Bargains, gems and curiosities

British Heart Foundation staff at the Piinstone St shop
British Heart Foundation staff at the Piinstone St shop
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Mad hats, dirty knickers, stained sheets, designer handbags, antique books, feather boas and false teeth - there’s more going on behind the scenes of your local charity shop than you might think, as Rachael Clegg discovered.

ON THE surface, the British Heart Foundation charity shop in Sheffield city centre is a fairly unremarkable little store.

The staff are friendly, the stock is well-presented, and the shelves are clean, but it’s hardly a hive of activity.

That’s until you go behind the scenes.

Then, down a narrow staircase, is a whole new world - the charity shop sorting room. It’s a frenzied hub of action, where visitors are greeted with an obligatory drink the moment they step in.

Here, beneath the pavement of Pinstone Street, six volunteers work their way through dozens of bags of stock which must be sorted for sale, cleaning or scrap.

There are literally tonnes of clothes, books and bric-a-brac, all waiting to be sent up to the shop floor or off for recycling.

Worker Tracey Hinchliffe, from Meadowhead, says the shop receives around 800 to 1,000 bags of donations each week.

“We’re sent so much stuff that we desperately need more volunteers to help us get through it,” she said. “We have 30 volunteers in total but it can take up to 20 people at once sometimes to sort the bags if we have a lot in.

“Other days are quieter and we can manage with just half a dozen volunteers.”

But while mad-busy and marooned in a room full of goods, the volunteers are, quite clearly, having a whale of a time.

“It’s great down here,” grinned volunteer Mary Burke, 58, from Frechville. “It’s hard work but we do like to have a giggle.”

Yet some of the volunteers’ tales about the type of goods people donate are pretty shocking.

“We’ve had certain battery-operated instruments,” said Tracey. “We’ve had methadone, cannabis and incontinence pants. Some people seem to pack a bag for us and instead of picking out things than can be re-used or are half decent they grab literally everything in the room at the time, regardless of what it is.”

The odd horror, however, is well compensated for.

“We’ve had a genuine Louis Vuitton handbag - at least we think it was - which we ended up selling for £70,” said Tracey. “We’ve had Coast bags, Radley bags and some really nice jewellery.”

Donations are either picked up by British Heart Foundation staff from doorsteps of house clearances or left at the shop by passers-by, and while the towers of black bin-liners give the impression the shop is well stocked, the truth is quite the opposite.

“We always need more stuff,” says Tracey, who has a sharp eye for sorting out the decent items from the rubbish. “I don’t like to put tat out there but everything that doesn’t go up to the shop gets recycled.”

Some of the clothes sent in to the shop are real one-offs.

“We had one delivery from a house clearance. An old woman had died and she was a keen hoarder, so the collection included clothes from most of last century. There were vintage stockings, old gloves, fur coats - it took several van trips and about six months to get through all the stock.”

The range of goods in the basement of the shop is staggering - beautifully-presented fish knives, stunning pottery, board games, fancy hats.

It’s much the same at the Samaritans’ charity shop on Chapel Walk although, unlike the British Heart Foundation, the Samaritans’ store is completely independent from other Samaritans charity shops, so unsold or unwanted goods cannot be shipped off to other branches.

It’s because of that the shop - though modest upstairs - has a huge basement.

Manager Linda Bailey, 65, from Skye Edge, said: “We can’t ship stock off like other charities can. We are not part of a chain so we have to keep what we can down here. Our stock is so precious to us.”

Like the British Heart Foundation store, the Samaritans charity has been on the receiving end of some very strange donations over the years.

Volunteer Enid Bartlett recalled: “It’s usually the stuff from house clearances that’s the most surprising - we’ve had false teeth and even a hernia truss. Some people just bag up any old rubbish rather than chuck it out. It’s us that end up sorting through it!”