LiberaceIf you’re especially enchanted by vinyl collections that include everything from the ivory-tinkling of Liberace and Mrs Mills to orchestras conducted by either André Previn or James Last – not to mention numerous brass bands and even long-forgotten dance twelve-inches from the early 90s – chances are the record section of the humble high-street charity shop is your favourite corner of said Aladdin’s cave. I’ve uncovered the occasional gem over the years in such locations, though more often than not the LPs crammed in the racks resemble the kind of budget label kitsch yer granny owned and you never heard her actually play. I would imagine the majority of albums that end up in charity shops are amongst the last items standing once family locusts have stripped the home of their recently-deceased parent; unwanted, unfashionable, and – in the case of the Black and White Minstrels – unplayable, these house clearance leftovers remain the staple diet of the charity shop record section, but are also accompanied by the cassette and the CD, with both formats largely echoing their vinyl siblings in terms of terminally-unhip content.

Sharing the enclave containing the shop’s record section are shelves stuffed with DVDs, and their plentiful presence is yet one more pointer to the transient nature of technology; introduced to the UK market a mere 25 years ago, the DVD is already regarded in some quarters as being about as relevant as the 8-track cartridge, what with streaming and downloads all the rage these days. Personally, I prefer my sound and vision on physical objects that cannot be edited or censored by over-sensitive broadcasters, but most movies on those shelves tend to be products of Hollywood’s past decade or so and are therefore both undesirable and unwatchable. Sure, there are the occasional box-sets of decent enough TV shows that one watched at the time without any great craving to watch again, but a large proportion of the motion pictures represented on DVD are what were once referred to as ‘straight-to-video’, i.e. films that had no cinema release due to not being very good.

True, there have been times when rich pickings have been sourced in charity shops, though these were transitional moments between old and new mediums. For example, there was a period in the mid-to-late 80s when men of a certain age were persuaded to re-buy their entire record collections on CD, dumping the vinyl versions at the nearest Help the Aged or British Heart Foundation emporium; I remember purchasing numerous classic albums for next-to-nothing during this fruitful era, and had a similar experience when the VHS made way for the DVD. As with CDs, the DVD was a pricey successor in the beginning, and for those who couldn’t afford either newfangled format, the sudden influx of first LPs and then VHS tapes into charity shops meant collections could be extensively added to with little in the way of expense. Such is the pace of change, however, that charity shops – whilst still accepting vinyl in light of the format’s renaissance as a hip listening tool – will no longer accept VHS tapes. Old enough to recall a time when new VHS releases were priced at well over £20 each on the elite shelves of the most upmarket stores, it’s somewhat strange to see the lifespan of the format has been so brief that even the charity shop won’t act as the elephant’s graveyard for an item that every home once owned in abundance not so long ago.

Books remain something worth checking out in the charity shop, though it often depends on how large the branch is. My local Oxfam is a dependable library of the best the written word can offer, whereas the smaller charity shops in the neighbourhood favour ghost-written ‘biographies’ of daytime TV presenters or celebrity cook books that are reasonable Mother’s Day gifts if nothing else. Meanwhile, clothes are usually the first things the visitor to a charity shop is confronted by, and I’ve bought my fair share of sartorial bargains now and again in such places, albeit not for quite some time. After all, most charity shops sell whatever was fashionable three or four years ago, and there’s no appeal for me personally in the sidewalk catwalk of this century. Perhaps the thought of wearing clothes once worn by somebody else was responsible for the stigma that attached itself to charity shops for a good few years; to some, the prospect of being clad in anything that previously contained the body of a stranger is anathema, and charity shops were regarded by these folks as repositories for smelly old rags nobody with any decency would be seen dead in.

Of course, many people who bought their clothes from charity shops did so because they simply didn’t have the money to buy brand-new gear; but some began to patronise them not because they were skint but because they were skinflints, too tight to fork-out for outfits they could easily afford and instead opting to slum it as a means of saving cash they were hardly short of. At the same time, the cultish popularity of charity shop goods amongst the young led to some being rebranded as ‘vintage’, the difference being a fair few quid could be slapped onto the items, thus pricing out the traditional hard-up patrons in the process. I recall one local charity shop being revamped in this manner, receiving a chic makeover and ramping up the price of goods to reflect their new vintage status instead of their past ‘junk’ tag; it closed about six months ago, though I did pick-up an LP by one of the acts mentioned in the first paragraph during its final day of trading for the sum of 5p, probably the first time I’ve bought anything for a mere shilling in about forty years.

The aforementioned stigma once associated with charity shops lingers to an extent, with their omnipotence on the high-street viewed as indicative of the high-street’s decline; however, recent falls in living standards have forced many into reassessing their prejudices and realising the charity shop may well be the only alternative to the chain-store rapidly moving away from their financial reach. London’s Brent Cross Shopping Centre has this week acquired a so-called ‘pop-up’ shop scheduled to be open for a month; masterminded by Red or Dead founder Wayne Hemingway, what is called a charity super-market resembles an old-school department store in size, though its contents would be familiar to any regular visitor to the local PDSA outlet. Stats quoted by Hemingway’s partner in the project, Maria Chenoweth, suggest the appearance of a larger-than-usual charity shop in such a cathedral of retail as Brent Cross is a sign of the times. ‘When you look at the demographic of people who are shopping in charity shops,’ says Chenoweth, ‘it’s the people who are leading the way in thinking’; according to Chenoweth, 65% of people in the country are dressed in second-hand outfits at least once a week, implying the old stigma is losing its grip on the popular imagination in the face of harsh economic factors.

Apparently, the site the charity super-market has taken over till the end of February was previously a Topshop, which is telling; many of those to have passed through its doors so far have done so with a ‘sustainability’ agenda in mind, preferring to donate their pennies to charities in exchange for goods rather than continuing to feed the corporate chain-store machine. Wayne Hemingway also sees the increasing interest in second-hand goods on the part of the young being reflective of other aspects of their lives, such as struggling to pay the rent and the simultaneous realisation that they might not own their own home before their 40s, if ever. There’s also the eBay element, so engrained in younger generations – i.e. a charity shop bargain could be resold online at twice the price it cost in the shop, thus bringing in a few more extra quid. Wayne Hemingway is hopeful this particular pop-up model can effectively go ‘on the road’, popping-up in other cities across the country and being akin – in his own words – to ‘the fair coming to town’. Perhaps if more people than ever now need charity shops as much as we’re being led to believe, a pop-up should become permanent.

© The Editor