William Morris once said “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”. You can find something that fits that adage at the Age UK shop on Whitley Street or you can donate something you don’t love or need, and please someone else, while supporting a cause that affects us all in some way. Last month, I saw a raspberry beret in the window and the search is now on for a charity shop leopardskin pillbox hat. I popped in to ask friendly assistant manager, Jackie, about how it all works and what life is like behind the counter.
What are your biggest sellers?
Ladies wear, DVDs and books. But it can be seasonal; at Christmas time its more bric-a-bric and cards.
Is there anything you can’t sell?
Electrical goods, pushchairs, cots and anything that could be a health and safety risk.
Is there anything that doesn’t sell?
Not really; we try and sell stuff once and if it doesn’t sell, it can go to another shop. Every shop is different and it can depend on if the shop is in a poorer or richer location.
Does anyone nick stuff?
Yes, but not all the time. Some can’t seem to help it and some are homeless or have mental health issues. We don’t have a general problem with drug users or anything they are quite polite really – but we are a community shop and we talk to everyone and treat everyone the same to keep problems to a minimum.
Do you have to wash the clothes?
No, we don’t wash the clothes; if anything comes in dirty, we turn it to rags.
Does anyone try and haggle?
Yes, quite frequently, and some don’t seem to realise we are trying to raise money for the elderly and they think that really good stuff should be undersold. We won’t haggle and we won’t be giving away quality items for virtually nothing.
What do people donate the most?
Clothes and books mainly.
How do you politely turn down a donation that isn’t good enough?
We don’t turn people down, but if we can’t take the items they can try the Autistic Shop further up Whitley Street which can take electrical items and other stuff we don’t handle.
Do people dump stuff outside?
Yes, they do dump stuff outside – they are not supposed to and we would rather they brought it in during working hours, because it can create a mess when people go through it and scatter it around. You can understand when people may be on their way to work so don’t want to wait, but we discourage it.
Do you get traders in buying vintage clothes and stuff for e-bay?
We have the same regular people who come in asking for vintage stuff and you get all kinds of people running businesses, but they are happier to pay the prices and sometimes they tell us if we should ask for more.
How do you price up the better items?
We are given a comprehensive guide [Jackie shows me a thick spreadsheet-y type paper index with a complex variety of headings]. Head office do all the research and it’s a colour coded list with silver, bronze and gold sections, but if something brand new comes in with a price label on we are told to just halve it.
Does the shop have more of a purpose than just a money maker and what do you need more of?
We are looking for more donations and we are always looking for volunteers from any walk of life, but they must be 16 or over.
I have been brought up to go to charity shops by my Nan. Working here has changed my life; I am a carer for my son who has special needs, and it has enabled me to get back to work doing something I really enjoy. Every day is a challenge and there is more to it than meets the eye; it’s not as easy as people might think, but I wouldn’t change jobs now. We have a really kind and lovely bunch of people working here, some of whom have had problems with mental health and depression.
It’s not just the cold economics of what income the shop brings in; it’s the whole use for the community as a place for volunteers to build confidence and feel as though they belong to something. The volunteers give their time and energy to focus on a good cause and the shop itself serves as a hub for the lonely and not-so-well-off to come in and say hello, and find useful things they can afford in a familiar local place in which they feel safe and welcome.
Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.