The Lure of Charity Shops

by Garreth Byrne

Anytime I stop in a big town I try to search out local charity shops. Finding them is not easy sometimes, because of inconspicuous shop-fronts. Often, they are taken for use by a charitable organisation, on temporary letting agreement, until the owners obtain planning permission for demolition and redevelopment of the shop and adjoining buildings.

I look for classical and jazz albums, and sometimes opt for folk music, such as Greek singing accompanied by the rhythmic bouzouki or wistful romantic songs in French. The varied artistry of old record sleeve designs can be as fascinating as a ramble through the rooms of an art gallery. I count myself lucky if I manage to find two items I can bring home to try out on my old fashioned record player. Only once or twice have I found a record to be unplayable because of scratching. Whatever you buy cheaply in a charity shop is on an as-is basis, of course, and there can be no refunds.
On the shelves of charity shops, often beside the cash counter, for security reasons, you may see small displays of CD and cassette music.

I may stare into the shop window at a haphazard display of old clothes, curios, household appliances and framed pictures; then I proceed to the rear of the premises. Here, in a cluttered corner of several cardboard boxes, I am likely to find assorted old vinyl long playing records at giveaway prices. When cassette tapes and CDs began to displace vinyl records, during the 1970s and 1980s, only a small percentage of record player enthusiasts held on to their property, as ghetto blasters and portable CD players set the trend. In recent years, record players have been making a quiet come-back, but the charity shops continue to stock large amounts of 12” 33rpm LPs and smaller quantities of pop music 45rpm discs.

Second-hand clothing takes up the lion’s share of space in charity shops. I can’t resist the racks of gentlemen’s jackets, trousers and pullovers. The better class of charity shop – there is a snobbish pecking order among such establishments – tends to have trouser waist sizes helpfully indicated with plastic attachments on the hooks of coat hangers, but invariably I am confused about the sizes of some shirts and woollen pullovers which have enigmatic code sizes on the inside collars like 1, 2, or A, B and C. It is impossible to buy a winter pullover, preferably V-necked, without darting into a shadowy changing cubicle to try it on. I am often disappointed in such instances, because of my rotund stomach frame.

The knick-knack shelves are usually the most interesting parts of a charity shop. Every kind of ornamental object – from the good to the gaudy – can be on display. There are vases and there are vases, serviceable mugs and strange-shaped creations that might be better employed as holders for briar pipes or potted cactus plants. There are silverware ornamental gravy jugs, cheese knives, toast racks and jam spoons that seem to have become detached from accompanying items that were previously parts of cute wedding presents, but in their present state look like forlorn orphans. Gazing at old ceramic bowls or brass wall hangings, I reflect on the infinite varieties of artistic taste that helped their original owners to endure their domestic sight for years on end. The eyes of beholders also saw beauty in strangely-coloured framed pictures, garish animal and human carvings and ornamental teapots. Decorated plates from exotic foreign holidays testify to nostalgic honeymoons and family holidays from bygone decades.
Things I decline to buy include old cameras, radios and pop-up toasters, as there is always an element of risk when splurging on something that can’t be tested on the premises.

I am a compulsive book browser, so I cannot leave a charity shop without scanning the shelves of donated books. If I have not found a pullover or shirt that fits me, here is my last chance to buy something and thus make a contribution to the cause for which the shop exists. If I don’t find a readable book, I leave the shop sheepishly, feeling that I have wasted the time of the volunteer assistants and failed to support a worthy cause.