When my child was born, one of the things my mum asked me was: ‘So, as she grows up are you going to keep her baby clothes?’
‘No, of course, not’, I said quite forcefully. As soon as she outgrows them, I will be giving them to the local charity shop.’
You see, my mum is from a generation which doesn’t throw out anything. Irrespective of how much storage space her contemporaries have, everything is neatly folded and tucked away with the clear expectation that one day, very soon in fact, it will be needed again.
Actually, I am sure that if I dig through my mum’s attic, I will find there such mementos of my early life as a coat I used to wear to school, a bag I cherished in my early twenties, and several old dolls, the names of which I don’t remember. Not to mention the cuttings of all my articles published in the Bulgarian press up to my moving to England in December 2000.
It is just that when we were growing up, people didn’t have that much. Certainly not half as much as we (speaking generally of this world of mass consumption) have today. Growing up in socialist/communist Bulgaria certain things were not easy to come by and clothes were definitely not bought with the wild abandon we shop on the high street today.
So, instead of discarding un- or hardly ever worn tops, coats and trousers, people would tuck them away, would pass them from one sibling to another and then from one grandchild to another, too. Shoes were mended and resoiled. Threadbare clothing was repurposed. Old souvenirs had emotional value attached to them, so they were never thrown out, no matter how chipped or even broken.
Often, homes would get stuffed with possessions patiently waiting their time to be of use again. And when you could simply no longer live with all that clutter, then more drastic measures were taken, like throwing certain pieces in the bin or simply burning all that was of no future use.
I have to admit that the latter only happened once in our family. I still remember it to this day and I still regret it. It was such a shame that my jackets and other clothes and shoes went up in a big black billow of smoke. But then again, who could we have given them to?!
Unless they were really closely related by blood or friendship to you, most people at that time would turn their noses up at strangers’ second-hand clothes, perceiving them as being unclean and not fashionable enough. And there was not a clear community mechanism as to what to do with whatever you no longer needed.
So, it was quite the revelation for me when, after moving to England, I came across the concept of the charity shop.
Walk down any English high street – from the poshest to the humblest one – and you are bound to spot them. Shops carrying the names of both very large and very small charitable organisations. Shops which, if you are not initially aware of what they do, will leave you surprised with their eclectic window displays and large assortment inside.
Shops which are mainly staffed by volunteers and, in some cases, by people on community service. Shops where everything costs a pound or two, or three. Or, in any case, where everything is very very cheap in comparison with the prices on the high street. Shops where everything is second-hand, but is very well preserved or has never been worn or used at all.
Shops which only have one of everything.
This is so as these are the shops where you take all the clothes, shoes, toys, games, and other such things you no longer need and, freshly laundered and neatly folded, you donate them in order to be sold. All of the proceeds are then used for the advancement of the projects run by the respective charity.
In other words, the charity shops take all our explicit materialism, all our former ‘must-haves’, all our shopping addictions and all our consumer greed and make something out of it: on one hand, they turn it into a source of money for scientific research or community support and, on the other hand, they offer us a chance to get rid of all that clutter that is blocking our homes and our lives.
Every time that I had to move house in my 14 years in England, I would sort through my possessions and over half of them would end up being destined for the nearest charity shop. From clothes I had bought expecting that one day I might fit in them to clothes I had bought seduced by their cheap sale price. From a gym bike I had acquired thinking that it would be great to fit some exercise into my busy day to a stash of yarns I had gotten when I decided to pick knitting as a new hobby.
They were all sent off and I hope their new owners enjoyed them as much as I didn’t do.
Once or twice mistakes happened, too. For example, in the purge of all our belongings when we moved to our brand new flat in a little corner of Kent, my (then future) husband committed to the charity pile one of my possessions which was destined to become a future family heirloom.
You see, everything was packed in boxes fresh from our move there from London and we were going from box to box unflinchingly deciding what we wanted to keep and what to give away. At some point, my (now) husband half opened one of the boxes, half looked into it and decided that all of its contents needed to go. Only a month or two later we realised that one of my most prized possessions had been there all along.
I am still hoping that one day I will come across it in a charity shop.
The thing is though I had never been big on shopping in charity shops. With their mixture of clothes, tea services, books and what-nots, I have always found them a territory difficult to navigate, someplace where you need to spend a long time ruffling through lots of stuff to come across that amazing bargain which makes your heart skimp a beat. At the same time, I have known people who love nothing better than this.
In our times of tight financial belts, shopping in charity shops certainly helps the family budget. Yet other people do it because they simply love the thrill of the chase, the satisfaction of finding an amazing bargain.
In my case, I have always appreciated the opportunity to find a good home for things I need no more. Instead of stuffing them into wardrobes groaning under the strain, instead of putting them into the bin or even burning them with a heavy heart, I can send them on their way, release them so that they can find a new owner who is going to breath a new life into them.
And then, if you are a British taxpayer and provide the charity shop with your contact details, they can also send you a monthly report as to how much money your donation had generated for the shop. I remember, while we still lived in England, looking through one of these reports freshly emailed to my husband. We marveled at the amount achieved for our old tat and knowing that the charity shop actually charges only a very small percentage of the original retail value of the things they sell, we couldn’t wrap our heads around the real amount we had spent over the years on transitory stuff – things which are designed to serve us only temporary or to satiate an artificial hunger for fashionable must-haves.
Since then I try to be much more conscientious with regards to my shopping habits and I like buying only things I am sure I will get many uses out of.
At the same time, it is simply inevitable. You put roots down in a place and sooner or later stuff just starts accumulating all around you and then some. So, when I look around our Italian flat, I get some very itchy hands. I really, really want to pick a thing or two and just put them in a bag and take them down to the charity shop.
It is just that there are no charity shops in Italy. Gosh! Who would have thought this would be one of the things I miss most about England in my sunny Italian life?!
People in Italy seem to throw old or unused clothes straight into the bins. How do I know this? Because I have seen people rummaging in said bins and picking clothes out of them.
I know it may sound weird, but I could never imagine putting the overgrown clothes of my child in some bin on the street. Considering the emotional charge they are loaded with, I couldn’t even consider it. Instead, I piled them on a shelf in the wardrobe until the shelf was completely full.
Then, when my husband traveled to England in our car at the start of our summer holidays, I sent all these clothes neatly packed in a large suitcase with him.
Once in England (which I had reached before him by means of a plane flight), we re-packed the clothes in several big bags and took them to the charity shop. I felt relieved.
Relieved, because I wasn’t wasting them and because I wasn’t getting my home and my life cluttered to the hilt.
Only a couple of days ago someone told me a story which brought this relief in sharp focus.
My acquaintance had bought a flat full with the possessions of the previous owners, who had passed away. Their relatives (who sold the flat) didn’t want any of the furniture and/or other things the flat was stuffed with. My acquaintance spent a long time sorting through piles and piles of things – from long pieces of fabric for dresses that had never been sown to sets of cutlery which had never been used to eat with.
‘There were fifty brand new bars of soap!’, my acquaintance incredulously said.
In a way I am very attached to my earthly possessions. But I don’t want to spend my life accumulating things. I want to get rid of the clutter. I want to be surrounded just by what matters now, in the present. I don’t want to be weighed down by stuff which is no longer of any use to me. Yet, I don’t want to waste it, I want to find it a good home.
That’s why I love England’s charity shops. They help me move forward by leaving behind things which need a new lease of life given to them by someone else. Now, wouldn’t it be great if more countries adopted the same practice?!
Would you donate your old stuff to a charity shop? If you live in Italy, could you suggest a meaningful way to dispose of old clothes and/or other things I no longer use? Let me know in the comments below.