Updated: Apr 27
Charity shops are big business. A survey published in 2019 reported weekly profits at individual shops in the order of £500 to £1,600, clearly a significant boost to these organisations and hopefully to the various recipients of our goodwill.
I am a regular contributor to the charity retail industry; not because I love browsing through used clothing and shoes but more because I accompany my wife on her regular forays into thrift-land. There is much to say that is good about these shops; re-using clothes, shoes, books, bric-a-brac is surely a sustainable way of buying what you need; charities provide essential goods and services and research for the benefit of many and they provide employment and a place to warm up out of the rain.
They are also little empires in their own right, almost always run by a busy manager who has set up their store just-so to maximise their profits. Nothing wrong with that.
But from the moment I enter one of these places I start to get a sense of panic. I don't know why it should be so, but within a minute or two of attempting to squeeze my bulk through racks of used clothing, my desire to leave by the nearest exit starts to grow. Before the pandemic you could of course just push past others feverishly digging into the mounds of clothing and leave, but now each person has that large 2 metre bubble around them which you fear to break, like some kind of freakish blob that could potentially bring lethal unhappiness to your day.
And all it takes is a couple of people to be effectively blocking your exit with their invisible bubbles, untroubled by your screaming need to remove yourself forthwith as they patiently gather armfuls of whatever they desire or spend several hours poring over books with titles like 'The philosophy of origami'.
The feeling of being trapped inside a large clothing bin starts to grow as you scan the nearby shelf for the tenth time in the hope of finding a distraction or at least attempting to look like you are having a good time. Unfortunately, all there is to look at are a cluster of disparate knik-knaks that someone somewhere must have once thought was a great idea. On these shelves you will find such treasures as glowing teacups, pens that turn into straws, novelty plastic toys and joke 'bath bombs' that really explode (I made that last one up, but you get the gist of it).
Of course, the allure of the charity shop was once that you might find a bargain, some well-made item or piece of art or jewellery priced at £2.99 but actually worth £30 million. Alas it is not to be because the managers of these stores were presumably tired of smug little old ladies hitting the headlines with articles like
'Gran, 82, buys teacup at HeartsRus for 50p - valued at £50,000!'
Then the internet was born and the shops took full advantage of instant access to online valuations, so much so that if you dare to venture that the rather ragged-looking and chipped dinner-set is not actually worth the 50 quid price-tag, they will primly inform you that in fact it is valued at over twice that and in fact has had quite a lot of interest and actually is manufactured by the world-famous Henry Chartourville - but they fully understand if you don't want to purchase it because someone else, with more refinement and taste, surely will.
I was in one such establishment recently and upon entering was shouted at by someone of same general shape and size as Santa, but without the endearing twinkle in their eye.
'Can I ask you to sanitize!' they barked unnecessarily; I had obviously already showered that day but realised eventually he was talking about using alcohol gel on my hands. This I dutifully did, noting that I was probably becoming a connoisseur of fine hand sanitisers. I honestly didn't realise there was such a variety of them. If I may digress for a moment, these products really are extraordinary.
They come in a huge variety of liquid form, from the sticky-sweet 'Maison de le maison', a big handful of a sanitiser but reminiscent of an old-fashioned tuck shop, to the sophisticated Australian 'Pure Valley white', gloriously viscous with faint hints of citrus.
However the one which I was now liberally squirting over my hands was probably a newcomer to the market, pungent as it was with 100% ethanol and liquid enough to splatter my trousers and shoes. A look at the label 'L'Eau da Mort' confirmed my suspicions that I was using an inferior product.
Once cleansed, I was admitted to the inner sanctum of slightly-odd-smelling clothes and shoes with worn soles. My wife proceeded to pile these onto my unresisting form until all I could see was a small triangle of light between a blouse and a pair of jeans. These I deposited at the counter and feel I repeated this process several times although it might have been a recurring dream. The poor lady on the other side of the heavily-reinforced and plasticated screen had been given an opening about the same width as an envelope in which to process transactions with the great unwashed, so it took some time for her to squeeze each item through the narrow slit, ring them up and place them back on a different part of the counter where I could bag them. Where once the assistant would happily bag these for you, making life an awful lot easier, they will only do so now if you are actually buying a bag instore. You have to presume that either all their own ones have been sterilised already and not been subject to manufacturing in China before being handled by dozens of people in various locations about the world and landing without further human contact in this store.
One good thing about charity shops is that one can at least handle the goods, although one cannot actually try them on any longer. I would be pleased to report that there is a sound scientific reason behind this but I can't because I don't think there is one. It is just one of the many variations in shop 'policy' that someone has decided would be a good idea. For example, whilst I am allowed to actually pick up books to peruse in a charity shop, my local book store won't let me, and if I do have the temerity to want to base my purchase on more than the contents of the spine and pick one up (assuming I don't buy it) it has to go into a designated 'isolation box' where it will remain until the store is satisfied that my germs are quite dead. It brings a whole new experience to shopping when you have to, literally, judge a book by its' cover.
Another perplexing little foible charity shops have is when it comes to donating items.
Now you would have though that they would continue to welcome this because, after all, that's how they make their money. But it is increasingly difficult to give them donated items and if you turn up with a bag of anything they will politely ask you which day/time slot you would like to book for depositing your donation.
The window of opportunity is really quite small; something in the order of:
'Mondays and Thursdays only (but not school holidays, Easter, Christmas week or Leap years) between 10am and 1pm (but not in Spring, Autumn or during the festival of Ganjitsu) with a 10 minute depositing time (except for lunchtime between 12 and 1pm).
OK, I may have exaggerated it a little, but you probably get the idea, but miss your slot and you will have to re-book.
It takes all the fun out of the donation experience.