She’s not sure if it’s the smell, the lack of changing room, or the aggressive questioning that comes with every purchase (yes, she’s sure it will fit her, Jean), but Kiri Pritchard Mclean can’t resist a charity shop. Here’s her guide to what’s what. Take notes. And your own carrier bag.
Illustration by Louise Boulter
Some love dogs and encourage them in with biscuits and water. Some hate customers under 45 and treat such a person’s entrance to the shop as a direct threat to the safety of the staff and copious glassware. It should stop me going. It doesn’t. All I can tell you is that I really love a charity shop. Each one is a republic of idiosyncrasies; here’s my guide to the different territories.
THE ANIMAL CHARITY SHOP
My favourite: always calamitous and invariably has the most eccentric staff. It will smell of dog – because there’s a decrepit dog asleep under the counter or wobbling about the linoleum. Be careful opening the door, because that’s where the dog is likely to sleep and if you close the door too vigorously the draft will cause this 23-year-old Norwich terrier to die. This is the place that is best for rooting around; they have tonnes of stock hidden away so don’t be afraid of losing an hour of your life talking to the staff. Once you’re in, they’ll show you the stuff in the back and you’ll come away with stacks of treasures that they don’t see the value in.
Wool for knitting – principally donated by the ladies that work there
Headscarves – there’ll be a box somewhere priced between 50p and £1.50; fill your boots.
One shoe – the administrative skills aren’t great
A pair of very similar but ultimately odd shoes – see above
Bargains – they tend to not price things. If they do it will be dirt cheap and they’re likely to just make up a reasonable figure when you get to the till. Overpay and you will get into that back stockroom quicker.
Vintage – their stock is local and usually donated by the elderly customers who come to the shop to accidentally kick the dog and talk about their gay grandchildren. They’re just getting rid of stuff from the 1950s onwards so great for retro and vintage clothes and bric-a-brac.
THE HIGH-END CHAIN CHARITY SHOP
This is an established brand: they don’t write their sales down in a big page a day diary from 1994,; they have systems, they have managers, hourly sales targets and a glass case full of Royal Doulton. These have their own brands and ranges of new accessories and ornaments. They tend to be a little on the pricey side. I’m well aware of how low that sentence is. I’m not in charity shops to buy high street stuff; I’m after old and weird stuff I can’t get elsewhere. Much of that has been removed by specialist teams so it sucks the fun out of it for me.
First timers – if you’re not a charity shop person, this is a good place to start as it’s quite close to an actual shop. There are telltale hangovers from being a charity shop, however, such as organising clothes by colour, £1 rails (why I’m in there), and having a rail in the centre of the shop with a hand written label saying “plus sizes” or if you’re lucky, “cuddly sizes”.
Wooden ornaments – loads of them. Want a wooden giraffe? Bingo. Sleeping wooden cat? It’s there. Wooden couple embracing? Depressingly large amount.
Changing rooms – they always have at least one and it has a mirror. Do not take this for granted.
Good quality, recent high street items – Next… everywhere. This is what the people who shop there want and they deliver. You’ll find plenty of Topshop, Zara, Whistles etc in there, so if that’s your thing, dive in.
THE VINTAGE CHARITY SHOP
They’re not daft these people; they know people like me are not willing to pay £45 for a tea dress from a vintage shop to look like a Nana and smell like someone else’s B.O. They know we trawl these shops for our one pound polka dots and four pound fake furs and they’ve decided to get in there first.
Irritatingly, they piss all over my smug boasting, which is all part of the process for me: “You like my dress? £2.50, Scarbrough British Heart foundation. My drinks Globe IS awesome, yes: £15, Wigan charity shop”. Where will I get my kicks if I have to fess up and say I got it from a shop because someone far cooler than me decided that it was hip enough to be in there and I paid for their opinion via the tag on the collar?
Vintage – it’s their thing. If you’re after a Kiss tour t-shirt or a Lacoste V-neck they live here.
Beautiful staff – they’re always bright young things with facial piercings and hair that lets me know their record collection is better than mine.
Leather – shoes, bags, jackets are all present and correct – if you’re prepared to pay market rate for them.
Window displays – the beautiful staff will have put their hearts, souls and art school training into beautiful vignettes that protrude into the outside world. There will be a standard lamp.
THE ONE-OFF CHARITY SHOP
These tend to exist in more impoverished areas and will relate to a local cause or local person who has befallen a tragedy and whose passing has led to a charity being founded in their honour. They’re usually set apart from the main drag of shops, and can only be reached on foot. Many a time I’ve been driving out of a town with a back seat full of booty (shopping not ass) and spotted a lone shop three minutes out of town. Negotiating the residential parking permits and double yellows is always worth it though.
These shops are always quiet, even when the commercial radio station is blaring out Wet Wet Wet. There’s one member of staff, a sister, an uncle. A son. And they’re quiet. It’s really quiet in there. Whenever I go back, they’re gone: the hand-painted sign has been taken down and replaced with shiny plastic, advertising electronic cigarettes. You wouldn’t even know they ever existed.
Furniture – they always have great pieces of small furniture: nests of tables, ottomans. I don’t know why, it’s just FACT.
Bargains – it’s always cheap in these places so if you’re on a budget these are the shops for you. There will be an overpriced pram in there a friend has donated that says “£140” on it because they wouldn’t stop telling the staff that, “Our Anthony paid £400 for that new; you’ll get at least £200. I’ve seen them go on eBay for £600” and keenly watched them reluctantly write the price on sugar paper and sellotape it to the frame.
Curtains – donations come from friends and families touched by the cause so they’ve all rifled through the cupboard under their stairs (which is where we keep the curtains we don’t want). There are loads of them and, luckily for me, they take up space so shops are keen to move them along, which means you’re looking at £3 for a pair of kick-ass sage green velvet curtains. Incidentally I don’t measure things so if you’re in need of some curtains, the cupboard under my stairs is full of the fuckers.
Kiri is a Welsh stand up comedian and one fourth of sketch group Gein’s Family Giftshop. She is also a Farmer’s daughter. The subtext to all this? Great at swearing. @kiripritchardmc