Mary makes charity shopping fun

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In the final part of Mary Queen of Charity Shops, we found out whether Mary Portas could turn around Save the Children’s failing Orpington shop.

Vintage chicI watched the final part of Mary Queen of Charity Shops last night and it was a delight. 

Love her or loathe her (and by the way, it’s great to see a woman of nearly 50 looking quite so foxy), you can’t deny Mary’s efficiency. Her reforms in her local charity shop raised takings (which is near-enough to say profits) from £900 a week to £2,000. Even allowing for the refitting, which should pay for itself in 16 weeks, and the new manager’s salary, that means an increase of about £36,000 in a single year – an increase to Save the Children of around 4.5 million smackers, if rolled out across the board and their other shops are equally dismal (not to say that they are, of course – one suspects they gave her the worst of the worst so that it would make better television). 

The changes were not without casualties, it must be said. Used to their own way of doing things, many of her volunteer helpers could not adapt to the new direction in which she was taking the shop and the influx of young people that they clearly thought were from another planet, and at least half a dozen quit.

I found this a little strange, actually – a busy day in a shop is exhausting, but in a good way. Having nothing to do is ghastly.  I well remember trying to sell summer clothes in February in a boutique in Kensington High Street where we fought over the customers just to have someone to talk to. And when you’re at work, you’re at work, even if it’s voluntary work – you wouldn’t be much use cleaning up the inner city if all you did was lean on your spade and eat biscuits all day.

The staff that remained were worth their weight – saucy old dears with a young heart.

Mary instituted a policy of collecting good cast-offs from large companies, and persuaded her fashion maties to dress up in what they charmingly called ‘vintage’ (how depressing it is when the clothes you wore in your teens are now vintage to a younger generation) – and very good they looked too. Peaches Geldof looked extremely cure in her flowery dress, while Erin O’Connor, always a charmer, sported a gorgeous brocade jacket I would have given my eye teeth for. 

All in all, her ‘new’ shop looked like an indoor market (much to the distress of one member of staff), though I myself prefer a shop that looks like a good vintage boutique and canny charity shop managers have been doing that for a long time. 

It was a wake-up call for me, though, to see how much British society has changed while I’ve been away. Here in rural France we have entirely missed the rampant consumerism that appears to gobbled up the British psyche in the past decade, where women buy themselves new clothes every week or virtually every day. French women, on the whole, buy high-end clothing, carefully and incrementally, and wear everything they own – they don’t buy on impulse and never take the tags off.

Nor does the problem of such rubbishy donations arise to the same degree – there are collection points for good, used clothing at every supermarket so it is easy to make your donations.

I had no idea that charity shops had become synonymous with crap. When I was a student we LIVED in charity shops and second-hand markets, teaming our simple chain-store staples with cheap but gorgeous finds, mostly because we were full of ideas but had absolutely no money. This photo from 1983 shows me with friends Ann, Pam and Graham – every one of us in vintage, mostly because it was the cheapest way we could find something original to wear. Wish I had that green dress now…

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