They have their own smell which some might describe as musty. The rails are stuffed with stained second hand cardigans and pre-war nighties donated by the relatives of a belated Grandma. A quick glance at the dusty shelves will reveal incomplete jigsaws and seen-better-days shoes. And in the cardboard box in the corner, bearing the tatty handwritten sign ‘all at 50p’, you’ll find battered books on subjects ranging from how to keep chickens through to knitting. And then of course there will be that cute, albeit with-an-eye-missing teddy bear complete with an unidentifiable stain on his front looking for a loving home. All of these things have come to be together in one dark, gloomy, drab place which, if you dare to cross the threshold, will be sold to you by the toothless, tea drinking, dribbling section of our population – the elderly. Where am I thinking of? The charity shop of course, where else?
Or at least this is how I pictured a charity shop to be. So imagine my horror when, at the all-so-mature-age of 16, confronted with a Wednesday afternoon course on the Voluntary Sector in an attempt to avoid the traditional Wednesday afternoon College sports, I found myself facing 20 hours of voluntary work. The course wasn’t something I’d wanted to do: It was just the only alternative to running around a field after a ball in the mud. I wasn’t opposed to voluntary work, as long as that voluntary work didn’t mean working in a charity shop. But, my college being stuck in a small, transport-less town, meant my first choice of voluntary work – at the Dog’s Home near Shrewsbury, wasn’t possible. I eventually bowed under pressure and agreed to spend my Wednesday afternoons in Oxfam. Well, it was either that or sign up for the College rugby team.
‘My voluntary work provided me with a completely different outlook on both charity shops and on life itself’
And so it was here, in the sorting room of Oxfam’s Ludlow branch that my Oxfam affair began. My fellow volunteers were, as I’d imagined, old. And yes, they drank tea. But they didn’t dribble, and from as far as I could see, they weren’t toothless either. It pained me to admit it but they seemed, on the face of it, not only quite normal, but also quite nice. Nevertheless I was unenthusiastic when asked to sort through bags of donated clothes – couldn’t I do books? At least then I wouldn’t run the risk of encountering last century’s dinner plastered on the front of something. But no, clothes it was. I never knew there was so much to sorting clothes in a charity shop – reject it if there’s a button missing; if a zip doesn’t work; if it’s got a hole in or if it just looks tired. Basically, if you wouldn’t buy it don’t expect others to. But what happened to the rails being stuffed with moth-eaten clothes? Reject it if it looks tired? If there’s a button missing? But surely that’s why people donate clothes to charity shops. Who in their right mind is going to donate something perfectly wearable?! But people do. It had never dawned on me that people’s dress sizes change; that their tastes change or that sometimes, heaven forbid, they just have too many clothes for their wardrobe. After my afternoon of sorting and pricing I was allowed to leave and, although I would never have admitted this at the time, I was looking forward to going back the following week.
The time went by quickly as I learnt how to sort and price bric-a-brac, music, shoes and even books. And with every new task my negative views on charity shops were slowly erased. Every donated bag was an unknown quantity, every time we discovered a newspaper-wrapped donation it was like Christmas – not knowing what was inside brought with it a certain excitement. And we would laugh about how someone could ever have owned such a bright floral tablecloth, or such a freaky-looking mask wall hanging. Why did someone no longer want that Stella McCartney Adidas running top or that Body Shop bath set? In short, we had fun. And when my 20 hours of voluntary work were completed I was engulfed by a sadness which compelled me to stay. Not only did I choose to stay; I also chose to work more often. My view of charity shops had been, I realised, somewhat stereotypical, based on goodness only knows what – I don’t think I’d ever even stepped inside one until I began volunteering in one. I quickly learnt that charity shops aren’t a meeting point for Grandad’s flat cap and the neighbour’s dog-chewed slippers, but are actually a place where antique candle holders meet modern dinner sets; where bestsellers meet Faith shoes and where not everyone is old and senile.
‘Sometimes, we wish that more young, enthusiastic people would volunteer.’
You can therefore imagine my distress when, after 2 years of volunteering with Oxfam, I was forced to leave because I was going to university. As soon as freshers’ week ended I was on the phone to directory inquiries asking where all the Oxfam shops in Brighton and Hove were. I ended up on Blatchington Road in Hove. My first trip into the back room to meet the manager and pick up a volunteering form meant that I stumbled across the other volunteers and immediately I could tell it was a completely different type of Oxfam. Firstly they were sitting around the sorting table eating fish and chips; secondly the place resembled something I would later realise was actually extremely well organised chaos and lastly, they had an average age veering more towards 30 than 80. If I had enjoyed Oxfam in Ludlow then I was going to love Oxfam in Hove.
As the weeks turned to months I found myself not only defending my voluntary work, which came under criticism from fellow students who, for the life of them, could not understand why I chose to spend my free time working in a musty-smelling, dark, gloomy shop surrounded by dotty, old, social rejects (oh, how they reminded me of my former charity-shop-virgin self) but also my voluntary work provided me with a much needed escape from student life. It also provided me with some very good friends and a completely different outlook on both charity shops and, because both the customers and volunteers came from such a variety of social backgrounds, on life itself.
After having spent over 2 years devoting practically every spare second to that shop, after having lived and breathed the far-from-musty Oxfam air, and having filled my flat to capacity with an eclectic mix of Oxfam-donated items (an occupational hazard), I have come to the conclusion that charity shops are a magnet for the odd, the bizarre and the down right weird. And that doesn’t just describe the donations but the volunteers themselves. Oxfam policy states that at least 2 people must be present for the shop to open. Oxfam policy also states that volunteering should be open to all. And indeed it is. I mean, why else would they have accepted me? It’s so open to all that they’ll even pay for your bus ticket to get you to and from the shop. But the population of Hove is somewhat different to the population of Ludlow – a difference that is reflected in the volunteers. And, meaning no offence, some of them you just wouldn’t find in a paid position. The number of times I have muttered under my breath ‘we are a charity shop, not a charity case’, when would-be volunteers stagger and sway through the door, is shameful. But really, it’s all very well having 2 people for the shop to be able to open, but to avoid cashing up disasters at the end of the day, to avoid the dwindling down of the stock due to shop lifters rather than customers (I know, the lowest of the low – who steals from a charity shop?) and to avoid the general collapse of the place throughout the day is a very different matter. One, at least, of those two volunteers needs to be, well, normal.
There is more to working in a charity shop than drinking tea – there are donations to be moved, sorted, priced and put out. There is banking to be done, themed window displays to be planned, rails need to be stocked up, the till needs to be operated, there’s a credit card machine, refunds, cash donations and all manner of other paperwork not to mention dealing with the customers – all of which is done by volunteers and well, lets be honest, you’ve got to be pretty clued up, as well as physically able, to ensure the place doesn’t fall apart.
That’s why, sometimes, we just wish that instead of the ‘I can only work afternoons because I’m on sleeping pills’ and the ‘where do I sleep at night?’ wannabe helpers, that more young, enthusiastic people would step forward to volunteer.
For information on how you get involved in volunteering, check out Project V here