Why have they lost their quirky in­di­vid­u­al­ity?

The Oldie - - NEWS -

THERE WAS a time – sev­eral years ago now – when I felt com­pelled to en­ter ev­ery sin­gle char­ity shop that came my way. To walk on by was out of the ques­tion. The thought of all those bar­gains I would fail to have the op­por­tu­nity to pur­chase was just too much to bear. This ad­dic­tion af­fected my re­la­tion­ships, but I didn’t care: I was only in­ter­ested in feed­ing my habit. I now find, to my sur­prise, that I am cured. With­out mak­ing any ef­fort at all, I have given up fre­quent­ing char­ity shops.

I think my in­ter­est first started to wane about six years ago when Mary Por­tas, ‘Queen of Shops’, was brought in to re­vamp the Or­p­ing­ton branch of Save the Chil­dren in or­der to make a TV se­ries. In an at­tempt to rid the shop of its shabby im­age, she suc­cess­fully robbed it of its quirky in­di­vid­u­al­ity. Soon all Save the Chil­dren char­ity shops had stripped-pine floors, shabby-chic decor and dimmed light­ing. Other char­ity shops, think­ing that this was the way to go, fol­lowed the trend. In the blink of an eye, Aladdin’s caves all across the coun­try were trans­formed into bor­ing ho­mo­gene­ity.

Un­for­tu­nately the qual­ity of the do­nated goods failed to live up to this re­brand­ing. If any­thing, they be­came more pre­dictable: cheap chain-store clothes, tired poly­cot­ton bed linen; dog-eared pa­per­backs by the likes of James Pat­ter­son, Danielle Steel and Dan Brown; shelves of du­bi­ous or­na­ments, DVDS, jig­saws and board games (usu­ally in­clud­ing Triv­ial Pur­suit and Pic­tionary), bas­kets of mugs, some stained and chipped, card­board boxes of pic­ture frames, and a se­lec­tion of toi­letries. The boxed sets of shower gel and body lo­tion would be un­wanted Christ­mas gifts and the smaller items free­bies taken from ho­tels. So far, so un­de­sir­able.

In ad­di­tion to all this, char­ity shops started branch­ing out into the field of new mer­chan­dise, of­ten sell­ing their own branded goods. Ox­fam spe­cialises in Fair­trade cof­fee and choco­late bars, ecofriendly clean­ing agents and gifts made by women’s groups in the Third World. All this does is make the char­ity shop more like an or­di­nary shop. If I want to buy Fair­trade stuff, I can go to the Co-op.

An­other fac­tor con­tribut­ing to my dis­il­lu­sion­ment with the char­ity shop is the in­ter­net. ‘The in­ter­net’s ru­ined every­thing!’ you will hear former devo­tees mut­ter among them­selves, and they have a point. Some char­ity shops now have an on­line pres­ence, sell­ing their more in­ter­est­ing items via the world­wide web. It is also claimed that peo­ple who might pre­vi­ously have do­nated goods are now feel­ing more hard pressed for cash and so put their un­wanted items on ebay. And char­ity shop staff com­plain that some cus­tomers buy from them solely for the pur­pose of sell­ing on. Char­ity shops have re­sponded to this chal­lenge by price-check­ing their goods on rel­e­vant in­ter­net sites. Th­ese new, savvy char­i­tyshop work­ers have started la­belling their slightly bet­ter items of cloth­ing as ‘de­signer’, and any­thing at all that is slightly old-fash­ioned as ‘vin­tage’, ‘retro’ or ‘col­lectable’.

So the hey­day of the char­ity shop is over. More time to de­vote to use­ful ac­tiv­ity, like writ­ing ar­ti­cles about their demise. For the pur­pose of writ­ing this piece, I did, of course, have to do some re­search: I re­vis­ited the char­ity shops in my lo­cal area. I re­turned with a pair of cerise jog­ging bot­toms (£3), a beige cardi­gan (£2), a gad­get that tells me when my boiled egg is cooked to my sat­is­fac­tion (20p), a hot wa­ter bot­tle (£2) and a hard­back copy of T S Eliot’s The Cock­tail Party bear­ing a stamp stat­ing that it is the prop­erty of Mose­ley Hall County Gram­mar School, Chea­dle, Cheshire (£1). I re­sisted the temp­ta­tion to buy the West­clox trav­el­ling alarm clock, circa 1960 (£3.99) and the Dryad can­dle-mak­ing starter kit (£2.95), thereby sav­ing my­self £6.94. Did I say I was cured?

In the blink of an eye, Aladdin’s caves across the coun­try were trans­formed into bor­ing ho­mo­gene­ity

A trea­sure trove no longer: Ox­fam shop in Lon­don

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