A love letter to charity shops

Written by Naomi May

In honour of Earth Day, Naomi May pens an ode to her favourite – and most sustainable – way of shopping.

There’s an Oxfam near where I live in east London that, in times BC (Before Covid), was known for having a perennial queue snaking around its corner at all times of the day.

There’s nothing particularly special per se about this Oxfam branch, aside from the fact that it’s a treasure trove of second-hand goodness and to know about it is to be a truly ingratiated east Londoner (if you know, you know), yet it clearly holds a special place in Hackney’s heart. Its shelves are stacked high with curly crockery, colourful ceramics, and pre-loved leather and denim so good they could easily be mistaken for new season wares.

I have amassed an array of kaleidoscopic plates courtesy of this branch of Oxfam, I have collected an arsenal of vintage Levi’s from another local charity shop near my house and, most importantly, I’ve stacked my bookshelves high with tomes from almost every charity shop I’ve ever visited. Apparently I’m not alone: the #FoundInOxfam boasts just shy of 30,000 posts on Instagram.

But then you know what happened last March, and my weekly jaunts to my local Oxfam and Hackney’s other A-list line-up of charity shops were curtailed, as we sought to avoid all contact, I turned my attentions to online shopping along with the rest of the country. In fact, in 2020 alone online shopping spiked by 10 per cent from the same time five years before. Clothes, interiors, books, you name it, and I swapped my charity shop hauls for admittedly very gratifying next day delivery. Out with the old (see: my beloved Oxfam) and in with the new (see: a lot of purchases made to line Mr. Bezos’ pockets.)

For a time it felt good being able to buy exactly what I wanted without having to compromise or think about how to tweak, customise or upcycle something. But there’s very little magic in online shopping, the precision of the act negating the element of surprise that comes with rummaging head-first among boxes or army crawling your way along a shop floor to find the best deals on the bottom shelves (word to the wise: the bottom shelves of charity shops are where the best bargains are to be had.) In fact, I found myself frustrated that my favourite weekend activity had been paused indefinitely as Britain’s own super league of charity shop’s futures hung precariously in the balance. 

The pandemic, and the consequent lockdowns that have occurred because of it, is estimated to have cost Oxfam £5 million in revenue each month as its almost 600 shops have remained closed since last March, while Barnardo’s is losing an approximate £8,000 a month from its shuttered 665 stores. In a normal year, charity shops collectively make £1.4billion in revenue, however since last March, it’s estimated that they’ve collectively lost £28million per month. Startling figures for a breed of shop that deserves its place on the great British high street and in our hearts, too.

So this year on Earth Day, now that shops have been able to fling their doors open once more, yes, there are the earth-first brands that are doing the most as it pertains to sustainability, but don’t go forgetting your local charity shops which need your love and support now more than ever. 

Next time you run a load of your old clothes there, or you stroll past one on your daily walk, stop for a second to peruse what its Motley Crue-like shelves might be housing. It might not be next day delivery, but I promise the hit of finding a golden oldie in the midst of the organised chaos of a charity shop is an endorphin hit little else can top.  

Lead image: courtesy of Tom Craig

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