In praise of charity shops

Glenn is a member of the Quill writing group which VANEL both supports and encourages. Here Glenn shares his personal thoughts about charity shops. Have a read and when you are finished visit our page here with information about the range of charity shops within the North Cleethorpes area.

This coronavirus crisis and lockdown has been and still is, a difficult time for most of us, on all kinds of levels. Each and every one of us will have missed different things & found different ways of coping. Like many, besides family & friends – among many other things – I’ve particularly missed the routine of shopping. Like many, I’ve especially missed charity shops. As we recently reentered a new phase in the easing of lockdown, the sight of more & more charity shops reopening their doors to visitors again, has been a welcome & reassuring sign of a return to some degree of normality.

I’m pleased to report, the Charity shops I visited, had clearly put a lot of thought into making them places safe for staff & visitors & had a variety of sensible safety measures in place – from the insistence on the use of handwash & facemasks,  to directional routes around their store. There was also a strict limit on the number of visitors allowed in their shop at any one time. This is nothing less than what I expected.  For a long time, now, Ive held charity shops in high regard, for all kind of reasons & come to regard them as a valuable & essential part of our town. Queuing patiently with other visitors & chatting, it was clear that many others felt the same.

Charity shops have certainly come a long way over the last few decades. I remember occasionally visiting charity shops for the first time, as a newly graduated student, in Kent the mid 90s. In those days, charity shops had a mixed reputation – a visit to one was often a hit or miss affair. Many of the shops I visited – even in Kent –  were sometimes dirty, scruffy places, stock just dumped in cardboard boxes on the floor & at least one, always had a funny smell, as though there was a dead horse (or customer) at the back of the shop. Visitors were rare & often seemed to be the elderly, people clearly very down on their luck. or students like myself,

Though i’m sure, everyone can nominate at least one local charity shop that needs to up its act, generally those bad old days are gone. Within the new century in particular, mindful of image, most charity shops have really polished their operation & become much more professional in the running & presentation of their service & in the process,  cast off much of the stigma that hung around them. Among other things, these days, staff are much better trained & the standard of their venues, service & shopping experience, has improved significantly – so much so, that today, stepping into a charity shop is usually a warm, welcoming & enjoyable experience. And unlike the charity shops of old, visitors are plentiful & varied in their demographic.

Grimsby & Cleethorpes, like many places, has a wide variety of charity shops for locals & visitors. They have become such a familiar sight on our high streets, that for many people, shopping there, has become an essential part of their weekly shopping routine & everyone will have their own particular favourite. Among other things, visitors are likely to be struck by the range of products for sale in our charity shops, as well the care that often goes into their presentation. (Some charity shops, of course, through special arrangements, now sell brand new products, alongside second hand items). Walk into any Cleethorpes or Grimsby charity shop today & you are likely to find yourself amidst a bewildering range of products – clothes, jewellery, ornaments, beds, sofas, carpets, cameras, toys, televisions, books, dvds, cds,  paintings, posters, greetings cards & much more. For collectors & people with a taste for the unusual, charity shops can be veritable Aladdin’s caves of goodies – African masks, climbing boots, Japanese prints, Rubics Cubes, China dolls, Blue Peter Annuals, a Pinky & Perky sing the Beatles LP – there’s no telling what may await the inquisitive & discerning visitor. For some, this  is large part of the attraction of visiting charity shops – the sense of excitement & curiosity – not knowing what you might find & I’ve certainly spent many enjoyable hours in charity shops looking for old books, dvds & objects d’ art & picked up some real treasures over the years.

And then there’s the matter of price. Where else can we buy items, sometimes of excellent quality for so low a price.  In this time of austerity & economic uncertainty, for many people shopping in charity shops makes good sense. For some families struggling to make ends meet on a tight budget & not always able to afford to shop in big brand high street shops, charity shops can be a godsend. Also, for example,  for students & others, faced with moving into & furnishing a home on very limited budgets, charity shops are a handy, sometimes vital resource.

As great as Charity shops are for the general public,  it’s important to remember that (besides financial support) they are very dependent on continuing donations of unwanted items from ourselves. At least one local charity shop has the slogan ‘Don’t fling it, donate it’ pinned up in it’s window. They’re right – it really is essential we continue to clear out those attics or that cupboard under the stairs (where all those unwanted birthday & Xmas presents & so much other junk tends to end up. It’s also important to remember the old adage ‘one person’s junk is another person’s treasure’.

Besides donations, Charity shops also, of course, depend, to a large degree on the services of volunteers. This can range from sorting donations, cleaning the premises, stocking shelves, serving at the till to things like driving the van to pick up donations or making deliveries. People choose to volunteer in charity shops for all kinds of reasons – ethics, or because they enjoy the company & the opportunity to make new friends & more For some volunteers, for example those struggling with unemployment or depression, helping out in a charity shop can be a good way of  regaining self confidence, while  gaining work experience in the process. Many charity shops also make a point of taking on board people facing physical & other impairments, such as learning difficulties & provide valuable opportunities to develop social as well as practical skills.

More than anything though, we should never forget the essential, underlaying purpose of charity shops – to raise money for a variety of good causes. In Grimsby or Cleethorpes alone, a look at the range of our charity shops – Heart Foundation, Womens Aid, Sense, Oxfam, Scope, Cancer research, to mention just a few – reflect the wide range of issues charities play such an important part in drawing attention to, from tackling domestic abuse, to famine relief. And significantly their efforts go toward dealing with problems worldwide & not just at a local or national level.

Charity shops are not without their controversies, however.  Some people regard the existence of charity shops offensive & consider them an eyesore as well as a mark of economic decline.  Some consider charity shops as a threat to local businesses. Others less hostile, sometimes raise questions over the size of their administrative costs or other aspects of their running.  Others have more fundamental objections, seeing the existence of charity shops as a mark of the failure of governments worldwide, to address or tackle social problems at root cause. However, despite the occasional unfortunate scandals in the news – cancer research being an example, there’s never opposition to charity shops in principal on a scale, whereby there has been a massive demand to end them. All the evidence suggests, that faults & all, the public recognise the importance of these charities & the work do, on all kinds of levels. Also in an age in which there is a significant growth in the public’s awareness societies wasteful & alarming levels of consumption & its contribution to global warming – arguably the biggest threat facing the planet, many people have come to recognise that charity shops, in their long term promotion of the ‘the waste not, want not’ recycling ethic, make good ethical & economic  sense. Herein, lays arguably, the most important aspect of charity shops, the way, over many years, through their activities, they have set a positive example, in promoting progressive values. In these more enlightened times, people see the worth in supporting charity shops & acknowledge their valuable, even vital role in our society.

To summarise then, our Charity shops, as a whole & on all kinds of benefit Grimsby & Cleethorpes. Speaking personally, I would argue that they are the mark of humane & progressive society. As we start to come out of lockdown, there is already widespread talk in some circles, on how we can learn from this crisis, many seeing this extraordinary time, as a golden opportunity to re-think things – our economy, our values, & generally how we go about everything. Along with the N.H.S and other organisations, along with many others, I hope charity shops will be recognised as a positive, inspirational & vital part of our economy & society & that Grimsby & Cleethorpes, & other parts of the country, are better places for their existence.