This week, our columnist Nell Frizzell celebrates the humble British charity shop, where oddball volunteers spend their days selling Davina McCall workout DVDs to the unsuspecting public. But as downloading takes over from books and boxsets, what will they have left to sell?
Oscar Wilde once wrote that charity creates a multitude of sins. I like to imagine that the Irish chin-stroker made this quip while standing in front of a complete box set of Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs in his local Oxfam shop. Or perhaps he was browsing the shelf of discarded Davina McCall workout DVDs. He may even have been thumbing through a well-worn copy of Karin Slaughter’s seminal novel Indelible or checking a Michael Bolton 12” for scratches.
For nowhere is the cultural cache more unlikely than within the nation’s charity shops. As a student I worked in a Leeds charity shop that played host to an array of eccentrics of the sort last seen chewing on the brickwork in Bedlam. From rose-tinted sexual astronauts to toothless tea-swigging miscreants, the place was stiff with the mildly deranged and was, without doubt, the happiest place of employment I have ever known. So enjoyable, in fact, that I have recently started volunteering in the Dalston Oxfam. What a joy it is to once again be sorting through bin bags of some stranger’s faintly suspicious donations, while swilling red label tea and humming along to smooth reggae hits.
While sifting through this collection of throwaway treasure, I have found myself wondering what sort of cultural education you could gain solely from the contents of charity shops. Forget trips to the cinema; I’m talking about a film history made up entirely of Predator, Sliding Doors, Alien Resurrection, Elf, Donnie Brasco, Bridget Jones and Forrest Gump. I would like to create a cinephile who rejoices in a weekend marathon of Roy Chubby Brown live shows and early Richard Curtis rom-coms, interspersed with the odd early ’90s CGI-heavy action film and Will Ferrell fart-fest.
Reading? Forget Amazon; the only bestseller list you’d be interested in was the one that churned through the 99p section of the window display. I’m talking about Dan Brown, Maeve Binchey, Patricia Cornwell and Ian McEwan, with a good smattering of dream interpretation encyclopaedias and Peugeot owners’ manuals on the side. You’d have an infallible knowledge of crime detection and baby-naming; a simultaneous passion for pan-Asian cooking and Catholic conspiracy theories.
Or how about a record collection purely made up of Tijuana Brass Band LPs, late-period Boyzone albums and GrooveJet CD singles?
Of course, like the hammer of digital printing to the puppy’s paw of block type-setting, modern technology is already ruining the wonder of charity shops. Whereas your local Barnado’s or Scope used to be a perfectly preserved time capsule of cultural trends from three years ago – full of once-loved albums that have now been diluted to supermarket advertising soundtracks and cringeworthy TV sitcoms starring current Celebrity Fat Camp contestants – our increasing propensity to download direct will eventually cut out the physical throw-out altogether. As iTunes kills the physical album and live-streaming sites cut out the need for DVDs and box sets, will charity shops simply fill up with Mac chargers and discarded Kindle batteries?
Will the shelves groan with long-forgotten USB sticks and felt-tipped CD-Rs? Will volunteers tip out bin bags full of burnt out laptops? Will house clearances soon yield little more than hard drives full of potentially implicating files? I, for one, desperately hope not. As the Presbyterian preacher Peter Marshall so eloquently put it, “The measure of life is not its duration, but its donation.”
So, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to price up this pristine Battlestar Gallactica box set.
...on pop pretence
...on photographic freedom