverse snobbery sounds, I’m reluctant to condemn my younger, smart arse self, since I was making a virtue of a necessity. Like a lot of people at that time, I was permanently skint.

I wasn’t unusual either, much as I’d like to flatter myself that I was a charity shop pioneer. Those of us in lefty, alternative, studenty, dole-y circles were habitual, and accomplished, charity shoppers. They didn’t make it easy for you either. Most charity shops had a distinctive musty smell, a combination of rancid sweat, greasy unwashed hair, mothballs and an occasional tang of wee (cat? Human?) It took determination to tackle the mouldering boxes and trunks of grubby apparel, and the rammed rails bending under the weight of Gannex raincoats, Ladies’ Pride polyester print granny tents and candlewick bedspreads, all hung on mismatched wire coathangers pulled into diamond shapes by persistent abuse.

Most of the stock was, frankly, unsaleable but this was the charity shop’s greatest virtue; the chance to plough through everything that came through the door unmediated. This meant that hawk eyed ‘volunteers’ hadn’t combed through the stock already and filtered off the choice items for themselves. It was up to you to pull the treasures out from the piles of detritus, and the chances were that the frequently elderly staff wouldn’t differentiate between a 1950s Scottish cashmere sweater and a 1970s Winfield cardie in Acrilan. They would both be 50p.

From the late 1970s onwards I managed to amass vast quantities of vintage clothing and accessories, trunkfuls of exuberantly patterned curtains from the 1940s on, teetering great piles of sleazy pulp paperbacks with lurid covers, not to mention the stacks of melamine and bakelite, chalk figures, transistor radios, leather suitcases, toys, glassware, rugs ... its fair to say I was obsessed.

So imagine my joy when a job came up in a local charity’s central warehouse, akin to that of an alcoholic taking over the management of a pub. I became a sorter, rooting through the thousands of binbags and cardboard suitcases of donations. This opportunity coincided more or less with a drastic change in how charity shops operated. The larger chains of charity shops were getting refitted with blonde wood shelving and buff carpets, clothes were arranged by colour and size and everything smelled of pot pourri rather than a flophouse. Smaller concerns were smartening up their act as well, as best they could. Shop managers now kept stacked copies of Millers Collectables Price Guides to hand, and watched every edition of Antiques Roadshow for tips. This resulted in the farcical pricing disasters we’ve all come across, where someone’s recognised a Midwinter plate and whacked £20 on it, despite it being stuck together with great gobs of Araldite. Some employed ‘experts’ to siphon off the best of the donations for auctioning. Charity shops got professional, prices went up, and the chances of finding treasure diminished accordingly.

As a sorter, my instructions were to meticulously examine every item of clothing for flaws and stains and ‘rag’ anything that fell below a standard that could be described as ‘nearly new’ - these rags were sold on to textile recycling firms, who, incidentally, sold a lot of the reasonably wearable items on to traders in Africa. It could be a 1930s silk velvet gown - if it had a small hole or the zip was a bit stiff it had to be ragged. The management was implacable, despite my pleadings and protestations. Recent fire regulations meant that any foam upholstered furniture made before a certain date (it might have been 1989) could not be sold and had to be destroyed. Bye bye 50s G Plan dining suites and 70s orange vinyl cocoon chairs. No one else there seemed to be aware of the rocketing value of these items, and I found myself coopted in the wholesale destruction of precisely the items I had spent years hunting for. Rules is rules and I was only following orders.

Don’t imagine I didn’t chafe at this regime. The clashes with my superiors were frequent and often vicious. On one occasion I tried to save some 1950s kitchen chairs with fabulous abstract Contemporary print vinyl seating. Having pulled them out of the skip (excuse me, they were being dumped not sold), I left them near the loading bay doors to pick up later. Word got out (traitors!) and I was marched to the loading bay, all the staff in the building were summoned and one of the bosses, purple with rage and shaking, explained to me precisely what I had done wrong AT THE VERY TOP OF HIS VOICE. Having shredded his vocal cords to the point where he could only croak, he then pulled out a Stanley knife and maniacally hacked every last bit of dangerously toxic upholstery off each chair as we stood, stunned and silent. It was quite a show.

I learned a lot there. Most importantly, I realised just how much crap is dumped on charity shops. Nursing homes would send sackfuls of bobbly brushed nylon nighties with names marker penned on the necks, surgical supports and crimplene dresses with brown stains on one side where the colostomy bag had backed up. If you can imagine the worst kind of stains you might find, we found them every day. Particularly nasty examples were carefully placed on the end of a long stick and ceremonially paraded round the sorting room so all the ‘girls’ could squeal and flinch. Our way of coping I suppose. Sometimes we opened bags full of used teabags and bean tins, the donors having mixed up their rubbish donations with actual rubbish. One lucky colleague found two vibrators and some love eggs nestling amongst the clothes. Even the worst charity shops of the old school would have baulked at these.

Of course, I exploited my position to the full, and my enormous staff purchases never failed to raise eyebrows. My collecting mania was getting out of hand, and my colleagues helped fuel my obssession. Anything remotely old or quirky was thrown onto my sorting desk, typically with the comment that it was weird so I’d love it. They knew me well. But the superiors were wising up, and anything I wanted to buy was now frequently priced at a premium or confiscated for the yearly antique fair. It couldn’t go on like this, and after three and a half years of hoarding madness I ducked out, signed up for a degree course in design history and moved to Brighton. Just about everything I owned I sold off or donated back to the very charity shops they had come from. I no longer felt the need to own these things, and sublimated my passion by studying them instead.

Subsequently, vintage clothing took off in a big way and became tiresomely mainstream. There’s plenty of sources now if you want retro items and there’s no need to get your hands dirty. Fashion retailers such as Topshop do vintage lines, and even charity shops like Oxfam, Scope and Traid have opened stand alone vintage outlets, selling their garments at prices similar, or even higher, than those charged by specialist second hand dealers who have to pay for their stock. Consider that for a moment. Charity shops are fund raising ventures and no one could begrudge them their efforts to maximise their revenues for whatever worthy cause they represent. But they were also (and still are) important sources of essential supplies for those at the bottom of the social pile - the unemployed, the minimum wage slaves, single mums and pensioners. The larger charity chains have gone bourgeois, desperately trying to shake off their image as a pensioner’s social club, or worse, a squalid fleapit catering to the dregs of society. They’ve chased ‘quality’ and lost their essential appeal.

At the same time TV muscled in with offerings such as Bargain Hunt and whatever the latest ‘sell your grandmother and buy that new car you wanted’ variants on the format are currently showing. I don’t know because I’m not watching. These days, everyone is an expert, flaunting spurious knowledge and haggling like they’re in a Moroccan bazaar. And the phenomenal rise of Ebay now means that fewer interesting items are donated to charity shops if people think they can get £20 for it online. Most charity shops present a dispiritingly sterile and uninspiring prospect, stocked with racks of last year’s Matalan, Primark and George at Asda, often priced higher than they were new.

You could accuse me of being jaded and disaffected, snootily resentful of my territory being encroached by the ignorant masses. And you’d be right. It just doesn’t seem special or fun or the gut wrenching challenge it used to be. The thrill of the chase has gone now that its obvious that there’s next to no chance of finding, for example, a 1930s Lanvin coat for a fiver as I did once - possibly my most intensely satisfying charity shop moment. But I’m not entirely disillusioned because there’s still plenty of good reasons to patronise charity shops.

No matter how green or right on or ecologically sound a product claims to be, it will never be as impeccably green as a reused item. Furthermore, anything second hand you buy from a charity shop is one less item to go to landfill. According to the Association of Charity Shops, the value of textiles reused or passed for recycling by charity shops - 107,000 tonnes in total - saves between £2,140,000 and £4,280,000 on actual landfill costs, and £1,498,000 in landfill tax savings alone, based on costs correct in 2003. Those are impressively big numbers to conjure with.

There are still a few old style charity shops around, usually local charity concerns, that give a flavour of that old time charity browsing experience. Find them and make them your friends. Consider your catchment area. If the locale is a bit down at heel, the donations will be, on the whole, correspondingly wretched. Affluent areas generate a classier crop of stock, although it may be a bit square. Retirement hotspots will offer plenty of granny fashions in plus plus sizes but you may strike lucky with the odd treasured relic or momento. If you’re after recent designer finds try funky areas with younger, professional residents. The prices might be higher though, and if that’s the case go to TKMaxx and cut out the (misinformed) middleman.

[Written for Plastic Rhino magazine, May 2005]

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