02/19/07 -- Yorkshire Post - Yorkshire -
Wondering what to do with those unwanted Christmas presents? Stephen McClarence
reports on the rise of charity shop chic and charity shop tourism
Before we push open the door to the unlikely world of "charity shop tourism", let's sort out the sign in the window of one of Harrogate's charity shops.
"Know your Gaps from your Diesels?" it asks. "Recognise Per Unas from Next? If so, then Barnardo's needs you."
Gaps? Diesels? Whatever Next?
Barnardo's, it turns out, is following up the success of a celebrated venture into "charity shop chic" at Alderley Edge, in the heart of Cheshire footballers' wives country. Its shop there resembles a glitzy boutique, stacked high with MaxMara teeshirts, Ghost dresses, Liz Claiborne jeans, Versace, Gucci... any amount of posh clutter with designer labels.
Some of it is known as "wags-to-riches" merchandise: clothes worn once by the fabled "wives-and-girlfriends", snapped by the Press, exposed in the tabloids, and discarded with a bored yawn.
Barnardo's has set up four other "chic" stores, including one in Northallerton, which opened in June.
Designer handbags at bargain prices were soon flying off the shelves.A Gucci handbag – priced at £125 – and a Chanel handbag – a snip at £100 – were quickly snapped up.
Julie Wilcock, manager at the shop, says: "It's more like a designer boutique than a charity shop. We're only stocking women's designer items, such as suits, shoes, handbags and hats, so it's a great place to pick up some top-of-the-range gear for a wedding or a special event."
Another is ready to go in Harrogate as soon as they recruit a manager.
"People donate unbelievable designer labels to these shops," says Jo Hewitt, the charity's media manager in Yorkshire.
"We're trying to market the shops to a different audience: middle-to-upper class women, people with a little bit of money to spend. The shops are laid out differently and don't look like the usual perception of charity shops."
That "usual perception" may be changing. Most shops run by national charities are now bright, well-organised and businesslike. With young people apparently regarding them as "cool" (the ultimate endorsement), a new uncluttered image has been cultivated.
As an organiser for one national charity puts it: "We're trying to dispel the myth that charity shops are smelly and full of tat."
A recent offshoot of all this new-found smartness has been "charity shop tourism", which lures visitors to towns and cities purely to tour shops in search of treasures and bargains. A morning in a castle? An afternoon in a cathedral? Not if you can help the aged or save the children.
The new tourism centres on Edinburgh, where Changeworks, an environmental project, has produced a Charity Map. The first of its kind in Britain, it lists an astonishing 104 shops around the city, including such novel-sounding charities as Baby Sox, St Columba's Doo'Cot and the Bagpuss Children's Hospice. The map colour-codes the shops according to stock (everything from "large electrics" and "small furniture" to IT equipment and mobile phones) and groups them in handy neighbourhood clusters. More than 45,000 copies have been snapped up by both casual browsers and fanatical collectors since it was launched last autumn.
"We get reports of groups of tourists, often Japanese, following the map round the city," says Jess Gildener, from Changeworks. "And we've had requests for formal charity shop tours, so we might be doing some of those next year. We've had people coming up specially from London to go round the shops."
In case all this sounds a bit fanciful, Barbara Buckley, manager of the PDSA shop on the Royal Mile, reckons tourists make up 80 per cent of her customers. Italians buy tea-sets and Singer sewing-machines, she says. Greeks go for furniture. The Chinese like anything with dogs on. And the British? "They come in for things they collect. Stamps. Vinyl. Anything."
On a visit to Edinburgh over the summer, I kept stumbling across charity shop tourists. George Birtwistle and Sandra Burke from Stockport, having a few days' holiday, had brought an empty suitcase to carry their purchases home.
"Oh, look at this, Sandra," said George, as she tried on a trim blue blazer. "Everly Brothers Greatest Hits: 50p. It's your lucky day."
A pair of nuns scanned rails of bright, fashionable clothes, elderly assistants read Joanna Trollope, and outside, John Lea and Carol Lea-Johnson, from Austin, Texas, were pausing for breath.
Self-confessed Old Age Travellers, they met in a charity shop back home and were now on the road
in Europe for eight months, taking in charity shops all the way.
"I used to have two apartments full of junk," said Carol. "I was inundated. Hundreds of lampshades, hundreds of handbags and belts and frou-frou. But I got rid of it."
But surely, to judge by her four carrier-bags, she was now buying more? "We love junk," said John, simply. "It's an addiction. Charity shops are an obsessive compulsive disorder."
Here in Yorkshire, York would be the obvious place to explore charity shop tourism: there are shops, good ones, at every turn. But don't neglect Harrogate, home of women with disposable wardrobes to match their disposable incomes.
The town's tourist information centre reports visitors asking for directions to charity shops: a dozen or so of them, which the assistants duly mark on a map. So what's the official line?
"It's not a market we've considered," says David Thompson, Harrogate's tourism officer, a touch guardedly. "The Yorkshire Tourist Board have undertaken brand-mapping exercises and Harrogate came out very high in a lifestyle segmental group called 'High Street', which is basically people who do a lot of shopping. But charity shops, well…"
We discuss the changing image of these shops, no longer seen as the pariahs of the high street, lowering the tone and filling in gaps until 'proper' shops come along.
"They've certainly upped their game recently," says David. "And here in Harrogate we've got a very strong array of independent retailers and designer shops, so I suppose there will be high-quality second-hand stuff."
Let's test it out. I start round the corner from the railway station at Save the Children: a classic mainstream charity shop with plenty of copies of Bridget Jones's Diary, racks of knick-knack bric-a-brac, an unusually sculptural display of white sheets ("flat and fitted") and an overall air of calm refinement. Can't see any Friends videos, which is unusual, but maybe I missed them.
Round the corner in Beulah Street is the British Heart Foundation's Books and Music shop. The LPs are realistically priced and escape the all-too-frequent Bermuda Triangle of Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond and James Last, occasionally spiced up by The Very Best of Roger Whittaker and Alfie Bass Sings Fiddler on the Roof. Unaccountably, though, there are no copies of Farewell the Greys, a ubiquitous military band album, or the many volumes of Hot Hits, with their 1970s' photographs of pouting women in string bikinis.
"Some days more than half the people who come in here are from out of the area," says Scott McCormick, the shop's assistant manager. "Hull, Aberystwyth… I know that because I offer them raffle tickets and they say they don't live here."
Fiction, biographies and military history sell well, he says, along with books on trams and buses. And, yes, people do sometimes argue about prices.
Along the road, another British Heart Foundation shop (characteristically playing local radio: "…an overturned lorry in Boroughbridge…") has a truly treasurable wall clock shaped like a plastic electric guitar with Union Jack motifs. It's matched only by Age Concern's Amazing Hulk desk lamp (bright green and threatening): a snip at £2.49.
And down Commercial Street, pausing between Shelter and Help the Aged, Harrogate social worker Isobel Murray is leading a charity shop tour for an out-of-town friend ("I'm not putting my name in the paper").
"Harrogate is one of the best areas of the country for charity shops; it's such a wealthy area," says Isobel. "If you want a cocktail dress, this is the place."
"Can I put in a word for Brighouse, which is where I live?" says the friend-who-shall-not-be-named. "There are probably only about five charity shops but they're very good. I picked up a retrospective of Steve Bell's cartoons that I'm saving for my son for Christmas."
For novelty books, it's hard to beat Oxfam, down the hill from Bettys: Gab Gub's Book by Hugh Lofting… Chums at Last by Mrs G Forsyth Grant… A Vagabond's Odyssey by A Saffron-Middleton… Fifteen Stamps by Skelton Kuppord. Collectables, Oxfam calls them, optimistically.
Three hours have passed since I started this Harrogate charity shop trail and, looking at a map, I see I've never strayed more than a quarter-of-a-mile from the station. Which must say something about the quality of the shops. But the last word must go to the acknowledged brand-leader in charity-shop tourism: Edinburgh. Back at the PDSA shop on the Royal Mile, sandwiched between The Wee Gift Shop and the Rabbie Burns Café, Barbara Buckley offers a guided tour.
She points out a 1970s' Bakelite telephone ("I'd be looking at £45"), recalls an antique perfume bottle that raised £3,500 at auction, and nominates the Edinburgh Festival as her busiest time. "We often get Fringe people coming in looking for props. Someone once needed a goat for a show. A toy goat. We had a plate-spinner last year who bought plates from us every day. And tourists donate their high heels when they realise they're no good on the cobbles.
"And we have a permanent stock of cardigans and jackets because visitors look at the brochures and think Scotland's always sunny and hot. And it isn't.
"People also donate – how can I say it? – well, sex toys. There's a blow-up man somewhere in the stock room. But he's very disappointing to look at. Very."
Copies of the Edinburgh Charity Map from 0131 538 7943 (www.changeworks.org.uk). Harrogate Tourist Information: 01423 537300 (www.enjoyharrogate.com)