It was 65 years ago that the first recognised charity shops were opened in London to help those struggling to overcome hardship from the Second World War, and it became a global trend.
Australians called them “op shops”, and they have been an integral and valued part of our communities.
It seems times have changed. A recent report outlined many op shops or “opportunity shops” have closed in Adelaide because those in need for cheap clothing can buy new imported gear like T-shirts for less at some of the lower-end department stores.
But in Goolwa, it’s business as usual. Every week day at eight o’clock sharp volunteer Muriel Pitkin walks into the back room of the op shop behind the Anglican Church in Moore Street, Goolwa, and helps coordinate an amazing team of more than 30 volunteers who share four-hour shifts to either sort or present clothing, crockery household items and just about anything else you can think of to sell.
Incredibly, 50-60 people walk in daily and buy something at a ridiculously cheap price; some because it’s all they can afford, others with the thrill of believing they have snared a bargain… perhaps an old plate they feel should be worth much more.
On Tuesdays there can be dozens of people lined-up waiting for the op shop doors to open because they know it is when the new stock is placed on the racks or shelves. Business is thriving, thank you, but of course, it doesn’t necessarily equate to the required income, and certainly not the need around us that we rarely take time to see.
This particular day was Muriel’s birthday. Someone asked her whether it was a special one, and quick as a flash said at her age, they all were. Instantly, you know what this place is all about; people from all walks of life having a good time knowing they are helping others, and sharing a laugh. For the record, she was 82 years young.
The op shop was first started 10 years ago as a means of saving the church from closing its own doors, by members Brian and Val Jones, and all of the proceeds now go towards helping the community.
“Most of us volunteers aren’t church goers, but it makes no difference to the church,” Muriel said. “They see us as doing a Christian thing by helping the community.
“Doing this you get to see sadness in the town, but if you look really hard you also see a lot of kindness.
“At the end of the week I get very tired, but I feel good knowing that we have all done something to help someone. My reward is helping people, and enjoying the company of friends. We have a good group of people here. I have to be doing something, and I have never had time to be lonely. We share a lot of laughs; we tell a few jokes.
“We all say, if we weren’t here we don’t know what we would do.”
But often, there is also a reason that draws special volunteers to any wonderful cause, and for Muriel it has largely been about experiencing grief and having cared for others by necessity.
After moving to Goolwa in 1966 from Meningie, in 1977 Muriel was a short distance away from her nephew, Mark Coad, aged just 10, when he was killed after being struck by a car in Dawson Street. The tragedy led her forming a group to get help to establish the town’s first ambulance service, which she served for 12 years.
“I was on the scene of Mark’s accident within a few minutes,” Muriel recalled. “I still think about that day; you never recover.”
Muriel looked after her husband, mother and father until they all died within a four-year period from 1985, and also looked after her brother, who had Down Syndrome, until 1998.
“I guess it has been within me to be a caring person, like my mum,” Muriel said. “I did it out of necessity, I guess, but I still enjoy doing these things.”
And with a huge smile, Muriel says doing this volunteer work gives her a reason for getting out of bed.
“Besides,” she adds, “I would miss the company.” She refers to Sylvia Rainsford, who tags the clothing… there are colours representing a week, and the fourth week the clothing goes out on a rack with a white ticket on it for 50 cents.
“If it’s not sold then it goes into a blue bag and we give it to the Diabetes Association, and clothes not suitable for sale go out for rags,” Muriel explains. “We are very fussy here; we only sell the best. We turn it over; we don’t keep it in the shop for more than four weeks because we have to make space.
“I think the people who kindly donate us clothing and other items feel good about the fact we appreciate and care about what they leave us. Mind you, there are some who just dump their rubbish by our back door.”
Muriel and Sylvia said there were also those who donated the most ‘unusual’ items. They giggle. Being a family, community magazine, let’s just say they include personal things that were “pre-loved”. It adds a new meaning to ‘charity begins at home’.