City Journal Winter 2014

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Winter 2014
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Ian Penman
Faith and Hope in Charity Shops « Back to Story

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I noticed the sudden hike in charity shop prices seven or eight years ago. Before then, they were places where you could get things dirt-cheap. However, it's not the shops' fault; many of them have wised up to the fact that people were buying their stuff cheap and selling it dear on eBay, so "vintage cameras", for example, are now sold at their market price, or put on eBay by the charity shop itself. It was inevitable: in a market with global reach, there can be no such thing as a bargain -- i.e., something selling for less than it's worth.

I'm not sure whether the replacement of second-hand bookshops and record-shops is a good thing; at least you used to get a tiny amount of money for your cast-off goods, whereas now you get nothing except a slight warm feeling. Plenty of people have criticised charity shops for displacing "real" businesses. On the other hand, those second-hand shops showed no signs of philanthropy whatsoever.

But I think it's fair that old books and CDs should be more expensive than they used to be -- they do, after all, retain almost all of their true value no matter how many times they've been used.

I've become a dedicated Goodwill shopper. In Southern California where I live, Goodwill stores tend to be large and well-organized (still musty, though). I've noticed an increase in quality items and the advent of relatively sophisticated merchandising and display techniques. I shop mostly for decorative household items and furniture that can be refashioned. Prices have gone up, but it's astonishing the quality of the bargains to be had.

I have family members who've become "pickers", selling items on Ebay for considerable profit. My son recently bought a vintage camera for $25 and sold it online for $350, and my brother-in-law makes a monthly income selling items on his Ebay store. The thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction of making money can become a profitable habit.
No true aficionado of charity shops (and part-time dumpster divers) would be caught dead in a "determinedly trendy and youth-oriented" shop.
As a fellow Londoner, I have to disagree. 'Charity' is now big business and they are run as such, I know, I have worked in banking and seen that many of the largest accounts are those of 'charities'. On the high-street, they have an unfair advantage over traditional businesses in that they do not pay corporation tax, probably have favourable rental agreements, do not need to make a profit and do not pay most of their staff, many of whom are unemployed JobSeekers who are now forced by the government to work unpaid in these shops for several months under the guise of 'work experience' - however the managers are usually on the payroll with many perks including company cars. They have in-house experts who sift out any good stuff and sell on ebay while the shops sell worn T shirts for £5 (new ones £1 in Primark) and used DVD's for £2 when you can buy the same new in PoundLand for £1! Many selfless individuals donate items in the mistaken belief that they are then sold on to 'poor people' at rock bottom prices. Poor people cannot afford to shop in charity shops they are the province of the well-heeled do-gooding middle classes who pay over the odds for that warm glow that comes from 'having given something back'
I get so much joy out of discovering a 'hidden gem' from a charity shop. a Swedish ex girlfriend of mine once found a Salvation army shop in St Lucia where we bought quite a clothes for literally a couple of dollars. The shop workers could not understand why seemingly wealthy Swedes and a Brit would want to buy from a charity shop. Another gem for me was finding a great charity shop in Greensboro NC where I bought many items to bring back to the UK.
My love of charity shops stems from my time as a student and in the days of mass designer fashion. The 1980s/90s 'hipster' had a hard time finding affordable stylish clothing. We had to either spend hundreds of dollars on upmarket designer clothes, get them customer made, get ‘hand me downs’ or buy 2nd hand clothes from a charity shop. When I was in my teenage years (1987) there was a big 'rare groove' revival (70s funk) in the UK, parts or Europe, Canada and NY. The clothes that went with this style of music was the 70s, so we had to buy vintage. Today any young person can instantly buy ready made ‘hip’ and stylish clothes for next to nothing from anywhere on the high street or online, this option never really existed before the 00s. The only issue with this is that ‘style’ becomes so democratic anywhere can buy into it and it is no longer unique.


My son and I often visit a kids charity store called Fara in Notting Hill London which does work in Romania for orphaned children. Many of the childrens clothes are donated by wealthy 'yummy mummies' whose children may only where the clothing once or twice. I once bought an obscure Italian 12 month child jacket which brand new would cost around $120 yet cost me around $10. Many people like me who can well afford to buy new clothing, tend to mix and match vintage and new. My wife is a very 'upscale' fashion designer and she often buys vintage, however the real market in vintage clothing is not in charity shops but specialist outlets often charging hundreds of dollars.