I used to volunteer at the Oxfam near my house. A few years ago, I was mostly operating on the till, greeting people, charging them for their acquisitions, sorting out refunds, or simply establishing conversation with good neighbours while enjoying our limited playlist. Haven’t seen it to this day, but the Dirty Dancing soundtrack gave me so much life.
With my nerves situation not yet under control, it was a challenging role, but it was rewarding. Many times I realised there were other people going through battles, and whose highlight of the day — like mine — was going to the shop, looking at pretty things, maybe being able to afford them and get them for a fraction of the original price.
Sometimes the customers and window-shoppers were extremely vulnerable people, seen as vermin by the highest political powers, referred to with “it” pronouns by the most rotten crème de la crème. Old people talking to themselves, a stout ginger man who wore gin as perfume and who always left with a tchotchke, estranged parents, young families with a weak grasp of the English language, struggling students. To know that this little shop helped them satisfy their needs, be them temporary happiness, acquiring presents and important items that otherwise would have been out of their reach, or just succeeding at socialising and leaving the house, was such a nurturing experience that improved my life in the process too.
One particularly grim afternoon, a scrawny woman of colour came into the shop. Frizzy hair, shaggy coat and tattered clothes that had seen better days. She was around her early 20s, but her complexion looked like it had survived Great Wars. Confused, she wandered around the shop, frequently turning her face to the window: a child was waiting for her across the street, too embarrassed to be seen with her. Perhaps he was her brother, her cousin, her son, but he wished there were no bonds.
Suddenly, she stopped in front of the shoes section. A pair of trainers caught her wandering eyes. They were some size 7/8 Converse animal print ankle boots with fur around the edges, and were in near mint conditions. The most basic Chuck Taylors are at least 23 quid during sales season, but this particular special kind was £4.99 in our shop. All proceedings went to feed and empower the most vulnerable communities, so anything we got was extremely helpful. After measuring the shoe soles to her worn out kicks, she grabbed them and rushed to the till, carrying with her a stench of booze and poppers.
—These shoes are gooorgeous! — she exclaimed with childlike joy in her voice. —They are amazing! I need to get them.
I agreed with her, as I was enchanted by them earlier that day but found them too big for my size 6 feet.
— I need to go get some money. Can I keep them with you? — she asked. I told her we took cards too anyway and she could buy them right away, but she said she had to go and check the ATM to see if she had enough money.
We’re talking a fiver here, people. She didn’t know if she had a fiver on her bank account. Or at least a fiver to spare, after bills to pay and food to eat.
She came back ten minutes later, same dynamic, child waiting for her on the pavement across the street in front of the estate agents. She had great news, a shine in her face and a five pound note in her hand.
— I’m getting them!
As soon as she got them, she took off her old sneakers, put them in her washed out messenger bag and put on the Converse instead. She left floating in the air and spreading a million thanks, and it was not because of the booze and drugs. It was pure joy. She was experiencing the comfort of new, pretty shoes that fit, and she was flying.
When middle-upper class vintage hunters go to charity shops and get things they don’t need, it affects people like this lady. Even worse, when middle-upper class vintage hunters go to charity shops, get things they don’t need and sell them on the Internet for its original price. Not only they make profit that could help the original people the charity shops are dedicated to, but potential consumers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to buy anything. They take away their opportunities. They, so to say, cut their wings and make them fall in the ground face first. We had a frequent shopper who bought our Ted Baker donations, sold them on eBay, and came back to get a refund on the ones he couldn’t sell.
But at least he didn’t show it off in a cutesy manner on social media, like this wanker did:
“Do I know anyone with tiiiny feet who would like these shoes? Size 4. too pretty to leave in oxfam”
Charlotte Curtis, from Black Heart Creatives, got particularly upset about it with all the right reasons. People with low and no income, specially people with dimensions away from the arbitrary Western average, struggle to find clothes and accessories that fit them correctly, make them look presentable and help them to navigate society and be able to move on and try to improve their existence. To have people with their entire lives sorted use their privilege, come and take away any fragment of joy the underdog could ever reach, is just disgusting.
I’ve previously spoken about the importance of available office wear for femme-presenting plus size people, and this also applies to those who can’t afford going to shows like Style XL, who can’t afford to go to John Lewis or Dorothy Perkins, and in particular to people with big and small feet who can’t get their shoe sizes online.
Yes, there are people with “tiiiny” feet who would like those shoes. No, they don’t know you. You may be repelled by them, and after reading you, they might be repelled by you. They could have put those shoes to good use much better than your imaginary friend you wanted to impress and that other twitter person who ended up buying them from you. They could have gone to an interview, got a job and sorted out their debts little by little. They could have gone to the club and have a good time. They could have gone to a date with sexy results. They could have been celebrating the New Year in style. They could have been happy just like you and me; maybe just for the instant they got to grab those shoes, try them on, check on the ATM if they had any money available, come back to the shop, buy them, put them on and leave the shop floating, flying, smiling for once. Feeling like they belong, for once.
And don’t say it’s just fashion. You damn well know it’s just not fashion.
PS: if you want/need clothes and shoes but can’t afford them, here are some useful resources as presented by Curtis on her blog. I’m still gutted The Circle folded for lack of funds while people like Paul from our shop and that git from twitter get to buy and resell.