Out with the old and in with…the old

This article was first published on Rhythms.org in February 2015. 

Recently I gained a house-mate in the form of a very good friend. On the down side it has meant weekends clearing out an entire room of my flat.

‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’ (William Morris)

These words of wisdom from the creator of both beautiful and functional wallpaper have had to remain uppermost in my mind as I downsize. Anything that is not useful, beautiful or both, has had to go.

One particular pile of items I don’t either use, need or love has been dropped off to my local charity shops. But as I drop them off, feeling proud of my redistribution and effective in my clear-out, I hit a snag. I love to shop in charity shops.

Charity shops could be seen as a graveyard for the discarded, ugly and useless. They are, by their very nature, full of items people don’t want. They don’t always smell good, and there can be little room for manoeuvring, especially if you have a buggy. In the past there has been criticism of how much money goes to the different costs of charities too.

Nonetheless, I love to shop there. And this is why I love it, despite the shortcomings, plus a few tips on how to shop there successfully.

Reasons to charity shop

This choice of shopping slows the pace of life right down. Unlike high street chains where a quick visual sweep reveals rails of similar items in a variety of colours, the charity shop rail reveals a whole array of items in a particular colour swatch. It’s like walking in a life-size paint colour chart.

You have to look deliberately and take your time perusing.

Then one item catches your eye.

It might be a pattern, an appliqué, the cut, the colour.

William Morris had it right. It’s about what you find beautiful.

Far from being the graveyard of the unwanted, it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of jewels, waiting to be picked up and chosen. My favourite red coat comes from a charity shop window. My affectionately dubbed ‘Paso-Doble’ wraparound dress with cape-like possibilities was discarded because of a tiny hole in the arm. Necklaces, photo frames, you name it, I’ve probably brought it there. I’ve even found items with the labels still on, given away.

Every item is different. My choices express my individuality. Maybe the item is seasons old, but it’s new to me.

 Posing in my paso-doble dress for Strictly Come Dresses

Ways to charity shop

I do have a habit however, of picking out an incredibly similar item to one I already own. Of course I like it – I essentially already own it! Question your decision. Are you buying it because it’s cheap, or because you love it and it’s unlike anything you already own? Exercise judgement, regardless of ‘bargain’ or ‘but the money goes to charity’.

In order to find those gems, I have a charity shop mantra – try it on . If you’ve fallen for an item, try it. No matter that ordinarily it would be two sizes too small, because it’s been worn by someone else, the sizes are never quite the same. It’s a like a comfortable pair of jeans you’ve owned a while, just worn in by somebody else.

I also try to look beyond the obvious. Search out the usefulness and see the hidden potential beauty. If a button is missing, could you sew one on? If there’s a small hole in the item, could it be mended? If it’s a frame and the perfect shape but not the right colour, could you paint it? It’s a chance to get creative, and to use a well-oiled phrase, upcycle an item. In my revamping, I recently decided I would like a combination of photo frames for my living room: two thirds of them came from charity shops.

We could do this throughout our lives, in the charity shop but also with the people we meet. Look past what the world sees and through to the actual value. In the charity shop it’s a pleasure to rootle through the shades of blue (usually), hunting for that item that expresses my individuality (probably through stripes). This year I’m trying to spend time searching for the beauty that isn’t instantly obvious, inside the charity shops and outside too.


 My beautiful frame finds…on a theme of blue and cream.

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