Two British Institutions: Charity Shops and Driving Rain

This photo broke the 2012 Guinness World Record for greyest photo on the internet.

It’s the Royal Jubilee weekend, celebrating our beloved queen. Streets, villages and parishes are getting together all over the country to have parties to celebrate; there will be Pimm’s, barbecues, fetes, bouncy castles, victoria sponges and children’s games. The trestle tables have been laid out, the gazebos have been hired and the cucumber sandwiches are chilling in the fridge. Therefore, and with relieving reliability, it is raining with the kind of dogged persistence that can saturate a duffel coat in fifteen minutes. Nothing is sadder than streets lined with gently dripping bunting and people wetly licking the ice cream they are determined to enjoy because It Is Summer.

On days like this, when you’ve already been to all the museums and visited all the galleries and drunk all the coffee in Oxford, the perfect day out can be found in the good old tradition of charity shopping.

Charity shops are rare and special beasts in Germany; second-hand shops are ten-a-penny, but they come in a wider range of common breeds. You have the Second-Hand-Laden, the second-hand shop where all the stuff is branded ‘vintage’ and then sold for three times its original price, four times if it’s really really stained. Typical fare includes large and shiny 1980s jackets with elasticated cuffs, enormous nightgowns that smell of death and old dresses with giant padded shoulders, yellowed with nicotine. Then there is the Antiquariat, a second-hand bookshop typically festooned with books in cardboard boxes and aching shelves, stacked up to the ceiling and sorted into strange categories like ‘Greek fashion’ or ‘Religion/photography’. They are brilliant and the books usually cost a euro each at most. My favourite Antiquariat of all time is Cafe Tasso in Berlin, where the bookshop merges with a small but deeply friendly café where the drinks come with a tiny disc of homemade hazelnut shortbread, and the books sprawl through the building like a fungal growth. Then you get the Trödelladen, which is like the Second-Hand-Laden but sells proper Trödel, i.e. junk of all descriptions. Old used handkerchiefs, broken handbags, and unnervingly huge amounts of army paraphernalia. It’s dirt cheap, and it’s dirt cheap because it’s dead horrible. These shops are always brown. They even smell of brown.



Sadly, and oddly considering the general philanthropy and world-friendliness that the Germans possess, most of these shops have their profits going to the man in the beige vest behind the till. It is rather strange that our charity shop culture hasn’t picked up there yet, while here the charity shops flourish in the credit crunch with rich fertility. In the town where I live when not at university, most of the real shops have gone long ago, having found it difficult to squeeze a living out of the ancient spinsters that seem to form 95% of the town’s population. They have been replaced by endless charity shops, not just the Big Players like Oxfam and British Heart Foundation but also the more mid-range charities like Sue Ryder and even some real curiosities, whose charities I have never encountered beyond that one shop: one doesn’t even seem to have a name but is definitely in support of The Aged in some capacity, I think. They tend to sell a lot of jeans, wool and ties heaped into bins and unnervingly faded plastic toys. 

Charity shopping is a joy and a skill. It’s a joy because it’s utterly guilt-free and endlessly colourful; your money is always going to a good cause and the stock can vary between real gems and hilarious items you are simply overjoyed to have found for their comedy value. I will never forget the onomatopoeia-themed tie I picked up once for my English teacher at secondary school, for example. One thing you must have above all else is zero expectations; the likelihood is that you won’t find a vintage Dior halterneck gown for three quid down the Help the Aged, and you mustn’t feel betrayed or disappointed when that continues not to happen. You will, however, frequently find brilliant small things that are like life’s stocking-stuffers, the bits and pieces that cost three quid and just perk you up when you can close your grubby little fists around them. Yesterday: a lime-green batik T-shirt with fish on. Before that: an old printing die drawer from a newspaper press in London way back when they used to be printed semi-by-hand. Worth it.

There are several things one has to put up with, of course; predominantly the issue that as time goes on most charity shops seem to be becoming little more than galleries of old Per Una ranges overflowing the racks. Per Una, for anyone who is unfamiliar with the brand, is Marks and Spencer’s ‘mode’ range which was originally meant to appeal to young adults but swiftly became the preferred look for retired ladies and geography teachers, meaning that no young adult would ever consider touching any of that stuff with a bargepole. It’s all textural fabrics and kooky buttons and square cardigans, and it’s now spilling out of the doors of charity shops as if the stuff reproduces by mitosis or something. Another thing that you have to come to terms with is the slightly jarring audacity of some of these places – Oxfam in particular are starting to get incredibly cheeky with their pricing and will happily charge £5 for a t-shirt that was originally from Primark for a scant quid. “Uh yah, but it’s like vintage, so yah.” No. Vintage is not a synonym for ‘already worn by someone else’. The best charity shops recognise that and simply sell everything as is, reeking of dust and dispensed from a huge basket or repurposed old bin labelled “EVERYTHING £2-POUND’S”.

Rose T

Jill of all trades: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, web designer, craft maniac

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