A very oppy Christmas

Treasures unearthed in city's op shops

RO CAMBRIDGE
Last updated 08:45 23/12/2013
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MARTIN DE RUYTER/FAIRFAX NZ

OPPORTUNISTS: Bob Irvine, left, Katie Pascoe, Trish Cooper, Pauline Farley, Anne FitzSimon, Patricia Taylor, Paula Holden, Joyce Ballance and Katie Gold in op shop clothes for a Frocks on Bikes event.

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MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
IN THE ZONE: SPCA Nelson Op Shop volunteer Linda Mortimer outside their shop in Vanguard St.
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MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ
BARGAINS: Salvation Army Family Store manager Margaret Earney.

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As glassy-eyed shoppers begin the last-minute Christmas dash, Nelson Mail columnist Ro Cambridge checks out an alternative to the main street frenzy.

 While some of the city's more conventional retail outlets have been struggling for business for some time, Nelson's op shops are thriving. On almost every day of the week a stream of donated goods flows in through the back door of the shops, and is carried out the front door by shoppers for whom someone else's trash constitutes a treasure.

It's perhaps not surprising that the shops attract plenty of custom during difficult economic times. They stock clothing, shoes, handbags, saucepans, crockery, books, furniture, bedding, and sports gear at rock bottom prices.

With a little patience, it's possible to find a perfectly serviceable second-hand dinner set, bed, or chest of drawers at a fraction of the cost of new. With some judicious selection and a bit of flair it's possible to look as elegant, sophisticated, or outrageous as you want in op shop clothes and hardly make a dent in your budget.

However, the op shop boom is being driven by much more than simple economics. For the urban hunter-gatherer, browsing the op shops is a recreation and hobby. Sometimes an obsession.

For nostalgia hounds, creative types and collectors, op shops are like vast archaeological digs where it's possible to unearth all kinds of treasures from bygone eras, made interesting by the patina of age and use. In comparison, shelves of new mass-produced goods seem rather are lifeless.

Why buy a pricey new remake of a 50s frock when you can pick up an original at an op shop and know you'll never see anyone else wearing the same dress? Why buy a new, "retro style" lamp or sofa when you can find the real thing at your local op shop?

For others, op shopping is a way to sidestep much of our consumerist throwaway culture - another route to reusing and recycling. What we wear, and the way it's made and sold, has a huge negative impact on the environment.

Although the fashion industry has begun demonstrating more environmental awareness, it is still driven by rapid obsolescence and underpinned by doubtful labour practices.

Millions of tons of discarded synthetic fabric goes into landfill every year. Trend analysts Forum for the Future, predict that by 2025 new clothing will be so expensive that we will be trading clothes with each other, hiring them from "clothing libraries", or buying them in second-hand shops.

While some might find this an alarming, it's business as usual for the op shopper. For many, it's easier to dress from an op shop than it is to dress from more conventional stores: the range and variety of clothing on offer means that whatever your age, size or style you're sure to turn up something which fits and suits you.

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Some op shoppers buy second-hand (or donate to op shops )as a way to support causes which are close to their hearts such as the Red Cross, the Hospice, Salvation Army, Youthline, St Vincent de Paul or the SPCA.

Although op shopping has shed the shameful connotations it once had, it's still not to everyone's taste. Hay-fever sufferers might find it a sneeze-inducing challenge.

Some people can't bear the thought of rummaging through other people's cast-offs. Charles Dickens - a creative if ever there was one - enjoyed browsing the second-hand clothing markets of 1830s London which he called "extensive groves of the illustrious dead", imagining their deceased owners.

This is a pleasure which is only available to those who can overlook the whiff of mortality or who recognise that fashions don't go to die at the op shop - it's where new fashion arises.

That's certainly the opinion of Glenn O'Brien, the "Style Guy" for GQ Magazine who suggests that "things start to come back into fashion when they have reached a thrift-shop-price bottom … then get revived by style rebels and copied by "street-savvy designers".

The sheer volume and randomness of "stuff" in op shops puts some people off, which is probably why Ceiros Begg of Golden Bay offers op shop tours of Auckland and Wellington. For an "investment" of $935 she'll help those who lack the confidence to op-shop on their own, offering "feedback and advice on each garment, and negotiate prices if necessary".

But there's really no need to visit the big smoke or much need for hand-holding either: Nelson boasts plenty of op shops of its own, and city slickers have been known to make road trips to the provinces for the express purpose of plundering op shops which they suppose will be less picked-over than their city cousins.

Vanguard St is Nelson's op shop mile where the SPCA, St Vincent's, Red Cross and Salvation Army op shops are within an easy stroll of each other. The Nelson Hospice and Youthline shops are not difficult to find, and nor are op shops in Stoke or Richmond (see sidebar).

Each shop has its own character but there is never any pressure to buy, the ambience is laid-back, there are changing rooms with mirrors and there's always someone around who will be happy to be dragged in for an opinion on your find.

The trick is to take your time, stay relaxed, and keep an open mind as you browse an op shop. It's often only on the second or third go-round that a previously unnoticed treasure will make itself known and anyway the journey should be enjoyable even if you leave empty-handed.

If an op shop is part jumble sale, part gallery and part archaeological dig as well as a retail operation, running one successfully demands art, inspiration, and keen management skills.

Firstly, there's the sheer through-put to be managed: shops are often undersized for the demands made on them and have too little storage or work space.

Secondly, a lot of dross finds its way to op shops. It's often soiled, broken or plain worn out and it has to be sorted, washed, ironed, mended, polished and priced before it hits the racks and shelves.

Op shops would not be sustainable or profitable businesses without the contribution of armies of volunteers who undertake these less than glamorous tasks. Attracting and keeping volunteers is yet another challenge for the op shop manager.

One only has to glance into the windows of the Hospice op shop in Hardy St to know that there is a creative hand at work there. The shop mannequins wear eclectic outfits pulled together from the shop's stock.

New, but retro-styled, hand-knitted tea cosies might fill the window one day, colourful patched quilts the next. The window of the neighbouring Hospice furniture shop might feature a dozen whirring pedestal fans lazily turning their heads to and fro.

Sue Bevin, the shop's manager brings a lifetime of interest and involvement in clothing and the fabric arts to the role. In her childhood homes the sewing machine was in almost constant use and this may have been the genesis of her own interest in making and re-making clothes.

Sue took up sewing in earnest as therapy after the death of her son and ran her own second-hand clothing businesses in Nelson - Rethreads and Fantasmagoria. She still makes wearable artworks by refashioning old garments, adding tucks and trims and decorating them with buttons, embroidery and applique.

She has an eye for the vintage bric-a-brac and pictures which comes into the shop and she prices it a little higher than other items. Sometimes she'll run a blind auction or a raffle for a particularly valuable or attractive piece. Profits help support the free palliative care services of the Nelson Tasman Hospice.

The running of the "Vinnie's" op shop in Richmond is overseen by the Richmond branch of the St Vincent de Paul Society.

Margaret O'Connor, who is branch president, also volunteers at the shop, inspired by the Society's ethos of service as an expression of faith and its aim "to help all in need regardless of creed, colour, caste or origin" in a "spirit of justice and charity".

Unlike the other op shops it's run entirely by volunteers: not even the manager of the shop is paid. In spite of the society's lofty aims, the little shop tucked away off the Richmond library car park, isn't a solemn place - it's bustling and cheerful.

Margaret manages to carry off her own brand of op-shop chic: almost all her own eclectic outfits are bought second-hand or come to her via a large extended family.

One of her current favourites is a bottle green wool suit with a nipped in waist and matching skirt which is over forty years old. Two fans of the "Vinnies" shop, Amy Gabites and Isabella O'Connor, put together retro looks from the shop's stock for this feature, aided by another local op shop aficionado Julia Achilles.

Isabella admits to being a novice op shopper but Amy is an old hand. She furnishes her home from op shops and clothes herself exclusively in op shop dresses which fit her curvaceous figure better and are more interesting than modern garments.

Margaret Earney who manages the Salvation Army op shop in Vanguard St, created a complete retro-styled sitting room on Tahunanui beach for this feature and peopled it with models nibbling on iced cupcakes and dressed in complementary garb.

Margaret brings her own creative style to the "Sally's" shop but underpins it with serious intent. Although she's run her own tableware gallery and managed a conventional fashion retail outlet, she's also worked in youth and prisoner aid, restorative justice and neighbourhood dispute resolution.

It's a background which explains the passion she brings to the role and why her boss, Salvation Army Captain Kenneth Walker is supporting her vision to extend and diversify the shop's operations.

Like Margaret, he sees the shop as much more than a second-hand shop or even a storehouse of clothing and household goods which can be given to those in need. They see the shop as the hub of a "holistic approach to community building" blended with a concern for the environment which is in keeping with the Army's tradition of working with the poor and disenfranchised.

The shop has partnerships with the Probation Service and WINZ offering workplace training and a sense of connectedness in return for voluntary help.

Plans are afoot to almost double the space of the shop. As soon as this happens Margaret intends to develop furniture and sewing projects to add value to donated furniture and clothing. A project to transform unsalable fabric and clothing into saleable industrial cotton waste is already underway.

Whatever the purpose of op shops, whatever the motivation of the people who shop in them - frugality, sustainability, support of a charity or just good old style hunting - op shops are here to stay.

Warning! Before you embark on an op shop tour you should know that op shopping is highly addictive and can ruin you for ordinary retail shopping.

OP-SHOPPING

Hospice Shop Nelson 110 Bridge Street

Nelson Hospice Shop Richmond 281 Queen St Richmond

Salvation Army Shop – Nelson 34 Vanguard St Nelson

Salvation Army Shop – Richmond 271 Queen Street

Richmond SPCA Shop 80 Vanguard St

Nelson St Vincent de Paul Shop – Nelson 77 Vanguard Street,

Nelson St Vincent de Paul Shop – Richmond 11A McGlashen Ave,

Richmond Red Cross Shop – Nelson 76 Vanguard St

Nelson Red Cross Shop – Tahunanui 59 Parkers Rd Nelson

Red Cross Shop – Richmond 261 Queen St Richmond

Youthline Shop Collingwood St – opposite Fresh Choice

- © Fairfax NZ News

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