Fans of Mr Benn – the children’s television programme from my childhood three million years ago – will be well aware that small retail outlets full of interesting clothes can be magical portals from which it’s possible to spread goodness and kindness into the world.
This is exactly the magic of a charity shop. I worked in Demelza’s Canterbury shop in our grand re-opening a few days ago. Jack, who shares magical shopkeeper duties with co-manager Lauren, was there to make sure I didn’t get too carried away with fantasy worlds and actually did some work.
And my goodness I did work. I’ve done this before, it’s been a while of course, but working in retail is exhausting. The till is a necessarily-complicated categorising technological beast – I left that well alone – but I did sort and clean bric and brac (I love bric a brac, otherwise known as ‘stuff’), steam and hang clothes (terrifying but I didn’t scald myself) and the new post-lockdown job of ‘being on the door’ which is to ensure we never have more people in the store than our COVID limit at any one time.
My best job of the day was dressing one of the windows which involved putting my choice of women’s outfits on mannequins. This is a strange experience which feels quite intimate – I kept saying excuse me and trying to minimise contact in certain bodily areas, even though the mannequins are obviously not real people and they have a kind-of wooden door handle for a head. Despite that awkwardness I produced the best window display anyone had ever seen, everyone said so. The only slightly annoying thing was when people kept buying things from it and spoiling the look, but I had to let them of course.
One thing that you quite often hear in retail is how difficult a small number of customers and the general public can be. That was absolutely not the case in Canterbury that day, even when I was asking them to queue outside. Everyone was so lovely and it was clear that a lot of the customers knew the shop very well – chatting to Jack and the volunteers and being really interested in the new menswear and media department the team had created downstairs.
People who know me know I like to chat. The quality of the chat, with customers and fellow staff and volunteers, was top quality. Subjects ranged from 70s soup bowls we have loved, very obscure death metal band recommendations (oh yeah), and just everything, it was brilliant. After a day that felt like just ten minutes, although ten minutes in which I’d run a marathon, we were closing the doors and running off the till receipts that showed we’d raised quite a few thousand pounds for Demelza, whilst being environmentally brilliant, regenerating the high street and providing a superb experience, service, and stripy dresses to many people.
Thankyou Jack, Diana, Sophia and Philip for such a brilliant day, and for the amazing work you, Lauren and the other volunteers and staff in Canterbury and all our shops do.