When my daughter was between the ages of five and eleven, when she permitted me excesses of behaviour which she would not tolerate at any price any more, we used to spend our days out in towns which had more than their fair share of charity shops. ‘Charity Shop Alert,’ I would say, and in we would prowl, looking for gew-gaws and trinkets (her) and cassettes (me). These were charity shops in the in-between stage. The junk shop style of charity shop no longer prevailed, but they were still filled with a fair degree of clutter, and there were undusted items here and there (often serving you behind the till). Nowadays, following Oxfam’s lead, a charity shop is quite a different experience.
You can find bargains, it’s true, but you have to faff about a bit longer to find them (and even I have had to give up the pretence that a cassette is a sensible purchase, which is a bit sad, since there is often quite a decent pile of them on display). Oxfam, of course, have cracked the books and records racket, and, simply by looking on the web, are flogging vinyl at a shockingly exact price. I came across a 45 in a Hereford Oxfam (for there are two in the city centre), and thought, fleetingly, I’ll have that at £1.99, until, looking very much closer, I spotted that it was for sale for £11.99. They had done their research.
And not only are the charity shops in apple pie order, unless you are prepared to wander right out of a central location, but also in alphabetic order when it comes to (say) books. They are even in sections, like mini-Waterstones. In Hereford, the Oxfam shop even had a sort of antiquarian section, but then Hereford is one of those cities a bit off the beaten track which are shabby-chic, allow themselves the luxury of electing or nearly electing Liberal Democrats, and which like to see themselves as just a bit posh.
If you want the old charity shop experience, you really need to go to a car boot sale or a jumble sale (and even there, the acts are being tidied up, as people realise that there is actually money to be made) or, in my case, just to stay at home. My home is a jumble: piles of this, piles of that (but the books and records in neurotically alphabetic order).
At the time of the recession before last, car boot sales were all about economics. People started flogging their stuff because they were hard up. And what then happened was that the buyers and sellers realised they actually liked getting their rubbish out of their own houses and into other people’s houses. (This is why there are so many TV programmes about auctions, the up-market car-boot sales: they are a legacy of when people began to buy and sell.) And there is a huge black market now in operation, which one can only assume will increase in the next couple of years, albeit becoming more frantic, in which buyers acquire bargains at car boot sales, and then flog them on eBay. Probably the best index of a country’s financial health will be the average sale price of eBay (someone must have this statistic) – never mind all the other graphs we are being shown. If eBay prices start to plunge, or sales fall off very badly on eBay, we are in even bigger trouble than we thought.
And the other economic indicator will be the charity shop. If you see a SALE sign on a charity shop window, we are in murkier and murkier water. We have lost our economic innocence.