Thirty Thousand Streets

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Brick by Brick

The quest for the perfect charity shop is a thankless one. As more and more seek to emulate high street shops in today's parlous retail environment, the genuine article – musty shops piled high with vintage garments, well thumbed 70s paperbacks, treasure troves of vintage shellac LPs and managed by frightening eccentrics – becomes an ever more rarified phonemenon.

Unfortunately, I begin to see why. And furthermore, I think I'm finally 'over it'.

Yesterday I visited the Brick by Brick charity shop on the old Kent Road, which a friend had mentioned to me earlier in hushed tones, in the hope of unearthing some thrift store gems. Unpreposessing in the extreme from the outside, the shop is a tardis-like cavern within, piled high with assorted bric-a-brac and racks of clothing. At last! I thought, I have found my Shangri-lah.

A more than cursory inspection reveals that something here is odd, though not displeasing in its symmetry – Everything is arranged in rigid formation: some shoes in lockstep on a shelf, clothes hung in precise intervals like ragamuffin uniform in a ghostly barracks, books stacked flush with fanatical precision. This shop isn't just tidy, it's an attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe, a battle cry against entropy, an attempt to wrong-foot the third law of thermodynamics by tactical placement of donated goods.

For the shop's wares are jealously guarded by a shopkeeper who would be better suited to living under a bridge and accosting goats than vending second hand goods in the name of charity. A bristling Russian man of about six foot in drab olive military fatigues, with a curled moustache, and blotchy tattoos creeping from beneath his sleeves, he patrols the shop like the commander of an extant cold war nuclear bunker, stamping snow from the boots of his mind.

Spotting some leather coats on a rail near me, I moved to investigate them.

"Those are women's coats!"

he barked at me, from behind the counter

"Men's are on the other side"

Ok, I thought, and duly walked over to the mens aisle, where I started thumbing through some t-shirts.

"Those are too large for you!"

"All extra large!"

He announced from behind me, closer this time, a questing bear snuffling at my heels.

Riiight I thought.. and headed to investigate some coats, which I browsed through idly, sliding the hangers on the rail to permit viewing as, y'know, people do in shops. Nothing doing, so I moved on. At which point, he pounced.

"Please leave the clothes as you find them!"

He snapped, briskly rearranging the hangers on the rail according to some internal rote.


I asked.

"The clothes. You find them tidy, you leave them tidy! Do not make a mess!"

He grunted.

"Look mate" I said, somewhat exasperated, "I don't work here" (mistake)

"Oh yes?"

he bristled, marching toward me.

"And what am I, your servant? Who the fuck do you think you are? royalty?"

"Yeah, actually" I quipped lamely "I'm the king"

Maybe, just maybe, his were ancestors who sacked the Tsar's palaces, for this wisecrack was the straw that broke the charity-shop-Bolshevik's back.

"Right!" he intoned sternly "Get out of this shop!"

Ok, Ok I thought, you don't need to tell me twice and headed towards the exit, he escorting me all the way to the border of his miniature state. At the door I turned at last to face him, his piercing blue eyes wintery with scorn.

"Have you ever heard the expression 'the customer is always right?'"

I enquired, in a perplexed but irritated fashion.


He laughed, ironically.

"Get out this charity shop!"

Which I did, bemused to the point of peturbation.

I will concede that I don't necessarily respond too well to many things petty and bureaucratic and have a tendency to bristle in response, (the blame for which I lay firmly at the feet of this country's bizarre institutional contempt for the paying customer).
But even so, I find the idea of a shopkeeper actually intimidating his customers a bizarre notion.. even if it is 'just a charity shop'. Why won't you let me look at what you want to sell.. you never know, I might actually buy something.

Feeding the shop's name into The Google, I actually chanced upon this forum where people where burbling excitedly about this man, venerating his drill-seargent approach to customer relations like it was a genuine sighting of the sasquatch in SE1. But to me, rudeness is rudeness, whether it's dispensed by a surly checkout girl at Somerfield or some 'gruff but loveable eccentric' rattling sabres with his customers on a forgotten corner of The Old Kent Road.

And yeah there's lots of stuff in there but there's lots of stuff in there 'cause no-one goes in there because in doing so they'd risk facing some kind of hastily convened military tribunal for glancing at a shirt. And while I might have forgiven the big guy's intransigence if he was curating a priceless cache of forgotten byzantine art, all he's really doing is chasing customers away from a hoard of second-hand jumble. Shame really, as I generally like second-hand jumble.

All this said.. I did some digging and found out that the charity does good work building homes for the, um, homeless, and the man in question – in spite of his fearsome demeanour – has certainly done more to help his fellow man than I have, including releasing a book on the flora and fauna of St James's Park (it's just a shame I didn't have the chance to find this out for myself). So to offset my 'wanker footprint' and prove that I'm 'one of the good guys really' I made a small donation online (which should hopefully balance out the karma lost for slagging off a shop that raises funds for charity).

But much like the danger zone that is the Walworth Road Army and Navy, I would caution anyone visiting said establishment to tread lightly and be solicitous – if you do actually want to buy something. I, it would seem, don't have the patience.

Give me Ebay any day.


Julia, Katy and Rhiannon (JoKeRs) said...

the man is not Russian. He also set up the homeless charity in the 80's and offers a fantastic charity that trains homeless people and houses them. They help prepare the properties before moving in, thus learning a new skill. He offers them on going support. If you stop to hear his story he will tell you 'I came here with nil assets' but a dream. He is certainly eccentric yes, but aren't we all.

The Eyechild said...

Thanks for your comment, and very true, we are all unique and often flawed individuals, myself included. The Russian thing was just a guess, though obviously an ill-informed one.

With regards to his story, I am sure that he is a force for good – I think I just bristled a little in response to his gruff demeanour!