‘The Creation of Desire’: Inside an EC1 charity shop. Best of 2022

The EC1 Echo lifts the lid on Age UK’s EC1 charity shop. Originally published in the February/March 2022 edition of EC1 Echo

By Oliver Bennett

Mannequins in brightly coloured vintage clothes stand in a shop window
Image: Age UK Camden

The charity shop has changed – at least if the Age UK Camden store on Leather Lane is anything to go by. Firstly, it calls itself a boutique – not so strange, perhaps. But this Aladdin’s Cave of cast-offs attracts a huge number of people from all walks of life seeking bargains and company as well as life’s necessities.

While it makes money, there are fewer people shopping from dire need as there were in the past. “For some people, it’s not a financial choice, but they they’re looking for nice things and that’s how charity shops have changed.” says manager Lee Miller, who thinks that that shops like TK Maxx and Primark have siphoned off some of the trade. For some, there’s a stigma around buying sec- ond-hand clothes but as Lee says, that contributes to the way that charity shops are now labelled as ‘vintage’ boutiques “to attract peo- ple who don’t want to admit that they go second-hand shopping.”

As one of the few charity shops in the EC1 area, the Age UK Camden store has become a target for all kinds of people seeking the ‘vintage’ and the ‘pre-loved’. Known for its surreal window dressing – for example, mannequins with prints where the heads should be – Lee has made the shop a busy retail hub. “It’s all about presentation,” says Lee, from a retail background, who has worked across the fashion and jewellery industries. “If you’ve got a boxful of postcards, nothing’s likely to happen but get a washing line and hang them with pegs and they’ll sell. It’s like all retail – it’s about the creation of desire. Charity is the same.”

Although affiliated with the national charity Age UK, Age UK Camden on Leather Lane is a standalone shop for the borough of Camden, and the money raised helps to support and maintain their crucial community services that provide, in many cases, a life-line for vulnerable older people, providing some of the fundamentals of health and wellbeing, human interaction, friendship and activity. Shopping there raises money for the older people of Camden – a bracket that now includes anyone over 50. So it’s important to have good stock and as well as second-hand items, Lee gets over-stock, samples and old lines, including from rag trade neighbours like Ted Baker and Fred Perry and items from the furniture store Habitat before it collapsed.

But there’s also been a huge influx of items following the Covid-19 lockdowns. “People were at home, started to look at their lives and thought, ‘do I need this?”” says Lee. “There’s also the influence of decluttering TV shows like Marie Kondo – people’s relationship to stuff has changed during Covid-19 and it’s a bit like shedding your skin.” The digital world has had an influence too, he says. “After all, do you need all those DVDs and videos when you’ve Netflix and Amazon?” As not all will have that luxury, Covid- 19 has changed buying patterns too. Clothes are down, which Lee attributes to the “decline of going to workplaces” while homeware is up.

A big part of a charity shop inevitably, is that people want to find bargains, which can lead to a sense of feeding frenzy. “I was recently saying that when people come in a charity shop, they lose all rationale,” says Lee. “It’s the greed factor and their eyes become bigger than their bellies. Their nervous systems go into overload in their search for a rare 1940s teacup or whatever. The thrill of discovery is massive.”

Some have spoken about the “premiumisation” of charity shops. “Some are really expensive,” says Lee. “We’re not that way, and we’re not antique dealers but we are here for the community.” Because of the kinds of people attracted to the shop Lee has extraordinary conversations. “They’re quite a colourful crowd.” he says. “But there’s a lot of loneliness too, which I think people avoid with retail.” And this, says Lee, is part of living in central Lon- don, that there are a lot of social housing and small flats, and a village feel where people come out every day to go to their local shops. There are customers who re-sell on platforms like eBay and Depop. “Lots of people do sell on,” says Lee, who takes a “good luck to them’ stance. “I look everything up online,” he says. “There’s an app called Ziffit that I look at for books and if it’s rare pottery it can go for a lot of money. But as everything, you have to find the buyer.” And they constantly need items. So Lee hardly ever turns things away. “You should try not to say ‘no’ because someone’s giv- ing you something. If somebody comes in with a ball of string, I’ll still be very grateful.”

Read more from February/March 2022:

The cover of Feb/March 2022 EC1 Echo

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