I came to the wonders of the charity shop relatively late in life - my mid twenties, which is odd considering I’ve always been consumed by clothes (thinking about, wearing, acquiring).
In my teens my best friend and I would meet at midday in Liverpool town centre every Saturday, then spend the next six hours doggedly doing the rounds of Topshop, Miss Selfridge, River Island, Jane Norman (NEVER EVER bought a thing there, no wonder it went bust), never failing to make a detour to Quiggins to push through all the tie-dye T shirts and posters of weed leaves to check out the second-hand fashion emporiums.
In the late Nineties these stocked sheepskin football manager-style jackets, jumbo cord flares and zip-up nylon tracksuit tops with contrast colour binding on the sleeves (a personal favourite).
I got some of my best buys in the second-hand shops, rarely spending more than 20 quid. In fact, T-shirts and silk scarves were often under a fiver, which left you with change for a pot of Directions TM hair dye and a cup of cha in the vegetarian café. Heaven.
Fast forward a few years and I’m living in London, first studying at London College of Fashion and then working at a fashion magazine, being paid a pittance.
The main issue with picking up a bargain in second-hand shops now is that they’re no-longer called second-hand shops. They are ‘Vintage Boutiques’ and most of the gear in there is more expensive than the high street, even when the tops have sweat marks under the arms.
The second problem with them is more theoretical – picking something out of a pre-edited selection and served to you by an obnoxious poser in a cravat and ironic moustache isn’t really that imaginative or clever. Well, no more that rustling the racks at Topshop.
So, what you actually have to do, to show true taste and dedication (and crucially, come in under budget) is go to a nice area of town and work your way around every charity shop in sight before catching a bus back to civilisation loaded with unique bargains and one-offs that no one else in the world will have.
So that’s the theory, but it never works out like that. Firstly, nine and three quarter times out of 10 there’s nothing I want. Which I find awkward, because you’re nearly always the only person in there and you’ve already been greeted by the old dear at the till.
Even if I can tell there’s nothing there for me within seconds, social awkwardness and a desire not to offend could lead me to linger for an extra five minutes just for appearances' sake. Sometimes, I might even feel guilty enough to buy something small, like a book. (Most of the people I know who buy clothes at charity shops also go crazy for little ornaments, knick-nacks and crockery like teacups and cake stands, but I don’t. At all).
Then there’s the problem of haggling. I would sooner change into a catsuit on the shop floor on a busy Saturday than haggle over the price of anything. But some of my friends take issue with the steep prices in certain charity shops, specifically in areas like the King's Road. Yes, prices are mental round there, but still, IT'S FOR CHARITY.
And that’s all before you get into the etiquette of donating to them yourself. Anyone with a healthy interest in following the trends is going to be a candidate for a semi-frequent cupboard clear-out, myself included. But I'm terrified of the person opening the bag at the other end judging me.
Will they be disgusted at the volume of items from H&M? Will they (correctly) suspect me of filtering out the best stuff and eBaying it?
One charity's website I checked recently before donating a small lorry load from my wardrobe stipulated ‘clothes and shoes of good quality in good condition – we particularly welcome designer items.’ Don’t we all dear, I thought to myself.
And what about the fact that they accept bits for textile recycling? Will they be able to tell that I’ve included those falling-apart boots in the bag because I intend them to go to be recycled? Or will they just assume I’ve palmed off my junk on them, callously thinking they can sell and be grateful for my terrible scraps?
It can be a delicately layered, nuanced anxiety that comes from overthinking charity shop interaction. But finding that killer piece, taking it home with the knowledge you’ve bagged a blinder, helped someone less fortunate than yourself AND have cast-iron bragging rights when someone asks you where you got it from next time you wear it out? NOTHING on earth can beat that feeling.
It’s a natural high. It’s true euphoria. Once you’ve reached charity shop nirvana, you’ll never achieve it on the high street or even The Outnet, Net-a-Porter’s designer clearance arm.
So, last month, upon discovered a full-length genuine 80’s Betty Barclay sweater dress, in apparently unworn condition for £12 in a little Oxfam shop in a small town high street, I did a little dance of joy. AND – just to try and restore the charity shop karma - the following time I donated, I included the pricer items I might have otherwise held back for eBay.
And that felt quite nice too.