I Love A Thrift Shop - And Here's Why

Em Unravelling

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I can so vividly remember my eldest daughter’s second Christmas. She’s a December baby, so she was almost two at the time, and everyone knows that’s the best age for a baby to be. She chattered in a happy, endless, nonsensical stream about Santa Claus and birthday cake and presents as the autumn merged into a cold winter and the Christmas holidays approached in the inevitable slow-then-fast way they always do.

I was a teenage mother, so I was just twenty years old at the time. I was studying law as a full-time university student, and every month when I got my daughter’s nursery school bill I’d feel my cheeks flush hot and my breathing quicken slightly as I wrote a cheque and crossed my fingers, hoping it would not bounce, praying I’d calculated the remaining balance of my student loan correctly and that it would cover it.

My relationship with my first husband, too, was dying a death at that time as the extent of his controlling, violent behavior became ever clearer.

I was definitely not in the best place.

Even so, I was tentatively excited about that December as it rolled around. On Sundays back then, I had a little job waitressing in a pub and although my husband took my wages from me when I got home, he didn’t know about my tips. At the end of every shift I got my share of the tip jar and I had been collecting those pound coins and 50p pieces furiously since the summer. I had a stash of secret coins that sang in my pocket.

I can still remember the momentous afternoon exactly as it happened, on the day that became, in my head, my Great Charity Shopping Day. It was a perfectly normal Thursday, a standard half-day for my university studies, and as usual, I was doing “the trawl” — a half-hearted poke through the racks at all five of the charity shops on my local high street. I could usually find a cardigan or dress for my little girl and a book for myself for just a few pence, and I enjoyed the process of rummaging even when I didn’t get anything.

If nothing else, it killed time and it delayed going home to a man who did not seem even to like me much anymore.

The Great Charity Shopping Day, though, was different. As soon as I walked through the door of the “Help the Aged” charity shop, in its little tucked-away spot on the corner near the chip shop, I could see they’d had a big donation or three that week. The racks were bulging. And from what I could see, they were bulging with exactly the sort of things I wanted to buy.

Here’s what I found, on that dark cold afternoon at the end of 2000, in the shelves and racks of that brightly lit jewel of a charity shop while my daughter chirruped at me from her pushchair:

  • a boxed set of Tweenies videos (Tweenies, I should explain, was BBC puppet show and was my daughter’s favorite television program)
  • a Teletubbies lunchbox (and Teletubbies, another BBC show, was her second favorite)
  • three Tweenies jigsaw puzzles, boxes still wrapped in cellophane (would wonders never cease?)
  • a good quality black wool blazer for myself — price new, approximately £150 (and still with its original tags!)
  • a Minnie Mouse padded lunch bag (as a gift for my niece)
  • a French Connection pale lilac fitted roll-neck sweater (yeah. It was the noughties, but I stand by that look even now)

…and a copy of Brick Lane by Monica Ali, a book that I’d been wanting to read for ages.

The total cost of this epic selection was less than £20. I had plenty of coins available from my hoarded waitressing tips, and I was able to cover the cost of my haul easily.

I was thrilled. In the space of half an hour I had swept up a selection of good quality gifts to give to my daughter for her birthday and for Christmas, I had a smart new coat and sweater to wear to university, and I had a new book to read in the evenings.

It genuinely felt like a Christmas miracle.

About eight years later I was having coffee with one of the friends I’d made when my oldest daughter was a baby, a woman who’d known me in the dark years before I left my first husband and graduated from university and began working full time; a friend who had stuck with me throughout that time.

We were reminiscing — she more fondly than I — about the days when our older children were small babies. We remarked on how different our lives were now. “I bet you’re not sorry you’ve been able to leave those secondhand shopping days behind you,” my friend said to me. “I remember one Christmas when you bought every single present from a charity shop! And you admitted it!”

I was genuinely puzzled. “But I’d still do that,” I asserted. “I still go round the charity shops at least once a week.” It was my school-run habit — I’d finish work for the day, collect the children from school and nursery, and then we’d drift through all of the charity shops before collecting some groceries and pushing up the hill to our house. I loved that little routine.

My friend made a strange face, as though I’d admitted to taking payday loans, or to supplementing my income by selling illegally copied DVDs. It was definitely as though I had told her something slightly shameful. I felt a faint pink tinge of embarrassment in the coffee shop that day, and I was annoyed at myself.

I didn’t understand then, and I understand even less now, why anyone could think there’s something embarrassing in buying things secondhand — that it points to an embarrassing degree of poverty, something that ought not to be confessed. I think that those people are missing out.

I realized my friend was judging me by the sort of standards I’d never known she ever held me up against. I was proud of my thrift; she pitied my poverty.

We drifted apart after that.

Her loss, though. Charity shops are simply glorious. The rise of eBay and Facebook Marketplace selling means that there are fewer outright bargains for the easy picking, but there’s still a steady market out there for my favorite commodity — books — and for random things like old-fashioned wine goblets, fragile candlesticks, or kitsch snowglobes. As long as houses need to be cleared, there will always be treasures on the dusty shelves of those identically-scented little shops.

I love the hunt, the air of potential discovery of treasure in someone else’s trash. On a city break, one of my favorite things to do is to find the vintage or thrift shops and the flea markets. Just to poke around. I hardly ever even buy anything these days — usually, I manage with hand luggage only on the plane, for one thing, and bringing so much as a novelty bookmark back would be a squeeze — but the joy of rifling through musty piles of vintage fabric and crockery is undimmed by the fact I’m unlikely to buy any of it.

And I love the ways it can force me to be creative. As a teenager, I once turned a bright orange-and-brown 1970s pillowcase into a miniskirt and cropped top ensemble, which I wore with platforms and bright tights to a party that evening and felt beautiful in. In my early twenties, I paid £2 to select as many items of clothing from a charity shop bin as I could fit in one of the large bags the staff were handing out for the purpose and I turned every piece of clothing in that bag into squares for a patchwork quilt to put on my daughter’s bed.

In recent years I’ve watched with wry amusement as my favorite little shopping hobby has become the favorite little shopping hobby of lots of other people (cheers, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis), and suddenly it’s ever so fashionable to go to charity shops (or to search eBay, or Depop, or Etsy). It’s ethically sound and sustainable and ecologically responsible not simply to buy everything brand new, to repurpose things that were made years ago when processes were slower and everything was made slightly more carefully.

And of course, all of that’s true. It’s indubitably good that the need to preserve our planet is starting to replace the need to have everything shiny and new and wrapped in non-compostable hard plastic, and that we’re recognising the longevity of the craftsmanship of the past. But there’s more to it than that for me. For me, there’s a romance there too. It’s a romance of a whole stash of memories.

It’s been a long time since I had to hide small stacks of pennies from a man who was married to me and yet who charged me rent to live in the house where we were raising our toddler. I don’t discount my privilege, the fact that my life has changed and I am now able to make some choices — that I don’t have to buy my clothes secondhand if I don’t want to (although I do still often want to — I have some issues with fast fashion, what can I say?).

But I will never, ever forget the year that I had no choice but to buy secondhand, and one visit to one charity shop yielded up a perfect Christmas for my little girl and me.

I’m willing to bet my judgment-laden friend has never felt that sort of a thrill.

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A lover of horizons, hills, and words. Likes to write about uncomfortable things because too many people steer round those parts of life.

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