Since I was able to afford to buy my own clothes, I have been a committed fan of charity shops, or chazza shops as they are also known here in the UK. It was not just because they were cheap, and it felt like the best thing to have bought several outfits for twenty pounds. It was also, and continues to be, a complete thrill to find garments that came with an incomplete story, where I could then attempt to fill in the gaps like identifying particular labels, certain cuts or different fabrics. I have always been fascinated by the way in which charity shops try so hard to exorcise donations of their previous owners and yet it is this connection with the past that makes them such highly prized items of consumption. I was over the moon when Second-hand Cultures by Nicky Gregson and Louise Crewe was published in 2003 because here was a text that was putting my sense of joy and intellectual curiosity about charity shops into a valid academic context.
Yet, more than being able to piece together a puzzle, I could also add to their sartorial tales. Even now, I can locate a piece of clothing by where I bought it and what I was doing at the time so, in this way, my wardrobe is a museum of me. I can continually experience my own social, cultural and economic history through what I wear. My clothes tell the story of not just British charity shops but also of places such as Montreal’s Value Villages, Berlin’s Humana department store or the huge Salvation Army warehouse on the outskirts of Buenos Aires.
I grew up in the throes of charity shop expansion across Britain, where we now have around 5,000 across the country representing a myriad of charitable organisations. Having set up the first charity shop in 1949 and with the lion’s share of shops, ‘Oxfam’ became a firm colloquial expression for any charity shop one might visit or donate to on a British high street. By the 1980s, these unique institutions were busy professionalising their interiors with co-ordinated fixtures and staff training for volunteers. However, this could be seen as slightly ironic, given that charity shops are not legally ‘shops’ but rather sites for the exchange of gifts, which means they benefit from large tax exemptions, unlike ordinary retailers.
Since the 2000s, charity shops have been criticised for their role in a very profitable but under scrutinised global economy of textile redistribution, where charities deal in overseas markets via private brokers. A great book that explains this complex relationship between your local charity shop and a distant market in an African country is Karen Tranberg Hansen’s Saluala: The World of Secondhand Clothing and Zambia, which I recommend for anyone interested in this subject.
Interestingly, knowing this has not yet stopped me from visiting charity shops. In fact, this only makes me more enthusiastic to engage with these places, perhaps because shopping there does go some way to reducing what is brokered elsewhere. Most charity shops can only sell 20 percent of donations given, which means they are under incredible pressure to redistribute waste within an already small second-hand cycle of goods. This is why I particularly like TRAID (Textile Recycling for Aid and International Development), a small group of charity shops based only in London and Brighton. Their aim is to be a shop for, not of, textile recycling, where clothes on sale are often reworked donations by employed designers using donations. What is exciting about TRAID as a charity shop experience is that they have sales where everything is two pounds, something that is very uncommon across nearly all other charity shops but arguably helps to reduce the quantity of unsaleable stock.
Recently, another layer to these secondhand stories was made when I found myself in a local charity shop face to face with an old student who had recently taken on the role of assistant manager. My arms full of threaded possibilities, we discussed how the shop had streamlined its layout, with clothing arranged by colour, not just size or type.
In my experience, these peculiar retailers have always oscillated between the jumble sale and the department store as retail models of spatial organisation. This is because their design arguably evokes ideas and values held about the notion of charity. A charity shop presents a complex location where ethical imperatives bash against monetary gains. Not just a site of interaction between customer and retailer, the charity shop often involves three parties: the volunteers who make hands on decisions about what to sell and not to sell, the potential customer who will bring in funds and finally, but perhaps most importantly, the donors whom have certain expectations about what happens to their ‘gifts’.
Donors can prefer to observe charity shops as places with little organisation, similar in form to a jumble sale, because it suggests that their philanthropic input is much needed. However, from a consumer perspective, a department store layout is more conducive to someone who may have little desire to shop there or is unsure of what to look for. It is often the aim of the charitable organisation to appear just as professional as for-profit retailers on the same high street, both as a way to remain competitive and to prove their worth to the customer. It is not unusual to find a customer asking for a discount in a charity shop, as happened while I was chatting to my old student. The move away from the jumble look is also a move away from haggling and discounts, all of which is possible when the goods on sale are essentially gifts.
Yet, there is another consumer, who prefers the messier approach as it provides he/she with the opportunity to ‘find’ something of value, rather than being told what it is through various visual arrangements. These are often the more middle-class sort, who see themselves as amateur connoisseurs and deplore those who try to take that away from them. Admittedly, as the conversation came to an end between myself and my student about the new changes to the shop, it was clear I had become that middle-class sort. While I was bemoaning what I saw as negative change, my student was praising it as positive innovation. My student, in her new role as manager, saw the visual opportunities associated with the re-organisation whereas I felt slightly cheated out of personal opportunities to ‘discover’ valuable goods!
On final reflection, I think charity shops are intriguing places, where all sorts of expectations and assumptions are thrown up in the air. Part of the wonder is their attempt to catch and put these down into some kind of order. I would really like to explore this topic further, especially with the idea of charity shop as cultural metaphor or how they can act as spaces for memory making. If anyone is already doing this, or has any related thoughts about their experience of charity shops, please do get in touch.