I wrote this piece for Monday’s Herald, after a piece in last week’s Sunday Times by Brenda Power got up my nose. Thoughts welcome!
Hurrah for the humble charity shop, which has gradually climbed the ranks of respectability and can now be “permitted” in the holy of holies, Grafton Street.
Now, Barnardo’s can sit cosily in the retail pecking order somewhere between Brown Thomas and Burger King.
Ireland’s premier shopping street has lost some of its glitz, but who said that’s a bad thing? For those of us who frequent charity shops, it’s about time we stepped out of the shadows of less “exclusive” streets, and took our rightful place among the army of glassy-eyed handbag fanatics who patronise designer boutiques.
Until recently, Irish charity shops were full of the sad clothes of dead pensioners and the instantly-regretted impulse purchases of magpies with more money than sense (those shiny 80s prom dresses were pretty common). Looking for vintage designer gear, or even modern classics, in a charity shop here was like trying to buy a powder-blue 1950s Kitchen Aid in a parish jumble sale. Nobody had any money, ergo nobody had anything nice to give away. (Jumble is merely a polite word for rubbish nobody wants.)
My Dad, who travelled the world as a merchant seaman during the 1970s and 1980s, has always maintained that a charity shop in a posh area is far better than any ordinary shop in a downmarket area. Better quality stock, you see. Rich people give away things, and they buy better things to begin with. During his travels far and near, but especially when docked in the UK, he picked up all sorts of bits and pieces in markets, auctions and, yes, charity shops.
Charity shops are the spiritual home of anyone who likes good quality things but doesn’t like to – or can’t – pay full whack for them.
But Irish charity shops now have one thing in common with those shops my father used to frequent in the more fashionable areas of London; donors with money and taste.
No longer are they full of stained old pyjamas and ancient mothballed suits; in fact, I’ve been quite astonished at the quality of stuff I’ve picked up in charity shops. What hasn’t changed, is that the wealthier the area, the better the shop, even though many of them rotate stock nationally now.
My regular visits to Dublin involve a dash from the number 92 bus stop to meetings in Digges Lane via two charity shops on Georges Street, then back to Heuston Station, after a quick detour via South King Street’s Oxfam shop. And every time, I pick up something decent.
In fact, it’s quite refreshing not having to go off the beaten track to bag a bargain anymore. Charity shops on Grafton Street? Huzzah!
Which is why I was so astonished to read in a column in a Sunday newspaper that “nobody really wants to be seen going into a charity shop, much less coming out with a bulging bag”. Why on earth not?
If you’re strapped for cash – and who isn’t? – and you’re into the bit of philanthropy (as mandated by government spinmaster Frank Flannery in a programme recently launched to encourage us all to give more to charity), why on earth would you not want to be seen going into a charity shop?
The same snobbery used to apply to certain discount stores, and these days it’s almost a badge of honour to showcase the same 3 euro bikini as everyone else on Sandymount Strand, or boast that your homemade Greek salad cost a total of 79 cent today because the olives were on special at 29 cent.
Why would it be a problem to admit, nay proclaim, that you went into a shop and paid a total of 12 euro for this natty outfit of a tailored Zara blazer and a beautifully made Benetton dress, and that every penny of that 12 euro went towards buying goats for a Guatemalan family, or physiotherapy for a child with cerebral palsy?
Even better if you’re worried about the ethics of your clothing – buying one of the more ethical brands second hand is infinitely better than buying that three euro bikini you can be pretty sure was made in a substandard factory in Bangladesh.
There’s a running joke that the Irish response to a compliment is “Thanks, Penneys”. We’re not afraid of looking cheap. But now you can be cheap, look expensive, and feel ethical at the same time. And what on earth would be wrong with that?