There’s been a bit of debate in the mainstream media recently about charity shops superseding and ultimately putting traditional high street shops out of business. An example being Oxfam and their ever expanding chain of book shops. Antiquarian and second-hand outlets are complaining that they can’t compete with Oxfam who are getting their books donated free and being a charity pay a lower local business rate. But this is not just confined to the bookshop trade. All the major charities who have retail outlets have spruced themselves up to compete for the grubby coins in our purses and wallets. They are real, proper shops now.
First thing you notice as you walk through the charity shop’s door is the smell or rather the absence of it. Formerly, it was a combination of sweat, earth and patchouli, the latter struggling to mask the first two. It always emanated from the Gents’ clothes section. On a hot summer’s day, a deep intake of breath was required before scanning the racks for a faded denim jacket. Today the air is pure, maybe the gentlest whiff of Febreze, allowing you to browse leisurely instead of having to re-enact an underwater commando raid.
Everything is laid out orderly now. No longer do they just open up the front door and throw everything in, letting gravity and chaos theory decide on where the articles are placed. It’s all shelves, chrome railed rack systems, pastel walls and backlit cabinets. You can’t rummage anymore. Want a book? What genre? Horror top shelf, SF below, then general fiction down to the bottom with the oversized encyclopaedias, gardening manuals and the like. Like a mini-Waterstones, and where’s the fun in that? Clothes used to be arranged in gender only, that’s gone as well. Sports jackets have a rack, jeans have a rack, shirts have a rack, everything sized with marked coat hangers from small up to fat bastard. Adventure, discovery and acquisition have been replaced by the standard get in, then get out consumerism.
The crap (affectionately known as bric-a-brac) has been relegated to some back, wonky shelf. In many charity shops these odds and ends have disappeared completely. The ornaments of pot dogs won at the local fair have been replaced by overseas fair-trade crafts: miniature wicker baskets; scented candles and little mirror inlaid wooden boxes. They are just as worthless as the pot dog except they cost about ten times the price and are for some reason ethical. The third world, disadvantaged people who make these fair-trade trinkets must despise us for forcing that sort of living on them. Maybe the market and potential clientele for a ship in a bottle, single teaspoons and chipped egg cups is at odds with the new ambience and ethos of the shop.
And it’s this new ambience and ethos that has to be paid for. Charity shops are no longer your bargain, six days a week jumble sale/car boot outlet. They have shop managers, regional managers, consultants in Peugeot 305’s who drive from store to store discussing the latest window display or apple white colour scheme. There are three day retail conferences to be arranged with en suite hotel facilities. This is why that battered Stephen King novel has risen from twenty pence to two pound fifty over the past couple of years. Pricing of goods now comes in from Head Office in plastic backed folders, any designer label or valuable rarity is identified and priced accordingly before it hits the shop floor. The word bargain is no longer in the charity shop lexicon.
However, one thing remains the same, in that they still do rely on volunteers to take your money and swipe able plastic. Not always aged ladies with hairy ears now but often ‘couldn’t afford a proper gap year’ students who sit morosely at the till whilst their mates are being kidnapped and ransomed in South American jungles. These volunteers are blameless for the new corporate state of the shop and often they will nod in agreement when an overpriced item is queried. There are still a few charity shops that haven’t had this makeover yet and long may that day never come. These usually are your small independent, local to the area charities, hospices or homeless agencies. You can still feel guilty not buying anything in them if you want... but the others? Oh...err... fuck ’em.