Sometime ago I heard a writer say she often felt like answering the ‘where do you get your ideas’ question by saying she picked them up in a charity shop. I laughed, thinking I might use the line the next time someone asked me that question.
Later, though, I found myself thinking about a charity shop as a source of inspiration for characters as well as possible storylines. I worked for Oxfam for many years as an organiser for a cluster of shops, which raised money for the projects the charity supports. I loved my work and have fond memories of those years and of the people I met. I thought I’d share a few snapshots of some those characters – feel free to choose any and develop them as you see fit! Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
Patricia was a terribly posh volunteer who entertained us with scurrilous stories about the landed gentry and other members of the upper classes she would meet at the various royal garden parties to which she seemed to be always being invited. Patricia had an alcohol problem and smoked like a chimney. On one occasion she was working in the back of the shop putting clothes for recycling into black bin liners which, when full were piled up to be collected. Patricia climbed up the mountain of sacks to add one more to the top of the pile, slipped and slithered down, passing out, dead drunk at the bottom. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning.
I remember her telling me of the time she had pneumonia and was confined to bed, forbidden to smoke. She would wait until her husband had gone out then bump on her bottom down the stairs to smoke an illicit cigarette (kept no doubt in a silver cigarette box) then crawl, gasping for breath, back upstairs.
Another volunteer, Helen was such a softie she couldn’t bear to go near the big open market in the run up to Christmas because the sight of all the plucked turkeys hanging up made her cry. She admitted she volunteered to work in the charity shop because she wanted to raise money for the poor people in Africa and India – so they would stay there.
Volunteer Molly struggled to balance her till roll and cash receipts after the introduction of electronic tills. Every time she was on duty the till roll showed quite ridiculous amounts of money. She swore she was entering the correct amount for each sale. I watched her one day and she was indeed very accurate in pressing in the right amount. Then, I spotted what was happening. Molly was extremely well endowed and any time she leant over the counter towards a customer her boobs would ring up yet another sale of a few thousand quid!
A cross dresser frequented one shop because he said the volunteers made him feel comfortable, unlike the attitude towards him in another, not-to-be-named-here charity shop. Our volunteers used to lay aside dresses, skirts and blouses they would fit – and suit – Pearl. He did always moan there were never any high heels to fit his size ten feet.
During a spring clean in one shop we moved the large mirror which leant against the wall in the fitting room. An avalanche of price tickets fell out. Thieves had been taking clothes into the fitting room, putting them, removing the price tickets and presumably putting their own clothes on top.
An extremely scruffy man asked to try on a pair of shoes. The volunteer noticed his toes poked through holes in his socks. The shoes were too small and he handed them back. Just before he reached the door her returned, asked to borrow a pair of scissors, which the bemused shop assistant, with some reluctance, handed over. He sat down, removed his shoes again and proceeded to cut his toenails – though the holes in his socks. Finished, he tried on the shoes again and declared they fit just fine.
I’m stopping here, not because I have run out of characters but there is a danger this blog post might go on forever.