Three weeks ago, I found my favourite street in the UK. It’s in Morningside, Edinburgh; a sloping road full of weathered stone with rocky hills rising majestically in the distance – but more importantly, it has more charity shops than I have ever seen in one place before.
“I’ll be back in two hours,” I told my boyfriend, prodding him towards the pub (he enjoys the spoils but doesn’t have the stamina), rolled up my sleeves and started the trawl.
Although “trawl” is the wrong word, really. You don’t even “shop” in charity shops; there are a whole other set of verbs – more charming ones. You potter. You rummage. You pootle around. The activity itself is enough. We’re hobbyists, us charity-shop nerds, high on the musty scent of possibility. For the squeamish, charity shops might mean mystery odours, old tissues in pockets, the lingering air of sadness and death, but for the romantically minded, that’s no deterrent at all. It’s a treat to spend an afternoon elbow deep in other people’s memories.
But, of course, they mean so many different things to different people, their purpose running a broad gamut from necessity – raising vital funds, providing affordable clothes and homeware for those who really need them – to community hubs and sustainability champions, offering the chance to step off the fast-fashion treadmill and reclaim a piece of the past instead. “Charity shops have proved resilient over the past few years, with income rising year on year,” says Mark Chapman from the Charity Retail Association. “People are also becoming more environmentally aware. Every item you buy in a charity shop saves it from going to landfill.”
Everyone’s heard the story of the friend of a friend who unearthed a Chanel 2.55 for £2.50, but designer charity-shop loot is more than just urban legend
Then there are those of us who just love a bargain. Everyone’s heard the story of the friend of a friend who unearthed a Chanel 2.55 for £2.50, but designer charity-shop loot is more than just urban legend. “We’ve had a whole collection of Diane Von Furstenburg bags, an Antonio Berardi dress as worn by Khloé Kardashian, Miu Miu, Alexander McQueen and Louboutin shoes,” Suzanne Hill from Shelter tells me. “One of our shops currently has some Issey Miyake items from the Pleats Please collection that featured in the V&A, donated by a generous local.”
My own list of prize finds includes: a Cambridge Satchel Company satchel for £2.99, Ralph Lauren trousers for £8, a Nicole Farhi blazer for £15, a 70s leather coat, silk blouses, cashmere jumpers and countless pairs of shoes and boots in perfect nick. And last week, in the spirit of sharing, I decided to ask Twitter for theirs.
A hundred and thirty four replies later, I have all the evidence, if you needed it, that your local charity shop is a solid alternative to the chaos of the January sales. “Brand new with tags Hunter wellies IN MY DAMN SIZE for £15”... “A Hobbs NW3 collection trench coat for a tenner”... “Brand new with tags Max Azria wool coat for £10! Checked online and it was still for sale at over £500”... “A beautiful vintage Mulberry bag”... “Miu Miu sparkly pumps, my size, £18”... “An early 90s Whistles dress, all spaghetti straps and cowl neck in heavy, black, luxurious satin”... “An immaculate navy wool Dolce & Gabbana peacoat for £20”... “A pair of brand new, gold leather Swedish Hasbeens, in exactly my size, for £4. I almost felt guilty buying them at that price!”
The joy is palpable, isn’t it? And pure. The cause, the planet, your bank balance – everybody wins. If there’s any guilt, it’s the guilt of buying something you know is worth 10 times the price. “Amazing bargains are part and parcel of shopping in charity shops,” Suzanne reassures me. “We don’t expect people to tell staff if they think something is priced too low, but often this is how people end up volunteering their expertise to help us value specialist items.” In other words: bag the treasure, but pay it forward when you can. Donate, volunteer or at least wax lyrical about your finds.
Sure, charity shopping requires the luxury of time to rummage (hardcore chaz fans go three times a week, to keep tabs on new stock) and, true, you can’t ask for another size. But in many ways, that simplicity is a blessed relief – either it’s meant to be yours, or it isn’t. Destiny is your stylist and fate your personal shopper. And the very best trophies aren’t always the spendy labels, but the things that seem to have been placed there especially for you.
Sometimes it’s coincidence enough to make you shiver – like the box-fresh pink Adidas Gazelles in my size for £8 that I’d almost bought new for £80 the week before (oh, yes), the rare suffragette banner languishing for a decade in a Leeds charity shop stockroom or the guy on Twitter who decided to start his vinyl collection with a hunt for the first record he’d owned in the 80s, and found it on display for £4 in the first shop he walked into. “Romantic music played as I ran to it in slow motion,” he says.
If this all sounds hopelessly sappy, then that’s because charity shops are enough to make you sentimental about almost any old junk. It’s the unfinished narratives (a torn-in-half letter from an apologetic lover), the unexpected déjà vu (“MY OWN COAT WHICH MY BOYFRIEND HAD DONATED”) the surreal twists (a copy of Stephen King’s Misery, with “To Sarah, lots of love Mum and Dad xxx” written fondly inside) and hopeful stories (“When I had an upcoming job interview but didn't have a suit and couldn't afford one, I found one, perfect fit and a good look on me, in a Lewes charity shop for a fiver. Got the job”), which keep us musty magpies pottering around.