Historians are people. What happens in our lives is bound to influence the subjects we choose to study and the questions we think to ask. So it’s not surprising that I should have charity shops on the mind. I’ve recently furnished a new home, in no small part made possible by some charity shop bargains, and my wife is starting a new job at a local charity shop. But they’ve also long been on my list of topics to investigate. I’m interested in the various boundaries between charity and business, of which they’re a fascinating example. Indeed, much current affairs discussion of charity shops directly addresses the question of just how charitable they are – typically suggesting favourable tax rates give them an unfair advantage over other high street stores. And these concerns featured in both a 2011 government review by Mary Portas on the future of high streets and a 2014 report by the House of Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee on the retail sector. Yet there is little historical discussion of charity shops.
This is surprising, especially when there has been a growth in research into the history of co-operative retailing from the likes of Nicole Robertson. As Michael Weatherburn noted on the VAHS blog a couple of years ago, the widespread discontent that so defines our politics has also led historians on “a quest to explore historical alternatives to the present economy, dominated as it is by distant, nameless financiers as opposed to operating for the good of local communities”. As historians we’re interested in change over time, and there’s much to explore in the relationship between charity and retail, the question of what makes charity shop trading charitable, over more than a century.
One of the most recognisable features of the charity shop is being staffed by volunteers. The story of change over time we might tell here is one familiar to across the voluntary sector – that of professionalisation. Today there are 17,200 paid staff alongside 213,000 volunteers in British charity shops, according to the Charity Retail Association (CRA). However, the change is not only one between paid and unpaid, trained and untrained. Providing work has always been one of the numerous charity aspects of charity shops. Suzanne Horne has written widely on charity shops as a type of retail. She identifies their beginning in the Salvage Stores of William Booth’s Salvation Army at the end of the nineteenth century. This involved giving work to teams of unemployed men, collecting quality unwanted goods from well-to-do homes in London, Leeds and elsewhere. A century and a quarter later, the Salvation Army was alongside Oxfam and others in boycotting a workfare scheme that would make benefits conditional on the unemployed volunteering in their charity shops. Preferable schemes provide real employment for targeted groups, for example at Sue Ryder shops for prisoners on day release.
Of course, the most common form of charity associated with charity shops is the donation of clothes and other goods. In 1947 Oxfam appealed for clothes and blankets that could be sent to famine-struck Greece, the generous response to which left them with a surplus. They decided to sell them as a way of raising funds to support their ongoing work, and opened what became the model for future charity shops at 17 Broad Street in Oxford. It is the donation that allows retailing as fundraising to be deemed a charitable act legally, as Horne has noted, since under the 1988 Income and Corporation Taxes Act the sale is considered a realisation of the donation to charity. However, it was not only in the donations of goods but also in their purchase that the shops served a charitable role. In 1908 the Salvation Army’s ‘War Cry’ publication reported on one of their stores, noting the stock was priced cheaply “so as to avoid haggling and beating down”. In a recent public opinion focus group, where members of the public were asked to rank the potential social benefits of charity retail, they commonly placed ‘providing cheap goods’ third, behind only ‘fundraising’ and ‘raising awareness’, ahead of volunteering opportunities. Despite concerns of the poor being priced out of charity shops recently, Liam Challenger of the CRA says the average charity shop transaction remains low at £5.59 and insists that “over half of those on the very lowest incomes shop in charity shops”.
This history is of interest to many today. This much was clear four years ago when Oxfam recreated their original store for a vintage festival. And it’s a subject that should rouse the interest of historians too, for its story is fundamentally entwined with the wider story of Britain’s changing society and culture over the decades. After Sue Ryder opened stores in the 1950s charity shops could first be seen in significant numbers in the 1960s, fuelled by the emergence of a ‘throwaway’ disposable consumer culture. Explaining the notable expansion in the late-1980s is a little less straightforward. At a time of politicised cross-fertilisation between the public, private and voluntary sectors of the economy, the flourishing entrepreneurialism of the day might explain the wish to open more charity shops. And, as Elizabeth Parsons has pointed out, in doing so charity shops were filling the space left by the closure of many specialists as custom abandoned the high street for out-of-town shopping centres. Meanwhile for their success we might turn to the disparity between those getting richer who were increasingly able to donate and those struggle to get by, for whom the ability to buy cheap second-hand goods was of huge help, as well as a greater need for the charitable services funded by the profits of charity shops.
The fact that the most strikingly visible growth in our age of austerity has not been of charity shops but of food banks may be due to changes in the charity shop itself. Over the past two decades, second-hand has become vintage and retro. Whether such stores can offer a cheap way to purchase clothes and household goods is not at all clear. Neither is the balance between paid and unpaid staff resolved. Meanwhile, the think-tank DEMOS has found a huge social value to local communities, high street economies and the environment, although this is largely hidden and unacknowledged. What is clear, however, is that the estimated £290 million raised each year by 10,000 charity shops across the UK, alongside increasing numbers in other countries, have proved a hugely successful source of funding for voluntary organisations.
There will clearly be more chapters in the history of the charity shop for future generations of historians to write. My hope is that we do not leave it to them to write this history at all.