Two young men walked into the Oxfam shop at lunchtime last Tuesday, showed the manageress photo identity cards to prove they were registered electricians and explained that they were rewiring the next-door premises. Could they pop down to the basement and check the electrical cable that ran between the party wall? Of course, she said. Five minutes later they came back up, thanked her and disappeared. Twenty minutes later the manageress went downstairs and saw that the safe had been broken into and the morning's takings, more than £1,000 in cash, removed. She immediately raced to the shop next door and asked where the electricians were. What electricians, they said.
The extraordinary thing about that story is not that con men have absolutely no scruples about who they con. We know that. What I find hard to believe is that the Oxfam shop, which is small and laid out in such a way that you have to crawl about in your hands and knees getting entangled in belts and handbag as you hunt for bargains, takes more than £1,000 on a weekday morning. "What's so surprising about that?" said the friend to whom I was telling all this. "Everyone goes to charity shops these days because they're up to their limit on all their credit cards and can't afford to go anywhere else."
I suppose she's right. A front-page story in the newspaper recently said that millions of people were in debt; thousands of small businesses were going bankrupt and if the economy was to keep afloat, interest rates would probably go down. For once, surprisingly, I'm not in debt. I've just finished paying off my cripplingly expensive mortgage and feel a bit like Dr Manette felt when they released him from his cell in the Bastille, but the state of my bank balance has no bearing on a lifelong preference for buying things in charity shops rather than high street chains. It's the nearest I get to recycling in a London borough which takes no interest whatsoever in green issues. Here's how it works.
We have a clearout. I shove everything that I haven't seen anyone in the family wear for six months, everything that is under the bed in the spare room and behind the door in the playroom, unopened presents and unused gadgets into a bin bag and take it to the nearest charity shop. Half an hour later I return home laden with other people's junk bought for a song which I carefully stack under the bed in the spare room and behind the playroom door. New EU regulations have made it illegal for charity shops to accept dangerous things like hairdryers so now I leave them outside the front door in a box instead. They disappear in seconds. I've seen people upside down, feet in the air, scrabbling about at the bottom of the box for bargains. Someone once rang the bell to ask if I had the missing pot for the yoghurt maker.
Pavement acquisition is incredibly satisfying. I know people who drive round at night specifically looking for builders' skips to plunder. A friend said that the bed she and her husband have slept in for 20 years came from a skip in Mayfair. I am easy-going about hand-me-downs, but I draw the line at mattresses, even if they do come from Mayfair. My only problem with charity shops is that they don't sell furniture. Thanks to Arthur Negus, all the second-hand furniture shops I used to browse in have turned into antique shops - no more bargains. Until last Saturday.
The son who has moved into a new flat asked if I could buy him a second-hand sofa, so we headed for Portobello Market. Suddenly there it was on the pavement - a three-seater crimson velvet job, perfect. "How much?" I said. "For you 30 quid but you've got to take it now," said the geezer. "But we don't have a car," I said. "Wait here," he said and came back with a Sainsbury's supermarket trolley. "Hang on, I'm not..." I began. "Course you are," said the geezer. He'd tie it on safe as houses but it was a biggun so we'd best stick to the road and give proper hand signals. "Your lad can push, you can steer," he said. And so I did, to the delight of the passengers on the No 52 bus ahead of us. "Come on Mrs Schumacher, you can do it," they shouted. What price mother love?