I discovered last week that my favourite local charity shop had closed 'indefinitely for refurbishment'. I hadn't visited for a couple of weeks, and knew nothing about it. I was gutted to arrive there half an hour after they closed. They had shut up early on their last day, after having a sale. Gah!
I hope the refurbishment is not some plan to tart it up in a Mary Portas stylee. Did you watch 'Mary, Queen of Charity Shops'? I rather like Mary Portas, although I imagine she would be pretty scary in real life.
My first reaction was that she had no idea of her customers. I've shopped in charity shops for years, ever since I was a teenager. I never needed anyone to tell me that vintage was cool. I always knew it was, even when it was just called secondhand. 'I don't want upmarket!' I shouted at the TV.
I don't mind chipped china or one-eyed dolls, and I'll buy odd buttons or an old dress that's coming apart, because I like the fabric, and I'll think of some way of using it. And I expect a lot of you think the same.
But the downside is that we're looking for bargains. 'Look what I got for 50p!' we exclaim joyfully. Well 50p isn't going to do much for a charity that has to pay the overheads on a shop.
This is where Scary Mary's new view of charity shopping started to make sense. She calculated that after overheads, they were making a pitiful amount of money per volunteer. It's all very well to enjoy our rather amateurish, jumbly charity shops, but if the purpose of them is to make money for charity, then anything that improves the bottom line should be welcomed. Shouldn't it? Um...
Mary's first move was to try to get better donations. Her horror at some of the rubbish that gets given to charity shops got me wondering. I must admit, I have donated non-saleable clothes to charity shops. I wouldn't donate anything dirty or broken, but when it comes to clothes, I assume that anything that won't go in the shop can still be sold for rags. Surely that's better than putting them in the bin to go to landfill? I am not aware of any other way of recycling clothes locally. (Obviously I give good clothes too!) It also saves me having to pre-judge what they will think is saleable.
I was more shocked by the people she interviewed who didn't give all their old clothes to charity shops. Do they really just throw them away? Well, she put a stop to that, and went out and got great donations from people in their workplaces. This seemed like a really great idea. Another improvement was to get the shop volunteers to realise how much some of the donations were worth. I think this is really important. I must admit there are some charity shops where I would never donate anything valuable, simply because they would be quite likely to sell a vintage Chanel suit or an antique Wedgwood vase for 50p a time.
Of course, this is where I start to feel uncomfortable. If I bought a lovely antique vase for 50p, I'd be delighted. Oh dear, I seem to be a hypocrite. How did that happen?
The trouble is, much as I applaud any effort to make more money for charity, I feel regretful about losing the old-fashioned charity shop. I like them. I like their randomness. I like the excitement of finding a treasure that others may have overlooked. I love the hilarity of seeing some god-awful monstrosity that was once considered ornamental. I even quite enjoy being served by a doddery old lady, who needs some help counting the change. I like the fact that they are out of step with the modern, homogenised high street.
I suppose this is just nostalgia. Charity shops have to change like everything else. I try not to be the sort of old codger who has an unwarranted belief in 'the good old days'. And yet...