Working in a charity bookshop: the customers.

The man stormed out of the shop leaving myself and Bruce looking at each other in disbelief. Having been told in a very kind manner that, although we appreciated his donation of an old rounders bat that was falling to pieces and three tennis balls, we were in fact a bookshop, currently full to the brim with donations, and therefore it would be great if he could take it to one of our other shops five minutes away, the man became angry. He tried to get us to keep the donation, clearly not wanting to take it home but, in the end, told us we were ungrateful and left.

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LP corner, Oxfam Bookshop (Aberdeen)

For some reason, this man’s attitude towards us stays with me. For context, for three years during my degree I worked at the Oxfam Bookshop in Aberdeen. During my time there I learned that there are plenty of misconceptions floating around about charity shops – the idea that they’re rubbish tips, that volunteers have it easy and just pile up whatever donations they get, no matter the quality, and sell everything for 50p.

This man certainly seemed to consider the shop desperate for any old rubbish he wanted to get out of his house. When it became clear that we had no use for it, bang went his easy validation for being a charitable person. He couldn’t be bothered to walk for another five minutes to give it to another shop (who admittedly probably couldn’t do much with it either) and considered this extra bit of effort too much to ask of him, the generous benefactor of a broken sports kit.

Maybe I’m exaggerating but having seen and experienced the hard work that goes into running the bookshop, it makes me angry when people dismiss the expertise of the people who work there. His rejected donation was one exception out of many larger, more useful donations accepted that day. However, I think the reason this tiny interaction from  one day a few years ago stays with me is because by and large, the customers I interacted with during each shift were kind, generous or even just base-line civil.

The regulars on a Thursday evening, the only late night opening of the week, who appeared like clockwork: the guy with the scarf and glasses who’d come in at five minutes to closing time and make Gerard and I wait as he browsed and asked questions and never once bought anything. The man who had endless facts recorded in his photographic memory, who could reel off dates, titles, actors and more with no prompting and held conversations with me but mostly himself in the DVD corner. The university lecturer who bought from us regularly and then spotted me on campus one day and did a double take.

The guy who asked me to help him choose a card, asked me where he could get stickers, asked me where the post office was and when it closed, came back to ask me advice on the placement of the stickers and the message within the card and finally to write the address on the envelope. I didn’t mind doing any of this because he told me it was for a woman from his church who was ill and he clearly wanted to make it look nice for her and he was very grateful. Even told my manager I should be employee of the month – unfortunately I was never officially recognised.

The woman who came into the shop and wandered around for almost an hour, piling books into her arms and then striking up a conversation at the till during which I found out she was an actress who lived in London but who had moved back to Aberdeen because of her mother falling ill. She gave me her email address and told me to get in touch; chatting to her left me smiling for the rest of my shift.

Every child who nervously approached the counter with their fists clutching a picture book and a fiver, looking back frantically for their parent who was hiding round the corner or nodding encouragingly. Every other customer who said hi, spoke even a little about the book they were buying, smiled, or asked for my help or recommendations over the course of my time there. The customers who understand that you are there voluntarily, giving up your time for free to serve them and the charity, and thus treat you as a human being.

I haven’t even talked about the volunteers because that’s a whole post in itself. Working there was a reminder of the goodness of people and in my time there I worked with some of the best. But more on that later. Certainly, it seemed as though whenever I was struggling in my own personal life, I would go in for my shift and sell a book I’d just re-donated and be able to talk to the new owner about it for a little while, or someone would come in asking me for a recommendation for their aunt’s birthday present. And just like that, I would feel a little bit better. So really, working there was selfish in that it helped my mental health a lot. And I felt good that I was helping other people. That bit in F.R.I.E.N.D.S when Joey says there’s never a completely selfless selfless deed? Yep, pretty much.

Anyway, thank you, customers, for buying and donating and browsing and chatting. I started on a negative note but I hope it’s clear – 99% of you are chill.

 

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