second hand shopper’s guide to: secondhand shopping!

(DISCLAIMER: The following information is all based on my personal experiences of charity shopping throughout the UK. A lot is opinion and speculation, and none is intended to offend, merely illuminate.)

Or more specifically, charity shopping. Because we really need to focus here…

So, I’ve been a secondhand fiend for over a decade now. I started trawling the charity shops with my friend Chrissie during our sixth form days – looking for an alternative to the affordable high street stores everyone in school favoured and the uniform look they therefore churned out. Instead, I opted for 70s cordurouy skirts and belted tartan coats, dresses that could be shortened to mini to wear with my Oh-So-90s platform knee boots, lace-edged slips and camis dyed bright colours to wear to the pub, and old-man trousers in seersucker or tweed worn with Converse rip-offs or faux Birkenstocks.

This was not a stage of my fashion development upon which I look back with pride or pleasure…

Still, over the years I’ve become something of a charity shop pro. I can walk into one and spot the bargains hidden amongst the trash. I can go out with a shopping list in mind and know exactly how to sniff out exactly the items I’m looking for. And I can put a fancy dress look together without having to stray into costume shop territory. It’s quite a skill to have developed, and one I’d love to help my readers to develop too!

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Cob Days

One of the things I miss most about Newcastle upon Tyne is the food shopping. Living in the city centre, supermarket shopping was a once monthly (often less) occurrence, requiring lugging our bags full of recycling onto the metro to an out-of-town supermarket and returning with the few basics that are cheaper from the big three. Meanwhile, right on our doorstep, the Green and Grainger markets were a bargain hunter’s paradise: I was on gossiping terms with my two favourite greengrocers in the market, the fishmonger would often throw me in a handful of samphire to cook with my fish or a bag of “bits” for fish pie free of charge, and the cheese lady would wave me over when she had actually managed to get some Fourme D’Ambert from her supplier. I was expert at cooking with whatever was in season or on the spoil, and we ate well off it!

My garlic, galanghal, chillis, ginger and a lot of my herbs came in huge quantities for pennies from the chinese supermarkets round the corner. Our cartons of passatta, jars of sweet peppers, tinned anchovies, pickles and baking goods such as cinnamon sugar and packets of yeast came very cheaply from the Polish supermarkets and pound shops that sprang up around the west end of the centre. My Saturday morning was all about food shopping – heading out with my canvas bags and my shopping list to stock up for the week.

In Leamington there is no food market. There’s a farmer’s market once a month, but that’s for treats, not basics. For the longest time I gave in, and just did all my shopping at the supermarkets, topping up at the corner shops when I ran out of milk, splashing out at the fishmongers when I wanted decent fresh fish, nipping to the excellent Thai supermarket when I needed fresh coriander, ginger or chillis. I found it all (the Thai excepted) painfully expensive.

For far too long I stopped cooking. I baked to indulge my passion, but stopped bothering with “meals” – why eat properly when you can grab a peanut butter and jam sandwich? I could not see the point in cooking for myself, particularly as I no longer had my Saturday morning shopping trips to inspire me. For me, cooking is about feeding, about nurturing both bodies and relationships. A small part of me doesn’t see the point in self-nurture on either score.

I now live in an area with a surplus of corner shops – three within about 100 yards of each other. One is run by a sikh couple, and sells big packets of spices and pulses at incredibly low prices. One is a wannabe supermarket and somewhat overpriced. The third is a family business, stocks fresh fruit and veg as well as herbs (root-on coriander – a real bonus in Asian cuisine), packet spices, pulses and sundries, and is beautifully cheap!

The third is my shop of choice. They’re mid-refurb right now, and appear to be increasing their range greatly. The whole family – Mum, Dad and two sons – recognise and acknowledge me. Sometimes, towards the end of the day, one of the sons refuses to charge me for a couple of chillis, a thumb of ginger, an onion or lime… Which keeps me coming back for the sake of the service. And their produce is fresh, cheap and seasonal, so is starting to inspire me again.

Take this week as an example. With barbeque season having been in full swing, supermarkets have been selling corn on the cob at discounted prices. This usually means it’s been freed of it’s sheath, topped and tailed and placed in plastic to be sold at the discounted price of two cobs for £1. Last night I really fancied corn…

But I really didn’t fancy Asda…

So I stopped at the corner shop to see if they happened to have any in stock. I wasn’t too hopeful…

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These beauties, still in their original (and natural) packaging were 5 ears for £1. Last night I had grilled corn drizzled with melted, seasoned butter. Tonight I’ll be having creamed corn served with a steak from Asda’s reduced section (UPDATED: inspiration from this fantastic foodie blog, but cooked with bay leaves and a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard to go with the steak), and tomorrow, corn fritters with sweet chilli dipping sauce. The shorn cobs and remaining kernels will be used to make a stock for soup, the sweetness that comes out of them working perfectly with potato and parsley.

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This is the sort of availability inspiration that used to form the basis of my diet, and is a habit I need to get back into. I’m hoping regular trips to the refurbed corner shop will kick start my cooking once again.

Secondhand shadows

While browsing the google results for secondhand shopper (I like to see where I’m ranking! :) ) I came across Conscious Consumerism,  a 2005 (I think) study into why some people prefer secondhand goods to new. One of the often quoted sales points about secondhand goods seems to be that they have a history to them, a story that appeals to the romantic shopper. Conscience Consumerism linked this to Walter Benjamin’s commentary on the links between an artist’s original and a painting’s aura – the reason that the original Mona Lisa is  so superior to a print, for example. It seems Benjamin felt that inanimate objects have an aura that reflects their relationship to their creator, and their authenticity.

This idea of an object’s aura actually makes sense to me. Because, in the same way that well-loved objects have an attractive warmth to them, I believe they can leave a shadow behind them. In my ex’s house, in our second year at uni, there was a spot on the landing where I walked around a piece of furniture. I wasn’t the only one – several other people had the same experience as I did in the exact same spot. Thing is, there was nothing there. I don’t know whether there’s some invisible fading to the wallpaper or undecipherable denting to the carpet that the naked eye doesn’t pick up but our brain still registers – but I studied that spot, and it was always as if it was slightly obscured, like something had left its imprint behind. I think this is an extension of the aura Benjamin introduces.

And this is exactly why I’d rather have an old sofa with slightly sagging seats that feels as if it’s hugging you than a brand new, MFI, four-years-interest-free beige minimalist sofa-bed with rock-hard arms. Or a tarnished gold brooch with slightly discoloured pearls than a brand new white gold number from H Samuel. I want the originality, the authenticity and the aura!

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Dress and top: charity shops; shoes: M&S; alice band: New Look

Charity Shop Cheek

This week the Times Online has a feature on their website about the Top 25 Charity Shops in Britain. It’s about how charity shops are opting out of the jumble-sale, rummage-style tradition and aiming for an upmarket boutique feel. It explains that it wants to expand charity shopping away from the currently elite student and “creative type” market to encompass “everyone”. It wants to make charity shopping appeal to those who work, who don’t have the time to flick through rails of clothes of questionable quality in order to find the gems, but want the sorting done for them. As a result it lists the charity shops that either already focus on vintage, gathering the cherry-picked items from the various nationwide stores together in their upmarket, usually city-based stores, or are in already affluent areas (particularly Cheshire, home of footballer’s wives and soap stars) and selling secondhand designer. All in all it makes me mad.

I have guilt when it comes to charity shopping. Half of me is of the opinion that charity shops should be there for people who cannot afford the high street. Of course, with the rise of Primark, Peacocks, George, etc, you can now pick up new basics for cheaper than charity shop prices. But still, as a working woman I’m sometimes ashamed to be stealing bargains from the unemployed and students who might need them.

The other part of me is proud to be thrifty, and usually wins out!

Either way, filtering out the best outfits for boutique-style stores takes from the appeal of charity shopping. The likelihood of finding a gem – the main reason that I find the exercise so exciting – is dramatically reduced. The likelihood of finding a bargain, more so, as prices are hiked up to cover cost of these new boutiques, the alternative being a cut in profits to the charities in question. Pretty fittings don’t come cheap!

In reducing the chances of finding that elusive hidden treasure, the likelihood is that they will also reduce the appeal of shopping there in the first place. Which means that revenue will surely plummet.

Which in turn must mean that prices will have to go up to cover those pretty fittings we discussed earlier? The beginnings of a downward spiral, culminating in a cut in profits. The whole point of charity shops is surely to make as much money as possible out of people’s good will.  The improvement of stores seems to me a pointless exercise. Instead we should be educating people on the ethical, environmental and economical benefits of utilising the resources already available to them.

Of course, charity shopping is a very personal experience, in which everyone finds their own favoured path.  I already tend to avoid the high-end charity shops: Oxfam is all but off-limits for me unless I’m buying books* or fairtrade. My favourite shops are not those in affluent areas, but those in the rougher parts of town where prices are cheap. If you can brave the smell (and there are a couple of shops in my favourite CS high street I frankly and honestly can’t) you’ll find these are the source of the best bargains. Because these hold true vintage pieces. Not necessarily designer pieces, but 60s, 70s and 80s gems from which designers take their inspiration. These are the shops into which people empty their attics, or the houses of loved ones who have sadly passed away. The fact that they are jumble-sale hotch-potches of goods allows anyone with patience and a good eye to find the bargains no-one else sees.

My other favourite charity shops are those supporting local charities which don’t have specialist flagship stores to skim off the best bits. The best in my experience are local hospice shops. These are usually well-ordered and odour-free, reasonably priced and full of bargains.

In Stafford, for example, there are three Katherine House shops:

  • One, on the corner of Mill Street deals exclusively in bric-a-brac – gorgeous antiques, china tea sets, jewellery and small furnishings, with a few books and records thrown in for good measure. On my last visit I fell in love with a full dinner service including tea set, a bamboo screen and a striped jug that would have been ideal for custard!
  • Tucked away near the back of the Guildhall shopping centre is their clothing shop, offering decent high-street pieces in excellent condition and classic styles. Not my scene, but well ordered.
  • Then, hidden away on the Tixall Road is a third shop. This one is slightly out of town, and the prices, layout and stock reflect this. It is still well-ordered, but has a more relaxed feel. The stock caters for the local student population, feauturing lots of kitchen essentials and a decent shelf of books.  Once you’ve got past the excess of novelty mugs, the clothes and bric-a-brac are far more interesting here than anywhere else. On my last visit I got a fabulous 70s pyrex mixing bowl and a set of three, as new, enamel saucepans with flowers on. I think I spent less than a fiver.

I am all for bringing thriftiness to a wider market. I encourage everyone out there to explore their local Good Will (for the record, Salvation Army stores appear to be a good source of bargains across continents, if the Australian and American blogs I read are anything to go by). But bear in mind that charity shops have two main functions in our society. One, the outcome of the second but important none-the-less, is to provide cheap clothing to those who need it. The second is to raise money for charities.

*Books are a different matter entirely – there is very rarely a paperback novel I want that I cannot get in Oxfam books a matter of weeks after release date in as new condition for a less than half the RRP. Puts three for two to shame – but doesn’t stop me shopping in Waterstones as, as a publisher and former Waterstones employee,  I like to support my industry! :D