Charity Shops

The Sacred Art of Plunnerin

“£3.50! £3.50! Well, if it's only in the house. . .” Such was my husband's reaction, on his return from work one winter's afternoon last year. Cautiously, I had produced a pair of jeans from a flimsy carrier bag, then confessed I'd bought them in a local charity shop. Rather fetching jeans, in fact, with a design of bright red plants emblazoned up one leg, sparkling with a scatter of tiny beads. The original owner must have used up all her nerve buying them then been unable, or forbidden, to wear them.

I hadn't gone out that morning with jeans on my mind. They had twinkled to me from their rail whilst Mr. Dog and I squeezed into a corner of the busy shop, awaiting a friend who had vanished into the fitting cubicle with a pair of cords. At a tenth of their original price, and with such decoration, who could have resisted?

I still have those jeans, although our junior cat has now removed most of the glittering beads. And with all that foliage entwined about, they are easy, even for me, to find in the wardrobe.

Until then I had been a long-time supporter of charity shops, but only as a donor. Having handed over a bulky poly bag, I'd always scuttled off before the grateful volunteer had had a chance to look inside. Local charity shops were, I felt, the most honourable receptacle for any presents which made me worry why they had been given to me in the first place. I could only assume either the person who'd bought the ghastly thing had worse eyesight even than me or was in the early stages of some terrible, psychological disorder. At least, I always tried to balance the donation; wrapping a dreadfully leering ornament in a pristine, Next shirt. Bought in a sale, a triumph of hope over experience, straining buttons ignored because of the much reduced price tag.

Of course, I now realise one of the joys of a guid plunner is trying to imagine just what sort of person originally bought some of the items. The pale lilac, PVC trousers. The micro skirt in black leather, with lacing instead of a seam up one side. A green, plastic clock, supported by rampant frogs. Perhaps such things travel a perpetual trade route. E-bay to charity shop to car boot sale to Antiques Road Show. But everything must start its career somewhere. Out there, lurks the long established firm of Tat And Tawdry, selling a vast range of items, none of which anyone would miss. Virulent, pink, pottery blobs vaguely resembling elephants; disintegrating, dangly earrings; coasters in crumpled, beige viscose.

After my success with the jeans, I have permitted myself the odd foray. Supporting good causes whilst acquiring items essential for one's wardrobe at reasonable prices appeals to all that is admirable in the Scottish psyche. Since guide dogs are such intelligent beasts, have Mr. Dog and I undergone special training? Some sort of course, run by Trinny and Susannah, perhaps? No, I usually go plunnering with a friend, a past mistress of the art, whose antennae home in on the Liberty skirt, the Peruna shirt, the brand new Levi's. If down town, with little shopping and lots of time, I now practise on my own. Once someone has planked me at the relevant rail, I manage fine. Mr. Dog subsides with a sigh, rolling big, brown eyes and expecting tickles from staff and customers alike, while I flick along the hangers, searching out smooth, unworn fabrics, crisp, uncreased labels.

There are, however, a few limitations. By the very nature of their stock, the fashions are not always the dernier cri, fresh from the glossy pages of Vogue or Harper's. And there seems to be a preponderance of garments in size toty. Everyone, it seems, inexorably increases. And why are so many things garnished with glitter? Suits me just fine that, the more bling, the better I see it.

Mind you, even I draw the line at certain items. Shoes would have to be unworn, in their box and from the rarified end of fashion; Rayne or Jimmy Choo. And as for swimsuits or undies! Ugh! Only to be considered if still in pristine, shrink wrapped cellophane. Not everyone is so pernickety, however. As a friend who helps out in a charity shop on Glasgow's south side recently discovered.

“Hae ye ony bras, hen?” speered a wee wifie.

When my friend enquired as to style and size, Mrs. Vague waved one foot towards her, “Ah dinnae ken ma size but Ah tak a size 5 shoe.”

Using that line of logic, Dolly Parton must take size 13 in footwear. At the very least!

Overall, I can recommend augmenting the wardrobe by charity shopping. Experiments with different looks and styles can be dared. Summer outfits bought without worrying whether there will actually be a summer. My gardening t-shirts are no longer my husband's baggy, faded cast-offs. But sometimes, just sometimes, a bargain has to be resisted. Recently, I found a piece of haute couture. Versace! In my size, near enough! My friend and I studied it closely, admiring the feel of the cloth, the standard of its seams but, sighing with reluctant realism, we left it on the rail. There is an age at which one can wear a pelmet length skirt in startling, white denim and we both had the sense to know we had passed it by several decades. So, if you're younger, or have less sense, it might still be down there. A neat size 16, if you can keep breathing to a minimum.

© Charlotte Bennie 2007