There was what might be called a Shena Mackay moment in one of the local charity shops the other day. One lady behind the till saying to another: “Your friend Mick was in earlier.” The other replying: “You mean the lad who’s always looking for football shirts?” “That’s the one. He was asking after you,” said the manageress. To which the other responded, looking in this direction, consciously or not: “Oh, I know them all. They’ve been coming in here ever since we opened”
Or, on another day, there might be a Shena Mackay type heading for the counter, clutching a Wade Viking vase, still in its original box, or a Queen Anne silver-plated cake slice. She would be tallish, with silvery white hair, discreetly elegant, and strikingly handsome, with a good coat, classy adornments, a colourful silk scarf, a brooch in the lapel, a touch of velvet.
It is tempting to associate Shena Mackay with charity shops, though that does not sound very gracious. It is not as though her books are hardy perennials, left on the shelf, lost and oh so forlorn, more’s the pity. Not round here, at least. Not nowadays. Though, it would be fun to find some old editions in good condition, ones to replace lost, loaned, yellowed and musty ones.
And it would be great to come across a mint copy of Shena’s collection, Dancing on the Outskirts, which sneaked out on Virago at the end of 2015. It is an Extras-style selection of her short stories, covering a wide period, some of which appeared originally in magazines, anthologies, or were broadcast on the radio, and so on.
Around the time this collection came out, a new Shena Mackay short story appeared in the Sunday Express magazine, about Celia, “a third-year history student who could see nothing in the future to feel optimistic about”. While out one day she leaves her insensitive fiancé Lennox and heads for the Salvation Army charity shop:
“Homesickness engulfed her as she looked down the bleak vista, at strangers waiting at the bus stop, the pawn shop, the nail parlour, the boarded-up cinema that, since its glory days, had been a bingo hall and then a charismatic church. The building bore traces of all its incarnations and if you looked up you could just make out Rivoli in faded letters on its façade.” That short passage demonstrates the genius of Shena. The reader instinctively feels that they know the place. It could even be the old Odeon in Upper Wickham Lane she’s talking about.
The story continues with Celia in the charity shop: “As soon as she saw the coat on the vintage rack in the charity shop, she knew it was the one. It was in a cherry-coloured ribbed fabric, fitted and with furry edging, still flaunting a bit of glamour and swagger. She slipped it on. It felt like coming home.” And, again, in just the one phrase, about looking along the vintage rack in the charity shop and what’s on it, there is just the right amount of colour and shading. Who else gets that kind of detail so right?
Anyone writing a social history of charity shops would benefit from reading Shena Mackay’s books. Charity shops and the whole world of commerce around secondhand goods have changed enormously over the years. Things have certainly changed round here. There are currently four charity shops in the local high street. Two hospice shops, a Cancer Research one where wonderfully everything is £3 and under, and an upmarket branch of Scope, which was once called the Spastics Society.
Many have come and gone over the years: Salvation Army, British Heart Foundation, Red Cross, Mind, Sense, YMCA, Geranium Shop for the Blind, one for helping Romanian orphans, and probably plenty of others. Many have been forced out by high rents, though there was a time when charity shops could do deals with reasonable landlords to get temporary premises at a peppercorn rent.
It is many years now since the first Oxfam shop opened on the local high street. This may have been at the end of the 1970s, certainly not much earlier, and it proved a godsend in a number of ways. It was in tiny premises near the old cinema and bowling alley before they were knocked down to make way for an Asda, back when there was a spate of people pinching bowling shoes and leaving behind battered plimsolls.
Punk and its tributaries changed a lot around the issue of secondhand clothes, with old overcoats and three-button hand-me-downs, and so on, becoming desirable. Not to mention the hunt for old books and records. Before that it was all about jumble sales, church bazaars, summer fetes, and bring-and-buy sales. And more recently there have been car boot sales and then eBay, with its impact on charity shops, as Saint Etienne’s Sarah says in ‘Teenage Winter’.