The Mundane Brutality of Gifts

Charity shops are brutal places.

They don’t set out to be, I don’t think. And I am sure from the outside, they seem much less so. After all, it’s about selling second hand stuff cheaply, which helps customers, to get money to help other disadvantaged people or cure horrible diseases or save animals from bad stuff happening to them and so on. What a kind, positive place that must be!

But the bottom line is crucial. The operative part is not “help people”, it’s “get money”. That’s what charity shops are about, just like any other business. That is what they are there to do.

I have been more out of work than in work for the past 15 years, which means that from time to time the government has decreed that I should be forced to work in a “voluntary sector” role for a few weeks or months, and as a result I have had several opportunities to see first-hand what they are like. Some of them have nice people working there, others are nasty or downright disturbing. But even the nice people still have to operate a brutal system. It is not a place I can function well.

A charity shop is two distinct entities: there is the customer-facing “shop” part, and then there is the backroom, where your donated clothes, toys and whatnots end up after you hand them to the assistant, who smiles and asks, “donations?”, you nod, maybe say a few words about what they are, and the assistant says, “Thank you! That’s Lovely!” and takes them off you. As I wrote last time, the “shop” part is the easy part. This is where happy things happen, this is where the good stuff comes, this is where people find stuff they like.

The backroom is pure, savage, brutal, target-focussed business.

You may or may not have seen Ade Adepitan’s excellent documentary “The Secret Life of Your Clothes”, in which he explores how the cast-offs from Western European and US end up in markets across Ghana and its neighbours in Africa (and consequently erode the market base for indigenous cultural clothing). It all starts in the backroom of a charity shop. Adepitan starts as the stuff you didn’t want emerges from the back doors of charity shops in a “rag bag”, sold by the shop for a pittance per kg and transported off to those African markets.

Inside the shop is where the story starts. Here, everything is assessed by the cruel, harsh criterion: “can we sell this?” If the answer’s no, it goes in the rag bag or the trash. A stain? A slight tear? Even the wrong make? “Rag it” – it won’t sell, it won’t make money. Even if something ends up in the shop, it will stay out there only a couple of weeks to a month at most before: “Didn’t sell. Rag it.” A few high-quality things, or things for the wrong season, go into storage. The rest – if it doesn’t sell, it’s gone, to make way for the latest batch of donated stock.

The same with books. These days, there are businesses that specialise in pricing and selling valuable books on Amazon for charity shops. I have been surprised this past week to see which things are valued by their system (scan the ISBN and see if it makes a “ping” or a rude klaxon); the rest are sorted by appearance: books with tatty or torn pages are sold for a penny each to the recycling depot to be pulped; and if a book doesn’t sell in its two weeks or so on the shop floor, the same thing happens to it. I love books, I love reading. It burns my soul every time this happens. I have limited space (and, let’s be fair, limited interest in some of the books) but still try to save a few.

It is, necessarily, a streamlined process. There are rules for everything: what can be accepted, what has to be junked, what prices go on what sort of items, what you check, how you hang clothes, how you treat them to be ready to go out on the shop floor (the steamer is much simpler than ironing, but also doing 100 garments will make your right shoulder ache). The objective is simply to get as much donated stock processed as possible, and get it sold. A volunteer (or someone coerced through the MWA scheme) is a means to that end, and currently still cheaper than a robot programmed with the instructions and fitted with scanning systems to check quality. It may feel different if you’re a volunteer and choose to do this. I only know that my experience is of a brutal, mechanical process of donations in, assess, reject, prepare, price, sell.

Seeing the collections brought in, as mentioned, I sometimes let my mind spin stories of what the person was like who owned them. That’s the human element I crave. A book with a dedication or autograph in the cover is always fascinating to me (especially if it’s a unique occasion dedication, e.g. “To my daughter on your graduation: may you save many lives.” on a book of doctor jokes – to make up a possible example). That’s what I meant about it being a nexus of human stories in my previous post. But the actual experience of charity shop work, for all there may be perfectly nice humans, and even human interactions, involved: that experience is primarily one of desperately dreary, soulless labour. It is a mill that takes in raw material (donations) and transforms them into profitable materials (things you can sell in the shop, or things you can sell to Ghanaians, or things you can sell to recyclers…).

It is a brutal place, driven by profit and efficiency.


Also, the reason for the profit. The reasons why people would give their time freely. A charity shop is still there to provide the funding that isn’t currently forthcoming from other sources for people who are in need.

It may be a brutal place, but PLEASE do carry on supporting your local charity shops. And let me tell you, they always have good shit, and if it’s not what you want or need, try again a week later and you’ll find new stuff.


About ValeryNorth

I overthink everything.
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