One of the less remarked-upon aspects of Britain’s current economic downturn is the mushroomlike growth of the charity shop—the rough equivalent of Goodwill stores in the United States. Charity shops have always been with us here, but not nearly as many. Barely shops at all, they were more like walled heaps of cheap, pale ornaments, indeterminate castoffs, and thick piles of James Last albums, run by pleasantly dotty old ladies with time on their hands and good works in their hearts. Characterized by a peculiar and distinctively musty smell, they were gloomy, uninviting places where things came to die and sometimes to be reused after death. The shops hawked fashion-resistant rubbish and every last scrap of dead men’s clothes. Thin young men in indie bands would cross their thresholds to shop for baggy old suits and retro ties.
I noticed the charity shops’ canny flanking movement a few years back as I waited for my wife outside a health-food store in the small Suffolk town where her family lives. I stood smoking a cigarette—these were the days before such an act could bring about total neo-Wildean social ruin—and counting the number of nearby shops that had closed: LAST FEW DAYS banners, boarded-up windows, mountains of unanswered mail. I ran out of nonsmoking fingers to tot them all up, these disjecta membra of small-town commerce. So I had no digits left to count the new charity shops that had sprung up to occupy the gaps in the weakened arcade.
A number of the establishments that charity shops replaced were secondhand book and record shops. Until recently, people might offload huge carloads of old vinyl or books onto these dealers and take what pittance they were offered. Moving in when these disappeared, charity shops smartened up, raising their standards—and, in some cases, their prices. Add to this the fact that across the socioeconomic spectrum people have less disposable cash, and it’s not hard to figure out why you now see people in charity-shop fitting rooms who once wouldn’t have been caught dead there. The clothes themselves are often nearly new, with designer labels.
Though some charity shops retain unpleasant reminders of their past—ghastly smells, inefficient drains, a complete lack of quality control—most have become quite professional. Oxfam runs a nationwide chain of shops dedicated solely to books and music. A new vintage-clothing chain called Traid is determinedly trendy and youth- oriented in its advertisements and even holds fashion shows.
In central London, where I live, all the secondhand book and record shops I once frequented are gone. Even the big chain stores have closed, meaning that not a single book or record shop can be found within walking distance. And I like walking; I like browsing, too, and being surprised by the odd, unexpected item. But it turns out that many of the new charity shops are actually a better browse than the old book and music shops. It breaks my heart to say so, but the shops that folded often had only themselves to blame. Yes, they can point to rising rents and the Internet’s influence, but many just didn’t try hard enough.
I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture: not every charity shop is an Aladdin’s cave for bibliophiles. The more usual experience is finding yourself wading through reams of subliterate rubbish, though doing so only amplifies the pleasure of finding some unlikely gem. That’s what happened to me last year in a small Irish village where I was vacationing. I found a backstreet charity shop with two whole rooms stuffed floor to ceiling with books. I went through them, spine by spine: nothing. And then, just as I was about to leave, there it was in my hands: an extremely rare first-edition W. G. Sebald in mint condition. I’m not sure which was the biggest thrill: finding something like that at all, getting it for pennies, or speculating on how it ended up there in the first place.
For me, the charity-shop boom is one of the very few welcome offshoots of a depressed economy. I’ve had so many good finds lately, in fact, that I’m starting to feel guilty. I may have to open a charity shop of my own just to give something back.