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Paul Vallely: Curtains opened on to a new world

17 December 2021

Paul Vallely discovers that charity shops’ priorities have changed


An Oxfam shop in Edinburgh

An Oxfam shop in Edinburgh

AS IT was more than two decades since we had moved into our current home, it was decided a few weeks ago that we had to a have bit of a makeover. In the dining room, the perfectly serviceable curtains were declared to be “old-fashioned”; so I was given the task of disposing of them. It proved to be an educative foray into a new world.

Assuming that the curtains would be dusty after hanging in the same place for 20 years, I rang a few dry cleaners to find out what it would cost to have four full-length curtains cleaned before they went to a charity shop. Curtain-cleaning, it turns out, is priced by weight rather than width and length; so I devised a Heath Robinson method of weighing them, involving bits of string and the device that we used BC (Before Covid) to ensure that our airline luggage was not overweight.

Since it was going to cost about £130 for the cleaning, I thought that I’d better ring the local Oxfam shop to make sure that they wanted curtains before I paid out so much cash. Oxfam, I discovered, did not sell linens. Nor did the local British Heart Foundation shop, who, instead, referred me to a sister shop in a poorer area.

“I’m just ringing to make sure that you want them before I lay out 130 quid to get them cleaned,” I said to the lady there. I was getting slightly piqued now. “The material came from John Lewis, and they were made up by a professional curtain-maker,” I said, in a forlorn attempt at selling what I was trying to give away. “To be honest,” she replied, “they would probably end up just being sent off for rags.” It is not just the Prime Minister, it appears, who takes a dim view of John Lewis nowadays.

So, I tried the Salvation Army, where the assistant said, ingeniously: “Why don’t you just give us the £130 you would have spent on cleaning them?” Now, I know that the Salvation Army is a worthy cause, but this left me with the problem of what to do with the curtains. The idea of their being ragged or dumped at the tip didn’t seem right in these days when recycling is the thing to do in every other sphere.

It left me pondering about the business model of the charity shop, where maximising cash seemed now to be more important than finding a new home for pre-loved goods. Perhaps I was expecting too much to hope that one charity would solve all my problems in one go. Each shop was focused on its own priorities, in a way that seemed disappointingly unholistic.

In the end, I vacuumed the curtains back and front, top to bottom, and was gratified by how lovely they looked. I put them on Gumtree, a website that drew a pleasing number of responses. I sold them for roughly what I would have spent on cleaning them. To complete the circle, I gave the money to a foodbank, and concluded, rather smugly, that I had found a good home for my under-appreciated curtains, and had made a contribution to charity. The only person to lose out was the dry cleaner.

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