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A bit of charity

Natasha realized the she forgot to mention one other thing she misses from England in her little essay.

It is not an obvious point either: Charity shops.

Where we lived in Southeast London, seemingly every other town had at least one of these, selling everything from second-hand clothes to souvenirs to books and CDs. What’s one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, indeed. We bought various and sundry from such shops; for instance, a good portion of my model house collection or the good-as-new gym pants that Becky has since been beating the crap out of for a couple of years now. Just browsing such a shop very nearly approximates going to a flee market, which is something we always find interesting and worthwhile.

We donated as well. A pair of nice shoes that did not exactly fit and was nonreturnable could probably be sold on eBay, but there is an obvious level of satisfaction of seeing them priced at £20 in the charity shop window one day, gone the next day, and knowing that the proceeds benefited a specific cause. A few other accessories and articles of clothing hopefully also found new owners and contributed to some good things along the way.

There is no doubt that people do sell their old stuff on eBay in the UK. Occurrences of “garage sales”, though, were almost undetectable in our experience in the three years there. People instead donate what they no longer need or use, and not in the form of depositing old clothes into a dumpster-like collection box. Rather, they go to a local charity shop, more likely than not staffed with volunteers who reside within the same community, which helps make the shop an ever more trustworthy channel.

If this concept exists in the States, it is barely noticeable. We know of one charity shop within driving distance from our residence in New Jersey, but Natasha has never been much impressed with their inventory. A friend in North Carolina says that she also knows of a similar shop where she lives. Instead, we see garage sales all over the place; you get the feeling of [nearly] giving your stuff away from those, I suppose, even feeling “charitable” in the process.

Anyhow, this is not a big expat insight in any shape of form, just one of those subtle little differences of living in a different country that we suddenly recall with fondness…


  1. Cheryl Sligh

    I love shopping at Charity shops here. People get rid of the best things. I have noticed a trend here. In the states when I wanted to get rid of stuff, someone at my work would take it and pass it along and so on but here in the UK if you offer people things you don’t want anymore they give you a funny look and tell you to take it to the charity shops. I have bought great hats, shoes (brand new)handbags and even lotions that were brand new still in all their Xmas packaging that someone didn’t want. In the states we donated to Goodwill shops because we could find them but like Natasha, I think a lot of what they sell isn’t so great.

  2. Brian Greenberg

    If you go further north in New Jersey, you will find these sorts of shops (my town has one). My theory is that the earlier settled towns were much smaller, leading to a wider income disparity per square mile (i.e., wealthier neighborhoods situated close by to poorer neighborhoods). A short car/cab ride (or even a single stop on a commuter railroad) could get you from one to the other.

    Given the lack of easy-to-use public transportation in most of suburban New Jersey, though, I think it would be difficult for people who needed these shops to get to them in the larger, wealthier neighborhoods. Having lived where you live now, I bet that you could find several churches, temples, etc. that would take your donations and find good homes for them, both because those who need such help tend to seek it out in those places, and because those organizations are often willing to handle the distribution problem themselves.

  3. jason

    Coming late to this topic — sorry I’ve been so far behind lately, Ilya — but thought I’d throw in my two cents in case anyone still cares. I think the prevalence of thrift/charity shops is possibly a geographic thing, as I’ve personally seen a pretty healthy thrift scene in both LA and San Francisco. But I also (personally) tend to associate it with heavily urbanized areas, and not so much with suburban places.

    Here in Utah, the thrift/charity niche is almost exclusively occupied by a chain of stores owned and operated by the Mormon church called Deseret Industries (that’s not a typo — Deseret was Brigham Young’s preferred name for the territory that later became the state of Utah). The DI, as it’s usually called, used to have a pretty poor reputation, as a lot of people treated it as a dumping ground for broken-down junk and worn-out clothes they couldn’t sell at their garage sales but for some reason refused to throw in the trash. In addition, the shops themselves were generally repurposed grocery stores or, later, small discount department stores that had gone under with the arrival of WalMart and Target in this area. Basically, the whole enterprise had a very low-class feel to it, and only the lowest levels of society patronized them much. (I myself went to the DI quite a bit in my college years looking for cheap paperback novels, but I wouldn’t even consider any other kind of product, certainly not clothing.)

    In more recent years, the DI has gotten much more selective with what donations it will and will not accept, and a number of brand-new buildings have been constructed so the stores no longer have that dejected, post-apocalypse feel. Also, they’ve experimented with building some of their own low-cost furniture, with pretty successful results. They’re much nicer places to shop at now, and you can find some pretty good items in all categories, but the old stigma associated them with is dying hard, and I don’t foresee any kind of genuine thrift-shopping habit developing around here.

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