A Point Of View: Charity shop blues

Charity shop customer

Are prices at second-hand shops rising? Writer Sarah Dunant thinks so - but is it the recession, the trend for vintage fashion, or a combination of the two?

I'm wearing what I like to think is an interesting jacket bought from a charity shop near where I live.

Much of what some would call my eccentric wardrobe derives from charity shops. People are divided on second-hand clothes. Some find it distasteful, wearing things that others have already worn.

Personally, I've always loved the idea of something having been owned before me. But then, by temperament, I'm a historian and the sense of an object with a provenance somehow ties me more securely to both past and present. There's also a less romantic reason. Like many women, I suspect, I like a bargain.

When the human genome project is finished, I am sure they will find a bargain gene passing through generations.

Although nurture will obviously play its part - my mother, born into most humble circumstances, never quite lost her fear of being poor. For her, getting value for money was close to an obsession. As with many young post-war housewives she made a profession out of being savvy about money.

She would have made a splendid chancellor of the exchequer since early on she saw the folly of an economy built on selling endless credit to people who could never pay it back. "The bill will come in, darling, mark my words," she used to say. I wonder if the grocer's daughter within Margaret Thatcher ever rises to the surface to survey the chaos caused by her quasi-religious belief in home ownership.

She - my mother, not Margaret Thatcher - was a devotee of charity shops. She even worked in one when she retired from teaching. When we come to write the history of British retail in the 20th Century, though the madness of designer labels will warrant a chapter (how future generations will mock the idea of spending three thousand quid on a handbag), the growth of the charity shop will be right up there.

Making money out of second-hand clothes has a unique history.

It was for centuries the preserve of Jewish communities throughout Europe. Excluded from land owning and any profession regulated by guilds (in effect all forms of production) they made the money that they were allowed to lend largely from forms of recycling such as pawnbroking and - almost as high on the list - second-hand clothes.  

Go back to Renaissance Venice, a city of astonishing wealth and equally astonishing poverty, and you find a thriving second-hand clothes industry, centred in Europe's biggest - and for a long time the most accepted - Jewish ghetto.

Rich women's clothes in particular were a palpable form of status, with today's fashion soon becoming yesterday's has-been. Jewish merchants would buy, clean, repair, sometimes remake and then sell down the class chain. Or, in some cases, onto courtesans (another successful Venetian industry) - women out to copy upper class fashion but without the wherewithal to pay for it.

By the 18th and 19th Centuries, across Europe and in an emerging America filled with Jewish immigrants, the rag trade - the phrase poetically summarises the journey from selling second-hand to making new - was big business. In 1851, social reformer Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor devotes a section to Jewish clothes selling in the East End, one huge exchange run by a certain Mr Isaacs specialising in "the cast off apparel of the metropolis".

"The goods are sold wholesale and retail, for an old clothes merchant will buy either a single hat, or an entire wardrobe, or a sackful of shoes - I need not say pairs, for odd shoes are not rejected."

Mayhew, of course, represents the moment when Victorian England was becoming socially alarmed at the poverty brought by the Industrial Revolution and urban growth. As well as the Victorian obsession with cataloguing, there is a growing movement in philanthropy.

It was the Salvation Army that first passed on donated clothes to the poor at knock-down prices. In some ways it was an extension of how charity has always worked - through and on behalf of the church. But once the idea of the retail charity was born, it didn't take long for it to spread into secular hands.

Two world wars saw the donating and selling of clothes to help address the poverty that followed them, both to those at home and abroad. The very first Oxfam shop opened its doors in Oxford in 1948, as a direct result of an appeal launched to help post-war Greece. The charity had been so overwhelmed by the success and flow of donations that it made the decision to go into retail market selling.

Roll on 20 years and a tidal wave of baby boomers now had money in their youthful pockets. It was an era of unprecedented social mobility, when fashion was expanding from rationing and haute couture into mass market, and the emphasis on individual creativity was making the idea of vintage attractive. In the decades that followed, charity shops grew up everywhere, elbowing out the humble church jumble sale. Oh, what a wondrous thing that was - I can still feel the excitement, plunging my hands into musty piles of crimplene and nylon, in search of the elusive velvet or satin dress, cut on the bias for a woman out of a Scott Fitzgerald novel.

Still, one couldn't complain. This was a win-win situation. The profile of charity shops helped open our eyes to a wider world of need, while supplementing - at times substituting for - government money (from Oxfam and Save the Children to cancer and heart research and lifeboat charities).

As we got richer, the global market got faster and clothes got cheaper, so we all had more to donate. Though there is nasty irony in the fact that our appetite for cheap clothes triggered exploitation in many of the countries where the charities we supported were working to address poverty and inequality. Then there were designer labels. Rich enough to buy them, were you really so cheap as to sell them on?

Celebrity charity is its own business. For instance, next month sees an auction where celebrities donate autographed used shoes to support an innovative charity, Small Steps Project, targeting children in the developing world who live by picking rubbish (often barefoot themselves) off municipal waste tips. The juxtaposition is a provocative one, but it has to be better than a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes going into the bin.

In an imperfect world, imperfect goodness is better than none. Whether it's by donating or buying, we feel we have done something. And given that charity shops largely live on donations, excluded from corporation tax, with zero VAT rating, tax relief on giving and a healthy force of volunteers doing much of the selling, many charities are successful businesses which offer paid employment to others higher up the chain.

However, as an early vinyl copy of Bob Dylan I recently found in a second-hand shop would have it, "the times they are a-changing."

That great national credit bill that my mother railed against finally got delivered, and she was right. We couldn't pay. The protracted recession has hit everyone, everywhere, and nowhere more than retail. There are High Streets in Britain where charity shops are about the only things standing. Why not? It's tough for everyone and charities, like all businesses, must adapt.

Except there's something else going on here. A young friend recently arrived home from abroad to start full-time study in London. With hiked tuition fees and little paid work around, she's on a strict budget and, like thousand of other students, went charity shopping for winter clothes. "Wow," she said, as she pulled a slightly tatty cardigan coat out of her bag. "It's great, but it cost £12! What's happened to charity shops while I've been away?"

It's a good question. I can't be the only one who has noticed it. While prices were always dependent on postcode, over the past 18 months they seem to have taken a hike everywhere. I don't have hard figures, but I have experiential evidence, both from buying across a number of shops and seeing what prices get put onto the things I take in.  

Of course there are reasons. Supply and demand. A country in recession is donating less (there are always appeals for more clothes).

For those - like myself - who patronise charity shops partly as fashion choice, this rise is roughly on a par with how much everything has gone up. Undoubtedly there is also more demand. Here comes the tricky bit. Although one of the achievements of charity shops is the way they eliminated the stigma of poverty attached to those early Salvation Army places (the rich donating to the poor) by attracting everyone, the fact is increasing numbers of people hit by the recession now "need" as opposed to "choose" second-hand retail as a way of life.

Maybe I'm not the right customer any more. God knows I've got enough clothes. Or maybe there's an argument for saying that at such a moment charity shops should be thinking of holding or dropping prices, even at the risk of reducing profits for the good causes concerned.

I know what my mother would say to all this. I can even hear her tone. "Charity begins at home, darling." Strange how since she's been dead, I find myself listening to her more.

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