There are loads of great things about working from home. The mid-morning baths; the mid-afternoon naps; being able to reach into a cupboard full of food without even getting out of my chair. But my personal, special favourite is the charity shop at the end of the road.
Working from home means I’m free to pop in as often as I like, and keep tabs on all the stock. So I go three or four times a week. Sometimes six. Occasionally twice in a day, when I’m dithering over an inappropriate purchase and want to let fate be my personal shopper. “If it’s still here at 5pm,” I tell myself, shoving the thing to the back of a rail or burying it under a pile of scarves, “then I’m supposed to have it. The universe wants me to have it. But if it’s gone, then someone else with excellent taste has found it instead, and I will wish them well in their new life together.”
Because that is the joy of the charity shop bargain: it’s elusive. Good things come and go in a blink. The window of opportunity is narrow, and if you don’t seize the day/bag/shoe and give it a good, loving home, then someone else will and maybe you never deserved it anyway. On the other hand I never feel stronger or more sensible then when I am walking away from something with a fancy label, because I know in my heart I wouldn’t wear it. Yesterday this happened with a pair of £8 Ralph Lauren trousers, ACTUAL Ralph Lauren, and I felt like I’d turned down a damehood.
Charity shops offer an antidote to the bloated greed of the high street. Not just in the obvious, ethical ways – they raise £290m in the UK every year as well as awareness for their causes, provide vital resources for people on low incomes and offer an alternative to the dead-end chain of sweatshop to landfill – but in spirit too. Whereas we can click our fingers in Zara and demand different sizes, different colours, new things, newer things, cheaper clothes, faster clothes, MORE MORE MORE- there is something soothing about the way a charity shop simply says: “Here is a dress. Look, it’s your size. Do you want it? No? Ok cool.”
Things I have wanted and adopted in recent months from my local (it’s a Mind shop, but selfishly I’m not telling you which one because I want first pick of the size 7s) include: a pair of tailored trousers from Toast, a metallic striped 80s jumpsuit, a £10 Nicole Farhi jacket, a pair of burgundy suede knee-high boots, an incredibly useful black top, a pair of flat buckled loafers just on the right side of Amish, a slightly less useful black top, pair of Topshop culottes, a 70s prairie dress, a white blouse with a giant fringe round the hem and a fabulous oversized 90s checked Christmas ‘Mom’ shirt embroidered with snowflakes (believe) that I like to imagine belonged to Roseanne Barr in a former life.
That is all just from one shop. If I walk 10 minutes up the road I get to five more, all bursting with new hopes and dreams and smeary Mills and Boons. I've found enough good booty in my time to keep the faith – but even if it was all pit-stained Primark, I'd keep going, because the anticipation of treasure can be as sweet as the reward (this is the reason pirates always seem to be having such a nice time).
‘Sure’, goes charity shop lore, ‘it’s pissing it down and you hate your life and your fringe has started doing that Camilla Parker Bowles thing again… but today might, MIGHT, be the day you find a Chanel 2.55 for £2.55 at the bottom of the handbag bin.’
It might. And that’s enough to keep you going.
I learned about the thrill of the charity shop chase early in life, from my parents. Where other people’s mothers would sniff with disdain at the idea of a secondhand party dress or a coat with someone else’s tissue in the pocket, my family always championed secondhand shopping – out of necessity, when we were young and money only stretched so far, but also out of love for the weird and the whimsical, the objects with a backstory that you could make up on the way home.
These days my parents’ holidays still revolve around treasure-hunting, sifting happily through charity shops, record stores and junky hideaways in quaint corners of Britain (Bexhill-on-Sea has 24 within three streets, they tell me). Dad loves vinyl, oddities and curios, while Mum can sniff out last season’s Per Una at a 100 paces. She lives in fear of one day bumping into the mystery woman of exactly the same height and build whose wardrobe she has been buying up from the local Scope shop, in case the poor woman thinks it’s some kind of glitch in the Matrix.
Landing in North London at 18 with a wardrobe full of polyester Granny dresses, I quickly learned that the posher the area, the newer and less moth-eaten the charity shop haul. “This probably belonged to Sienna Miller,” I’d think, stroking a cashmere jumper that was still £14.50. On the other hand, places with lots of elderly residents tend to have better vintage, and places that look as though someone might have died in the back under a stack of old Readers Digests tend to be the best for kitschy home stuff. In my student house we had a 70s tea set, fresh from the charity shop, for three weeks before we owned a kettle.
But anyone who has dipped into charity shops only to leave five minutes later, weary and wheezy and confused by trying to remember whether or not Denim & Co is a legitimate jeans brand, will know that there’s a skill to it. It takes time, patience and an open mind re: mystery odours to find the gold. And while the shops themselves run a wide gamut from Mary Portas-led swankery (it’s hard to get angry about a £25 Boden jacket when it’s going to cure AIDS, but whaaaa) to the kind of pile ’em high thrift store that seems to have been preserved in amber since 1972, there are reassuring constants.
In every charity shop in the land, you will always find: a studded leather circle belt from the noughties. A floral tea dress from H&M that you tried on in 2012. Paperback copies of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Shantaram and that one with the doughnuts on the cover. Wraparound sunglasses. A beige tapestry holdall that you think you might be able to style out like it’s Prada. And a selection of DVDs that originally came free with the Sunday Express.
Even more reassuring is the knowledge that all this stuff, even the circle belt, goes to a good cause one way or another. Only 2% of clothing donated to charity shops ends up as landfill, with the vast bulk of knackered and unsaleable garments being sold on to textile recyclers. And beyond the hard cash, charity shops have human value. They’re often community hubs and service centres. They provide skills, social contact and sometimes crucial confidence boosts for volunteers who struggle in other workplaces.
They’re ports in the storm. Portholes to the past, glowing cosy and warm in the rain. They welcome the bargain-hunters, the time-killers, the people who just want a chat. If I ever had to escape a zombie apocalypse, I’m pretty sure it’s a charity shop I’d run to.
And I’d definitely buy a jumper and a paperback while I was there.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.