When I was a kid, I hated charity shops. My Mum was brilliant in them – she had a real instinct for finding hidden treasures in the unlikeliest of places – and would always emerge victorious with a perfect pair of jeans or a cashmere cardi. She and a friend would take whole days to visit other towns nearby and trawl their shops for a change. But I didn’t to inherit her skill, and I wasn’t prepared to work at it. I’d get bored quickly, and could never be bothered rifling through the racks of musty smelling garments on the off chance that I might find something useful.
More recently, I’ve had a change of heart. I still don’t buy clothes in charity shops (mainly because, as you’ll have guessed from my post on fashion earlier in the week, I don’t really buy clothes at all…) but if I’m looking for books or toys, they are the first place I go.
Harpenden is pretty poor for shopping. If you’ve got a lot of money to spend on a swanky outfit, or you want to stock up on scented candles and ‘Keep Calm’ coffee mugs, it’s perfect. But if you want something to read your only option is a couple of shelves in WH Smiths, and if you want a new toy for your three year old you have to go to St Albans.
Unless you’re prepared to do a bit of digging.
I’ve been clearing out the house over the last few weeks and hauling a lot of bags of old stuff to the charity shops on the High Street. DorkySon has very cannily caught on that if he comes too I can usually be persuaded to hand over my loose change and let him choose something from one of the toy baskets. We appear to be operating a one-bag-out-one-truck-in policy at present, and over the last couple of weeks DorkySon has landed quite a haul – a rally car, forklift truck, combine harvester and Lego Duplo quad bike – for a total of two quid.
The joy of getting so much for so little is that if he gets a toy home and stays completely in love with it, as he has with the forklift, I really feel like we’ve got a bargain. And if he gets something home but doesn’t end up playing with it as often, I don’t resent it because it was only fifty pence. There isn’t the same pressure to get a lot of use from it, as there is when you buy something new and expensive.
My other weakness at the moment is books. I have grumbled often about the fact most of our books are in storage and we miss them terribly. Both of us were lucky enough to get a good stack of reading material from friends and family at Christmas time, but we’ve worked our way through them all already.
The stock in Smiths tends to be recent bestsellers, which are fine, but both our tastes stretch a little wider than that so I have taken to scouring the shelves in the Oxfam bookshop. As with the toys, it’s much easier to take a chance on a something – to try a new author or new genre – when you’re only paying a couple of quid instead of a tenner.
I’m trying to catch up on all the classics that I should have read but haven’t – I bought Huckleberry Finn and The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas for myself yesterday. I struggle a bit choosing books for DorkyDad and have, on occasion, got it quite wrong. But I’m hoping that at least one of the last three I got him – an Annie Proulx novel, The Kite Runner, and A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan – scratches his literary itch for a week or two.
I am fast learning that the way to approach charity shops is with an open mind. If you go looking for a specific item you will likely come away disappointed. But if you are prepared to step outside your comfort zone to try something new, and you take along an enthusiastic three year old for company, there are bargains aplenty to be had.