Sweet Charity


Charity begins at home, doesn’t it? Well, not around here. I once asked the manageress of our local Help the Something or Other shop why she expected customers to pay nearly ten pounds for a well worn dress that they could buy new for half the price at Primark. She just looked down her nose at me and said that her job was to raise funds for the developing world, not to sell clothes at jumble sale prices to the locals, however needy. Some of whom, she added, were not above pilfering the goods when her back was turned. Charming! It almost made me glad to read in the newspaper that Mrs Toocleverbyhalf had bought a bowl from that same shop for a couple of pounds and sold it on for nearly a thousand. Turned out it was a rare piece of Clarice Cliff that the volunteer on duty in the sorting room that day had almost thrown out as too gaudy to put on display. Asked by the reporter if she felt morally obliged to pass on part or all of her profit to the charity, Mrs T just smiled sweetly and said, ‘Caveat venditor. Seller beware!’

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not particularly needy. I just like value for money. Chiconomy, you could call it. I’m not mean either. I try to fill every plastic sack that comes through my door. Well, almost all of them. I was suspicious of one recently that said, ‘god’ (with a small ‘g) ‘will reward you for your good hearts’ and put nothing into it but a piece of old carpet that the cat had been sick on. Then I curtain twitched the next morning until a tatty old van drew up outside. The lad who got out was no church goer. It was Tom P, scourge of the district since before he left primary school. I used to see him hanging around the car boot sales and now he’s in business for himself. Anyway, he took a quick glance around, grabbed my plastic sack and those of the neighbours and was off again in a cloud of blue smoke.

Even with the genuine collections, though, I’ve often wondered how much of the stuff actually makes it onto the shop floor. It would be good to think that all the volunteers who collect, sort and sell it are individuals with charitable tendencies and robust consciences. You couldn’t get much lower than skimming off the best items for yourself and putting fifty pence into the till. Well, not unless I think back to the days when our church caretaker’s children used to come to school with their lunch boxes full of items donated for the Harvest Festival.

Anyway, after the incident with Miss Snooty Drawers, I decided to put my suspicions to the test. I picked out a few attractive items from home and left them in a black bin liner in the shop doorway early one Monday morning. Then I took a vantage point in the coffee shop across the road to make sure that the likes of Tom P didn’t make off with them before the staff arrived to open up. I drank far more cappuccinos than were good for me, read all the newspapers and then floated across around eleven o’clock to peer through the window. If there was no sign of my offerings or they were realistically priced, I’d know that at least one person on the team that day could tell a Jimmy Choo from a Jimmy Nail.

Business is slow on a Monday morning and I was only the second customer to enter the premises. Charity shops are patronised by anyone and everyone, not only by the poor, as witness the fact that I brushed shoulders with a lady councillor on her way out. I peered into her plastic carrier bag, emblazoned with Help the Something or Other’s logo, to find that it contained only a pink hat, bright enough to make everyone blink at the next civic function. Certainly not one of mine!

‘Anything new come in today?’ I enquired in as casual a tone as I could muster.

The volunteer behind the till yawned. ‘Nothing worth putting out, I’m afraid. Oh, except that old teddy bear over there. He’s not in bad condition and might do for some poor kid.’

I whirled round to see my Rupert, still with the Steiff button in his ear. Not the top of the range, certainly, but worth forty or fifty pounds of anyone’s money. Priced at seventy-five pence. Outraged and still on a coffee high, I clutched him to my chest and headed for the door.

‘Hey, you haven’t paid for that!’ I’ve already stated that charity shops attract a wide range of customers. It was just my bad luck that a couple of community constables were on their way in and marched me back to the counter. Utter humiliation! There was no way that I could prove that the bear was mine in the first place, nor that the smart lady summoned from the stockroom was sporting my Jaeger jacket; an expensive garment but hardly unique.

In case you were wondering, she graciously declined to prosecute and at least I’ve got my Rupert back – for seventy-five pence – but I’ve had it with charity shops! I’ll stick to eBay in future.


This is based on an anecdote a friend told me. It isn't my intention to tar all charity shops with the same brush.