A Beginner's Guide: The lovely reality of working in a Dublin charity shop

This week, Geraldine Carton kicked off "the season of giving" by volunteering at her local charity shop. Did she loath it or love it? Read on to find out.


I love doing this “Beginner’s Guide” weekly column.

I love it partly because it pushes me to try things I probably wouldn’t otherwise do, but mostly because it introduces me to people who I probably wouldn’t otherwise meet in my day-to-day life. From roller derby enthusiasts to fortune-tellers; the individuals I cross paths with via this column tend to either leave me challenging my own preconceptions or they inspire me to do more in my own life, and this week was definitely no exception from the above.

See, this week I learned what it takes to volunteer at the Rathmines Oxfam shop. A place I’ve strolled around many a time, I must admit, I’ve never considered volunteering there. In my head charity shop volunteering was always a job reserved for boring, old religious people; “people who have nothing else to do”; “people who like making you feel bad for buying Zara scarves”, etc. And oh, how wrong I’ve been all these years.

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A force to be reckoned with

My day begins with a whip-around the shop floor led by the Parisian native Catherine-Marie Fricker. Catherine may seem a bit “no nonsense” at first, but she’s actually a positive force to be reckoned with, and has a soft, sweet, caramel centre; much like everyone’s favourite Roses chocolates at Christmas. As she whizzes around the shop picking up hangers and arranging shoe displays with unparalleled speed, I also learn that she was voted “Volunteer of the Year 2017” by The Irish Charity Shops Association. This is essentially the volunteering version of the Grammys, so it’s definitely worthy of an “Ooo la la” in your best french accent.

Aladdin's Cave

Upstairs is pretty much what you might imagine the upstairs of a charity shop might look like; an Aladdin's cave full of everything from designer jackets and vintage golf club cases, to metal detectors and Harry Potter fairy lights. Obviously, I want everything.

Here I meet two young girls – Gabrielle and Fatimata – who are volunteering as part of their Erasmus and work experience programmes. Catherine explains that students like Gabrielle and Fatimata are a huge asset to the running of the shop; that they, alongside retirees, people in-between jobs and general do-gooders, are what keeps this shop going.

Geraldine and shop manager Barth Bialek

Volunteers

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When they’re not helping on the shop floor, it’s the volunteers’ job to sort through all the donated items and distinguish between what is good enough to be sold (must be clean, undamaged and not underwear/ nightwear) and what gets put in the recycled bag. When I comment on how little is actually thrown out, Catherine explains that sending clothes to landfill actually costs the organisation money, whilst every bag of clothes they recycle actually earns it a small amount.

Note: By “small amount”, we’re talking about €1 per 8kg bag. However, with volunteers filling up to 100 bags per week, it all adds up to make a nice chunk of money per year.

It’s John’s job to sort through the hordes of books that get donated every week, as he has been doing for the last 11 years. I have never before in my life met a man more passionate about books as John

I am flabbergasted by the amount of bags the small team is expected to sort through. When I ask “What days of the week do you most need volunteers? Like, when is it really busy?”, Catherine pauses. Thinks for a second. And then says “All of them.”

God, I love the frankness of the French.

Catherine explains that getting donations isn’t the problem; they have mountains of weekly donations. It’s getting people who can sort it all out that they really need. With that we go to the room next door, where book-enthusiast and proud Waterford man, John McLoughlin is working away in his own literary-version of Aladdin's cave.

John McLoughlin, volunteer specialising in rare and antique books
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John, king of the books

It’s John’s job to sort through the hordes of books that get donated every week, as he has been doing for the last 11 years. I have never before in my life met a man more passionate about books as John is. His fierce commitment to giving each book a fair price, which also reflects the calibre of the book itself, is truly heart-warming. “This book has been donated in the hope of raising funds for the charity, so the last thing we want to do is insult the owner by selling their book for pittance of its worth!”.

The most valuable book he’s ever sold? “Probably a book of Seamus Heaney poems – signed by the poet himself” says John, attempting, and failing, to hide a proud little smile as he does so.

A discarded fur shawl: maybe it once belonged to a recently-deceased centenarian who narrowly missed the chance to ride aboard the Titanic?

Sorting through the clothes

After chatting to John about books for a while, myself and Catherine go back into the first room and start sorting through the bags of donated clothes. Whilst she is efficient and swift, I am a bit indulgent as I go about the task. I just love imagining the personalities and life stories of the individuals who might owned each garment I pick up. A discarded fur shawl: maybe it once belonged to a recently-deceased centenarian who narrowly missed the chance to ride aboard the Titanic? A pair of glittery high heels: maybe a teenager got caught sneaking out to the teenage disco last week and her parents threw these out as punishment? etc. etc.

I AM FASHION

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There is so much I want to buy in that shop, and longtime general manager Barth Bialek is not helpful in dissuading me from buying the lot. A fantastically well-dressed man (today he is wearing horse riding boots alongside a shirt-vest-cardigan combo that together just screams “I AM FASHION”); Barth can sniff out a good piece of clothing – be it vintage, designer or otherwise – from any room within seconds.

Barth leads his passionate team with a distinct air of light-hearted fun, and they all clearly love him. I know this because, when no one is looking, Catherine whispers to me “Barth makes the best window displays!”, and gives me two thumbs up as she does so. Catherine is not the type to give out compliments “willy nilly”, so I know he’s a good egg.

Geraldine with Oxfam volunteers John, Gabrielle, Catherine and Barth

Conclusion

It goes without saying that my experience volunteering at the charity shop was a positive one. The people volunteering here weren't boring or preachy as I had wrongly assumed they might be; they were fun, vivacious and really inspiring, actually. And such was the impression they made on me that as soon as I got home I marched up to my room, sat down at my desk and frantically started filling out my own volunteer form. I now wait in hope that, come 2019, I will be allowed to join Barth, Catherine & co., and together we will make the best goddamn charity shop crew there ever was.

Who knows, you may even be looking at 2028's "Volunteer of The Year". That is, at least, if Catherine let's me in on her award-winning ways...

You can see Geraldine's video footage from her charity shop experience in the highlights reel of her InstaStories here.
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Big thanks to the team at Rathmines Oxfam shop for showing Geraldine the ropes of the job. Be sure to check out Oxfam's Unwrapped gift card range, as well as their Fair Trade and ethically-sourced gifts online and in-store, as any purchases you make will support their work in helping to tackle the root causes of poverty and injustice worldwide.

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