Down by the harbour we have a small Interior Design shop. There are beautiful cushions and throws in heather hues and autumnal colours. I get a real buzz out of mooching around. It doesn’t take much to imagine myself curled up in an armchair in front of a baronial hall log fire under the watchful eye of a portrait of Gladstone.
A short walk away is the High Street and here it’s a completely different ambience. Charity shops are scattered liberally all the way up to the main Square and, with the closure of the lingerie shop, the butcher, the Drop in Cafe and the big Co-op there are more charity off-shoots sprouting in the pedestrian precinct.
From designer chic to outgrown hand me downs, I’ve always believed you can tell a town by its charity shops, volunteers, the range of their goods and the type of customers they attract. In Arbroath there’s massive support for the Heart Foundation, Marie Curie and Cancer Research and further up the High Street the PDSA have their own loyal, if smaller, following
Charity shopping has become one of my regular outings. There are always unusual articles for sale. This week there’s been an influx of Chinese plates and spice jars; a reflection on the very strong links this area of Scotland had with China, India and the Far East. When the jute trade was at its height, many locals sailed out of Dundee for a very different life. (I’ve heard there’s a graveyard in Calcutta where many local Dundonians are buried and it’s on my list of places to visit when I next go to India.)
As the seasons roll by the merchandise changes. It’s not predictable and often reflects local house clearances. Before Christmas there were bone china tea services galore and then a few weeks later there were shelves of of cut glass sherry and whisky tumblers. Mid-Summer brought out Father Christmas suits – “People like to shop for Christmas things early” said the assistant when I asked why there was a ‘Jolly Christmas’ window complete Christmas trees and baubles in August!
You have to be quick and decisive in our charity shops. Last month I saw an old copper kettle priced at seven pounds. I hesitated. My all singing electric kettle is going strong and merely needs plugging in. This one would require maintenance and copper needs frequent cleaning. Overnight I thought how beautiful it looked and warmed to the idea of polishing it. But alas when I went back it had already gone to another hearth in Arbroath.
My daughter on the other hand was much more decisive. Doodling around the local charity shops she found a solid silver tureen ladle with a 1906 hallmark for £6.00. She bought it immediately and everyday family meals now have a certain splendor.
I find charity shops allow me an intriguing insight into the lives of the town’s residents, who are moving on in one way or another. There’s a poignancy to see objects that were the pride and joy of old ladies, pieces that were cleaned or polished religiously and kept safely in glass fronted cabinets, now ending their life languishing in the front window of the Heart Foundation. But then I think how much charities benefit from these donations and how objects are often bought and treasured by people looking for something a little unusual.
My friend Ann was walking past the Oxfam shop when she spotted William Gladstone staring gloomily out of a plate in the window. The Victorian Prime Minister was part of her family tree and here he was, painted on a beautiful china plate, exactly like the one her family had hanging on their wall when she was a child. The price tag said £2.00. The assistant smiled and said, “it’s a bit expensive but if you really like him I wonder if you’d be interested in Mrs. Gladstone? She’s in the store room!”
I’m delighted to report that Mr. and Mrs. G have been re-united for the princely sum of four pounds and now hang happily side by side with a view of the North Sea.
Recently I was looking for a cummerbund for my grandson who is about to step out in his great grandfather’s dinner jacket. A casual enquiry at the Heart Foundation resulted in an invitation into their back room where boxes of labeled and tidied articles were waiting for focused shoppers. Out of the first box tumbled a vast array of neckwear; funereal black ties, exotic night-club dazzlers; thin shoe-lace styles, kipper ties, and a psychedelic selection from the 60’s. The next box had dozens of bow ties: bow ties that clipped, bow ties that hooked and those devious ones men or their wives tied manually. Finally, success, a scarlet cummerbund surfaced and is currently being worn in the Home Counties with a vintage dinner jacket companion
It’s the stories behind these objects that fascinate me. Where have they been in the past and where do they go?
Let’s look afresh at our High street and encourage those loyal volunteers and the enthusiastic shoppers. They are keeping our streets alive and until we find other ways to revitalise and reinvent shopping patterns let’s give our favourite charities our full support.