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Shop talk: behind the scenes of Britain’s charity stores

10 min read

Military medals, designer clothes and rare Beatles records … charity shops have long been a treasure trove for the eagle-eyed bargain hunter. Kate Proctor speaks to the people running some of the UK’s stores, and discovers the weird and wonderful donations they’ve received

Just before 9am, a small queue of bargain hunters forms outside the door of the British Heart Foundation’s shop in Ayr, Scotland, all of them ready for a rummage. The daily ritual of getting through the door first to pick up second-hand swag is something manager Cheryl Hughes has grown accustomed to, as well as the day-trippers who flock to this seaside town to do the charity shop trawl.

In Greater Manchester, Nathan Holt opens his shop for a major UK charity and sees a community of daily regulars fly through the doors, from mums who have just finished the school drop to a cleaner who times his break to hit opening time. Holt has usually spent the previous hour knee-deep in bin bags of clothes and shoes in a small stockroom. With at least 100 bags to sort a day, 200 new pieces of clothing to display on the shop floor, and average weekly sales of 2,200 items, it’s a non-stop job. 

“There are people who come in a couple of times a day. One gets a magnifying glass out and checks every little thing. For a lot of people it’s FOMO [fear of missing out]. If they’ve been in the shop an hour and then see me come through with a whole new rail of clothes – they’re scared to miss anything!” says Holt, who started as a volunteer after university and has been the manager of his current shop for the past five years.

In Teddington, south-west London, at Mary’s Living & Giving Shop for Save the Children, staff received a whopping donation of Stella McCartney children’s clothes after lockdown. Dresses and hats also flooded in; perhaps after a year with no events to attend, women are casting off their finery. 

Another Mary’s Living & Giving Shop in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, can be good for cashmere, and a Save the Children store in Chester is apparently “the” place to pick up a more high-end bargain.
According to Save the Children’s Susie Dunstan, the charity’s volunteer resource manager, Chester and Stockbridge fall within the “magic catchment” areas where plenty of different age groups live close together – prime conditions for a real clothing find.

The eagle-eyed volunteer who recognised the donation received a round of applause at the Christmas party

As well as the bargain hunters and vintage fans, there are the antique dealers looking for silver, and people trying to sell things on for a profit. But the shops have got savvier and use online marketplaces such as eBay for high-value items, and Depop for vintage clothing. And now that precious metals can be valued based on weight, silverwear isn’t going on the shopfloor way under its value, Cheryl Hughes says. They know what things are worth.

Anyone who has worked or volunteered in a charity shop has their own litany of weird and wonderful finds. Yet sometimes there are some real jaw-droppers. The British Heart Foundation’s most lucrative donation was a rare Beatles record – an original Love Me Do vinyl, one of only 250 made in 1962 to be sent to radio stations, which the charity sold through its eBay shop. It was listed at £1,060 and eventually went for £9,400. 

In 2019, the most recent year for which the charity has information, items included a gold South African Krugerrand coin dated 1974, and a Boer War medal. 

The British Heart Foundation also received a beautifully carved samurai sword case, a ventriloquist dummy, and a Curta calculator – a small mechanical device that was all the rage before its electronic counterpart became commonplace in the 1970s. That item alone has an incredible back-story, with half-Jewish Austrian inventor Curt Herzstark working on the design for the calculator while interned in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War. 

When items with Second World War provenance turn up it’s always a special, often quite emotional, moment, Hughes says. “Most recently we had a Royal Air Force World War Two uniform that came in along with a wedding dress and a beautiful letter and photo saying this was their mother and father on their wedding day, and they thought it would be nice for the two things to go together. 

“The letter said the dress was handmade in 1944 and they just hoped to raise as much money for heart research as they could. It was a lovely long dress, A-line with lace detailing. This came in last month and was from the service we set up where people could post their donations. We’re currently trying to speak to the family to find out a little more, and track down a hat that went with the dress,” she says.

Books can also yield huge sums. The Oxfam Bookshop in Herne Hill, south London, is one of the highest earners in the country with a steady flow of donations: up to 30 a day. One volunteer, when sorting through an unprepossessing box of books, found a first edition of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. The donor couldn’t be traced and Oxfam went on to sell it for £12,000 – and the eagle-eyed volunteer who recognised the donation received a round of applause at the Christmas party.

If you’d handled that with your bare hands you’d be showering for a week!

Holt says they often get expensive unworn dresses with the price tag still on, and he’s recently received a £190 Monsoon dress. He’s also had dresses from US designers worth more than $2,500 (£1,650) which have never been worn. 

Then there are the items that are beyond the pale. Holt says they’ve had bags of underwear sent in, which is why they always wear gloves when rummaging through the latest delivery. He says seeing a black bin bag is always the worst, because you can’t tell what’s in it from the outside. He also has a particularly grim story about a sex toy turning up in one bag of donations. “It was quite an elderly lady manager who found it. Can you imagine?! If you’d handled that with your bare hands you’d be showering for a week!” 

The charity Mind has also had some ‘interesting’ donations in the last few years. It received a used toilet seat at its shop in Guisborough, a set of false teeth donated in Bramley, a pair of nunchucks which were deemed too unsafe for resale, and even a plastic container of gravy, which was delivered to the shop in Solihull. 

Astonishingly, a box of human ashes was found in a jacket pocket by volunteers in Woking, and was quickly returned to its owner. And shop staff were in fits of giggles in Bury St Edmunds when a book called Hairy Hunks: A Celebration of Shaggy Stallions, flew off the shelves.
The camaraderie of working in a charity shop is also really special, Holt says, as customers and staff know each other so well. 

“We do have a laugh and we know many of the customers because we see them so many times a day. Sometimes I go into other charity shops and they’re like libraries where you can hear a pin drop but I think it’s good to create an atmosphere. 

“There’s no doubt, too, that we play an important part in keeping people company. Often people are quite lonely and this is a good place to have a chat with someone. It might be the only interaction they’ve had that week,” he says.

“I might have heard a life story a few times before, but I’m always happy to be that person they get to chat to.” 

Dunstan, who has worked for Save the Children for eight years and oversees 3,000 volunteers, says charity shops have seen such a transformation in recent years, becoming far trendier and focused on the overall shopping experience. 

There’s a certain view of a charity shop from 10 to 15 years ago, but they’ve really adapted

Its Glasgow store, for example, has recently reopened with an interior of exposed brickwork and black walls, with an astro-turf changing room floor. The large charities are also far savvier with online shopping, using virtual marketplace platforms to bring in more money. 

Over the years there has been a lot of moaning nationally about how many charity shops are on high streets and town centres – in 2019 the West Midlands town of Shirley had 15, for example. Yet Dunstan believes they can be viewed in a different way. 

“There’s a certain view of a charity shop from 10 to 15 years ago, but they’ve really adapted, and sustainable fashion is an important part of that,” she says. “There’s more of a culture of people looking after what they’ve got and restoring things, as well as slow fashion becoming more popular.

We find young people are making much more conscious decisions when they’re buying things. For the generation coming up, it’s really exciting and I think charity shops will be around for a very long time.” 

TV shows such as BBC One’s The Great British Sewing Bee may have also contributed to the trend for transforming second-hand clothes into new garments, while upcycling shows like The Repair Shop also inspire people to be less wasteful.

“If you look through the rails you can tell which labels really stand the test of time when it comes to quality, like vintage Marks & Spencer and C&A – that stuff really lasts,” says Dunstan, whose personal best-ever find isn’t actually clothing but a stunning Welsh dresser from a charity shop selling furniture.

She says after restrictions ended and the shops reopened, they found that some long-standing volunteers weren’t able to come back because of changing health needs and new commitments, but they do still find a fairly steady stream of volunteers. 

Some start by doing their volunteer hours through the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme, then stay within the charity sector. Hughes’ shop in Ayr alone relies on 200 volunteer hours a week. 
Sales were bumper after lockdown, too, with the British Heart Foundation reporting a record £1m in takings on its first day across all its shops after the most recent restrictions were lifted. Mind has taken a record breaking £1.5m since its shops reopened in May. However, the pandemic naturally hit fundraising, with Mind predicting it lost £13m in income from its charity shops in the first lockdown, which coincided with increased demand on the charity. As a result, it is calling on people to continue donating quality items. 

Hughes feels the same way. She says it’s been a really promising come-back from the lockdown but nothing can be taken for granted in the current climate and the British Heart Foundation reduced its research funding by 50 per cent to cope with the drop in income.

She says: “We’ve had a fantastic start since the shop reopened but we will always need people to buy from us, to give their unwanted items and to volunteer for us so we can keep on helping people.”

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