All this could be yours...
The Rise of the Charity Shop.
Over the last few decades shopping centres, retail parks and online commerce have gutted high streets throughout the land and in this post apocalyptic retail wasteland charity shops have flowered.
You can see exactly how many charity shops a town has by going to the Charity Retail website - most mid size towns will have between 10 & 25 shops. The website is also a one stop shop for amazing charity shop facts - for example - Norwich, impressively, has 34 registered charity shops whereas Portsmouth, also impressively, only has 2.
Off List Hunting and Gathering
What charity shops offer in the modern retail world of online shopping and download and “long tail” consumption is the joy of the random find.
For example on my latest charity shop trawl through the charming cathedral city of Winchester I picked up a biography of Francis Ford Coppola, a book by Wim Wenders on film making, a history of Goldcrest Films, the biography of footballer Paul Canonville, some Plays and Players (theatre) magazines from the 1960s which were about Laurence Olivier & a couple of Blue Peter annuals.
None of these were on my shopping list because this was “off list” shopping. What I’m after, and what I usually get, is a good, happy, buffeting by the unexpected.
I’m 43 and like a few other 43-year-old men I am going through a phase of being a bit obsessed with my own childhood & adolescence
Mid Life Crisis Shopping
I’m 43 and like a few other 43-year-old men I am going through a phase of being a bit obsessed with my own childhood & adolescence. Charity shops are where this obsession runs riot: old annuals, CDs, LPs (which are hard to come by) 45s (not quite as hard to come by), DVDs, VHS tapes (cheap & easily convertible to watch on an iPad), film and TV tie in stuff and comics are what I’m after.
Because of EBay it’s becoming harder to find this stuff in charity shops at low prices but it is still there and it is still capable of triggering the most heady (and sickly sweet) of Proustian rushes.
Recent finds in this category include a 1974 Star Trek annual – exactly like the one I cherished as a 7 year old and a copy of Adam Ant’s Prince Charming LP like the one that the early teen me adored.
A more pleasant world.
Charity shop staff are usually elderly volunteers who are almost always polite and friendly. I’ve been offered cups of tea, I’ve had handshakes and I’ve been invited to rummage around in the stock room. However because this is a business largely run be elderly amateurs there is a high occurrence of “till incidents” (“Sorry dear – I’ve confused myself and rung the wrong price. I just need to call the manager”). But really this is a small price to pay for a retail experience where there are no passive aggressive silences, no surly stares, no ignorant youth. It’s lovely.
The smell of eBay is that musty, musky smell of old clothes you get in Oxfam and Cancer Research shops throughout the country
Look Back In Ongar
The high streets of provincial England are all different – and in them you can still see the architectural traces of the last couple of hundred years of British history. The Oxfam shop may be housed in a building whose architecture carries the florid swagger of late Victorian England at the height of the Empire. A Sue Ryder store may be in a building which has something of the redbrick somber determination of the inter war years about it. Age UK & Cancer Research shops might be found in buildings that were products of the municipal optimism of the 50s and 60s. Sometimes it feels like I’m rummaging about in the corners of my own past in the corners of the nation’s past.
eBay Part 1
eBay is like a spectre that haunts the modern charity shop. It is there amongst the stacks of old John Grisham novels and Robbie William’s biographies and slightly cracked crockery and the piles of jigsaws and boxes of Herb Albert LPs. The smell of eBay is that musty, musky smell of old clothes you get in Oxfam and Cancer Research shops throughout the country. eBay is there when some shops overprice their goods and it is there in the occasional suspicious and knowing look I get from the volunteer when I buy a huge pile of books.
So do I sell the stuff I buy in charity shops on eBay?
Yes I do. A bit – but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Looking for stuff to flog on eBay is not the main reason I trawl through charity shops. I mostly trawl through charity shops to buy stuff for myself like I have been doing all my adult life. I am a chronic hoarder. My attic is stacked high with books, LPs, cassettes, comics etc. At night I sometimes lie there in bed, staring at the ceiling, thinking about the huge weight up above me, hovering over my head, the product of decades of low level scuffling about through the arse-end of consumer capitalism.
At the start of this year I began to try to clear this product of my life’s work as the happy shopper. I did this by flogging it on EBay. But, much to my girlfriend’s annoyance, as soon as I started to sell stuff and clear space in the attic I saw an immediate opportunity to fill the space I made with new stuff. So in a typical week I might sell 25 things on EBay from my attic hoard but I’ll buy about 25 things in charity shops. These I will play with for a few weeks before they are added to the attic booty where they will sit for a couple of years before I get might or might not round to flogging them or giving them back to another charity shop.
I cannot emphasise enough how much this annoys my girlfriend.
But I do get the occasional half decent result - Oswald Mosely’s biography – bought for £1 – sold for £20, an old Victor Canning novel, bought for 10p sold for £10
EBay Part 2
But I do sometimes buy stuff in charity shops that never sees the inside of my attic and which is purely to flog on EBay.
For this to work I ask myself the following 4 questions about what Im buying.
Is it cheap? Is it in decent condition? Is it useful? Is it rare?
If I can answer yes to questions 1 & 2 and to at least one of 3 & 4 I might make a bit of cash. But it does involve a huge amount of faffing about just to get the occasional £10 or £20. Charity shops are more than wise to EBay. Most now have staff who filter out stuff to sell on Ebay for their own charities and most have bumped up their prices to a point now where it can be a lot cheaper to buy the books and DVDs on line in the first place.
But I do get the occasional half decent result - Oswald Mosely’s biography – bought for £1 – sold for £20, an old Victor Canning novel, bought for 10p sold for £10, a Trigan Empire annual (a comic strip which ran in the magazine Look and Learn) bought for £1.25 sold for £21 – but these are quite rare and the small profits just about cover the funding of more swag trawls.
(The same is not true of carboot sales by the way. EBay also looms in the background of these sales but I find the profit is easier to come by - whereas choice swag is harder to come by).
There are a number of problems to look out for in charity shops.
1) Gratuitous overpricing. Because of Ebay this is increasing all the time. The daftest I’ve seen was a charity shop that had a standard vinyl copy of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” priced at £25. The only LP that is less rare than “Back In Black” is “Thriller”. There has been about 50 million copies of AC/DC’s finest album in circulation & millions of these were on vinyl. If the shop gets away with it then good for them for raising more cash for their cause (and anyway I’ve got 3 copies of Back In Black on vinyl and I cannot think of any reason to own a fourth) but sometimes I’ve had to pass up good swag just because the charity shop is asking too much.
2) Damaged goods. Most LPs and 45s you find in charity shops will be scratched, so will some CDs and some DVDs. Some books will have pages missing, old kid’s annuals may well be drawn in and will possibly have pictures cut out.
3) The wrong thing in the wrong box. This happens with DVDs and CDs all the time and there is nothing more pitiful that having to return goods to a charity shop for a refund. (I can never bring myself to do it).
4) Too Much Stuff. I now own more books than I can possibly read during the rest of my lifetime. It’s just become too easy to buy awesome stuff.
5) Self Esteem. It’s 2 o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon in Ipswich & there I am rummaging through someone else’s unwanted junk when the dark, bleak, horrifying thought darts across my mind that this really wasn’t the future the teenage me envisaged for myself – hanging around with old people, wasting money and time in tatty, smelly shops – always looking back, always dwelling on the past.
But then I find a Starsky & Hutch annual and I get on with my life.