Charity shops. Staple of the British High Street, and a really important source of revenue for many charities. Some parts of English towns seem to have few other shops these days, and on my visits back to Harrogate and Ripon, that’s where you’ll find me, stocking up on piles of second-hand books at bargain-basement prices. And not just books. I have a classic lovat green Loden coat, much admired by whoever sees it, current selling price anything up to £500, which I found in St. Michael’ Hospice Shop in Harrogate for £10.
So here in France, I miss charity shops. Emmaüs, the international charity focussing on poverty and homelessness concentrates in its large, warehouse-like shops on quantities of furniture and household goods, and a bit of everything else too, but they’re often away from the town centre. Our local one in Lavelanet is daunting in size, shabby and a little unappetising.
Secours Populaire here in Laroque, as in many towns, provides a lifeline for families in difficulty. It sells donated clothes and other goods, but it doesn’t advertise itself, and is mainly appreciated by those whom it sets out directly to help. The branch here is in an upstairs room, and is staffed for one afternoon a week only by a cheery team of volunteers who see no need to market the service they provide to a wider constituency, or to go in for careful artistic displays of the goods on offer. It’s clearly not a shop in the ordinary everyday sense.
It was a bit of a shock then to realise a few months ago that the shop that was being refurbished up near the cross roads was going to be a Red Cross Charity Shop, ‘Vestiboutique’. It opened with a ceremony reported in the local press, and has been trading on 4 afternoons a week.
It’s a great place. As in England, there’s a mixture of donated goods, and ends-of-line donated by clothing manufacturers. As in England, the shop window and the stock within have been displayed with taste and care. In the backroom, donations are mended, cleaned and pressed if necessary, before being put on sale. Everything second-hand is either one or two euros, the ends-of-line goods very little more. The day I first went, I found some cheerful trousers, an elegant high-quality pair of ankle boots probably worn only once by their first owner, and a new fleecy hat for winter walks: I parted with 7 euros.
The two members of staff were happy to talk. They’re not volunteers, though they’re not paid much. They were excited to be part of this new development. This shop is the only one in the region, and was sited in Laroque to provide a service in an area of economic difficulty. Trade was brisk they said, and already the shop was much appreciated locally. I told them about the huge variety of English charity shops, from international charities like theirs, to shops for charities seeking to combat disease or support animals, to hospice shops. They were astonished, and couldn’t really imagine the picture I was trying to paint in their minds. Though there are parts of France – Paris for instance – where you’ll find more shops like this, there are no streets like say, Commercial Street in Harrogate, where about a third of the shops now seem to be charity shops. Vestiboutique, for the time being, is unique in the Pays d’Olmes.