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England’s Reopened Charity Shops Embrace The New Normal

June 19, 2020

There’s a new purple wheelie bin on Walthamstow High Street in north-east London, outside No 210, and it’s filling up fast. Michael Armstrong and Louise Craven have just put a bag of books in. “We’ve got several bags from lockdown tidying and we’re going to bring it in one bag at a time,” says Michael. He doesn’t sound like he’s from north-east London. Because he isn’t – he’s originally from California. He came here 40 years ago, “for the weather”, says Craven, his partner, drolly.

Her irony maybe backfires a little today. It’s a glorious day in Walthamstow – the high street is pretty much Sunset Boulevard minus the palms.

Among the books is what Armstrong describes as “some rather odd poetry journals”, a study of American architecture and The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, which they have both read and recommend.

They’re not getting thrown away but recycled, hopefully reread. Because No 210, set between a betting shop and a fish bar, is a charity shop belonging to Scope, the national disability charity. This week, like other non-essential retailers, charity shops in England were able to open for the first time in almost three months, to customers and for donations.

Another bag goes into the purple bin. This one contains a brown jacket from Ben Odamtten, who says it’s too small for him. There’s also a card holder and two pairs of shades in his bag. And I have donated a couple of bags, mostly of outgrown children’s clothes. I wanted to bring the popcorn machine, too, but my family wouldn’t let me. No one needs a popcorn machine.

Scope’s area manager, Lara Woolston, explains the new process. Donations go from the purple bin into heavy-duty bin bags, which are labelled with the date, tied up with giant rubber bands, taken to a room above the store and left for 72 hours to minimise any risk of infection. Safety of staff, volunteers and customers is Scope’s priority, I’m told, often.

The acting shop manager, Celia Mullins, is up here, busy clearing out bays that can be filled in date order. Quarantine for donated clothes, books, CDs, sunglasses etc is going to be stricter and better organised than it is for arrivals at UK airports. There’s already a lot of stuff up here, but if it fills up there is an overflow storage unit in Barking.

They have done a lot on the shop floor, too, putting in all the necessary safety measures. It has all been unmuddled and decluttered; the rummage boxes – with things, such as toys, that kids would play with – have been removed from the floor. “We’re trying to limit the number of times people need to touch things,” says Woolston.

Fitting room? Not any more – it’s taped off like a crime scene. Buy it; if it doesn’t fit, bring it back. And there’s a one-way system, with arrows on the floor, plus “sneeze screens” at the tills. Customers are offered hand sanitiser along with a mask and gloves on entering. “It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to welcome our wonderful community through our doors,” says Woolston. For the moment though, they are only allowing one person – or one family – in at a time.

Scope’s Walthamstow shop has lost roughly £33,000 during lockdown. In normal times all the charity’s 207 shops generate between £1.7m and £1.9m a month. In April, with none open, the charity’s income was 85% down on the same period last year. It has managed to make some money through online sales, and will do more of that in the future.

It’s the same story across the whole sector: the pandemic makes no allowances for good causes. The chancellor Rishi Sunak’s £750m bailout fund for charities didn’t come close to replacing lost income, not just because of shops being closed but also because of the cancellation of other means of fundraising – the London Marathon and the Great North Run to name two massive ones. Street-funding, too, as well as the possibility that people are more likely to give to NHS charities at the moment. A study published last week found that one in 10 charities faces bankruptcy by the end of the year as they struggle with a £10bn shortfall caused by a perfect storm of massive income reduction and rocketing demand for their services. “It’s been a devastating loss of income,” Scope’s head of retail, Debbie Boylen, tells me over the phone. “Because it’s been at a time when disabled people need us the most.”

I could have spent the morning at any charity shop and the picture would have been similar. I’ve come to Scope simply because it’s where we usually bring stuff to. That said, my local branch isn’t among the first wave of 16 shops around the country opening as lockdown eases, so I’ve travelled across London. Hence just the two bags: there’s plenty more to come at home, under the stairs, from our own Covid clearout. Boylen thinks it’s not just us. “Everybody I speak to is saying the same, that they’ve been clearing out cupboards and wardrobes over the past few months.”

Each bag is worth, on average, £20 to Scope; 81 bags would, for example, allow it to run its Parents Connect support programme, for parents and carers of young disabled people in Leeds, for a week.

The bin is soon full, the contents bagged up and taken up to Mullins to be placed in quarantine. This system for dropping stuff doesn’t allow gift aid to be claimed for donations, says Woolston, so they miss out on that, but it’s unavoidable with the only-one-in-the-shop policy. That may be relaxed, but for now gift aid donors can’t be expected to queue.

As well as the purple wheelie bin, that’s the other new thing outside No 210: a queue. Beautifully spaced, orderly, patient, not as long as the ones outside Asda and Lidl down the street but undeniably a queue. It seems the appetite not just to donate but to shop in charity shops is alive and well. “I’ve missed it,” says Shahnaz Khan, one of the first people in. “You can get so many nice things from here, and the people are very nice.” She comes out with a pink handbag.

Alan Donoghue, who used to work here and is queuing on a mobility scooter, says it’s a good way to pass the morning. “It does you good mentally, and also sometimes there might be stuff that you want.” He’s not after anything specific, though he’s always on the look out for tea towels, fridge magnets and commemorative plates.

Is anyone here for something specific, Woolston asks the queue. “Tennis racket,” says a man named Mike Anderson. He tells me he’s started playing a bit in order to start seeing people. He has been borrowing his friend’s girlfriend’s racket but now is the time to take responsibility. Two minutes later, Woolston is back out of the shop with a choice of two: Anderson opts for the more expensive, a Slazenger for a fiver. The deal is done on the street. “Probably illegally,” laughs Woolston.

Anderson is chuffed enough with his purchase. “Charity shop, so, you know, standards are slightly lower,” he says. “But it looks lovely, it’s got its own cover; if anybody saw me walking towards a tennis court they would think I was going to play tennis, which is half the battle won, isn’t it?”

Nina Bright doesn’t shop anywhere but charity shops, except for socks and underwear. So she hasn’t bought any clothes for three months. She’s just happy to be out looking and isn’t bothered about the queue. “It’s fine – I’ve got nothing else to do,” she says. Nor is she bothered that, once she does get inside the shop, she doesn’t find anything to buy. She dismisses it as “the lottery of thrifting”.

Maybe Odion Edgal will be more successful. She’s on the hunt for books; she ran out over lockdown. “I miss books a lot – I need something to read.” She finds something – not Armstrong and Craven’s odd poetry journals or American Architecture, but Camp David, David Walliams’s 2012 autobiography. For £2. “That’s why I come – I can’t afford to go to Waterstones.”

I leave before the Walthamstow shop closes at 4pm, but I get an update. It’s been good – takings are 3% down on a normal Monday, but that’s much higher than expected given the restrictions, including shorter hours. And, over the 16 stores that have opened, takings have actually been about £5,000 up.

There have been 56 bags of donations in Walthamstow. Not quite enough for a week of Parents Connect, unless there are some treasures in there – a Mulberry handbag perhaps – and Woolston and Mullins won’t know for another couple of days, when they can open up the bags. Maybe those poetry journals will turn out to be rare treasures and can be sold at auction for millions. Maybe.

It’s going to pick up further as more charity shops open and people realise this, and then get their acts together to get down there. I know of several bags destined for a purple bin in the near future; one of them might just have a kitchen gadget snuck in there. Maybe someone does need a popcorn maker – just not me.

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