Charity Shopping Therapy around St Andrews

by Dina Iordanova

Early on Monday morning, I pass by the charity shops in Bell street on my way to the office, and often see bags full of stuff that people have left at their doorsteps over the weekend. Donating to charity is a tradition here, and the charity shops function as a great re-distribution system for the recycling of perfectly useable pre-loved objects.

I have always been attached to second-hand shopping. Maybe just my frugality, yet there is something enchanting in these vintage places, where bits of other people’s lives are on display. In North America these shops are usually spacious hangars – one can find amazing items, but the place feels anonymous. In Paris these shops are the opposite – full of character, ‘curated’, and quite expensive. In St Andrews, the charity shops are small, affordable, and elegant for the most part. They remind me of trendy London neighbourhoods, like Hampstead Heath. Here they often compete with one another for the most interestingly arranged shop windows.

When I take a tour of the shops, my rule is not to look for anything in particular; dropping into the shops is not necessarily about buying. The most sublime moment is, of course, to enter a shop then see an item that I immediately know will leave the shop with me! As if it has been sitting there, waiting for me.

There are plenty of things in the shops I may never buy. It is their sheer presence and the reminder of the cosmopolitan nature of the place that gives pleasure: fancy hats, pearls in special boxes, patinated Callaway golf clubs, Bohemia crystals, Asian flowerpots, Fodor’s travel books, self-care kits from Lufthansa, lace gloves…

The household section draws me in with old and unusual objects and finds. Yoga mats, grooming items, kitchen equipment, bed throws. The clothing shelves display vintage suspenders and handkerchiefs, old scarves and handmade shoes. But also fashions from the 1970s (platform shoes) and the 1980s (padded shoulders) as well as recent items from Ted Baker or Karen Millen, even the occasional find of Shanghai Tang slippers or a pair of Ferragamo’s. A paradise for fashionistas, fancy dress partygoers, or for people who have a large home to decorate. Red student gowns of the University of St Andrews also appear occasionally – these usually go for a price.

The round of the shops starts in Greyfriars Garden near my office. First come Save the Children and Sense Scotland, then further on in Bell Street are Barnardo’s, The British Heart Foundation, Barnardo’s Bookshop. Turning into South Street we have got Cancer Research UK, Oxfam, then Sue Ryder Shop in a pedestrian precinct, and the Salvation Army on Church Street.

Two of the shops specialise in books. One can find real literary gems at Barnardo’s bookshop, reflecting the presence of an intellectual powerhouse in town; the books are supplied mainly by University faculty, who clear their offices, or by departing postgraduates who have received their doctorates. The Oxfam shop is not far behind – I always stop in front of their window to check out the current titles on display: carefully selected and linked thematically and often focused on all things Scottish. The Sue Ryder Shop, just around the corner from here, is the place for musical instruments – one can often see displays of donated violins, drum kits, or various ethnic instruments: castanets, maracas, Andean panpipes…

If golf is the reason one is in town, it is quite possible to put together a golfing kit from the charity shops – and leave with items to display back home. One can find Tartan trousers, golfing gloves, balls, tees, towels, score cards, golf rule books, training videotapes, and, of course – an assortment of golf clubs of various ages. Easy to tell it is the birthplace of golf!

The shops are staffed by a manager with a group of volunteers. Over the years, I have come to know quite a few of the volunteers. Initially I thought they were mainly retirees who would come in to help out one afternoon a week. Then I gradually realised that there is a much greater variety of people who volunteer. At Sense there is a young blind man who is probably the most experienced one. And, at Barnardo’s I met a Bulgarian immigrant who works as an electrician at the Fairmont hotel by night, and during the day volunteers in the bookshop.

A chat with the manager of the Salvation Army shop one day opened my eyes to the circulation of merchandise. Whilst she manages several shops in the wider area, she picks out the objects that appear to be more ‘vintage’ and ‘chic’, and brings them over to St Andrews: there is always something attractive to display in the window. This shop also has a bigger turnover, she said.

Asking myself what of local life have I missed in the protracted lockdown during the strange Spring of 2020, I confess I felt nostalgic for St Andrews’ charity round! I already know that some of the stores in town may not reopen later this year, yet I hope that the charity shops survive.

Sometimes I enter a shop and find an item that has been sitting there waiting for me: like these two wooden memento boxes I found in Barnardo’s

Sevres crystal and other vintage treasures in a charity shop window

Fitted shirt and handmade English shoes, vintage suitcases, and other travel necessities

Oxfam always display an attractive selection of books

Sense Scotland is the only regional charity, greatly popular with locals

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