When our first child was born we knew nothing of the second-hand children's shops dotted around our part of Clapham - five within a three-minute drive from our front door. Ignorant and taken in by the advertiser's image, we trotted off to Mothercare: for his first year, our first-born had everything brand new.
Then gradually his mother started to notice the second-hand shops. There she found Osh-Kosh dungarees (about pounds 35 new and well out of our range) selling for pounds 8, their denim still crisp and unfaded. She found winter coats, barely showing wear, for pounds 10.
And then came the real breakthrough: the realisation that the shops pass half of this price on to the seller. This meant she could visit these shops, sell and buy, and come out breaking even.
The result is simple and total: we now sell and buy everything that isn't too smeared with chocolate or mud or blackcurrant to and from these shops.
Now I'm addicted: as our youngest child reaches various milestones, my mind ticks off a list of the equipment he has grown out of. The phrase 'growing spurt' has taken on a double meaning in this household.
But it has got me thinking: this is a very satisfying and effective system, so why doesn't it exist for other items? In this field alone, there is sufficient through-put from the population of SW4 to fuel several shops. Nor is there much risk for the shops: they take everything on sale or return. And though the money is nice, for me the most satisfying part of the process is the gratifying sense that things are being recycled, maximum use is extracted.
Too often over the past few years - as we have redecorated or changed taste or jobs - there have been perfectly good objects that we would like to see find a good new home. Yet there was simply no way of getting them there. Here sits
this huge city, with its mania for shopping, and yet there seems to be no way of organising this redistribution.
Of course, there is always the car boot sale but this requires venture capital (for the pitch), time and energy to become a marketeer, and enough to sell to make it worthwhile.
Then there is always Loot, the newspaper where sellers' advertisements can be placed for free. But take the steamer chair I had fallen for at a Heal's sale for which there was no longer room. Its condition had not deteriorated at all - varnished pine slats, a hinged section to support the legs - and yet, advertised in Loot, it attracted no calls.
I heaved it into the car and ran it around the local second-hand furniture shops. They were not remotely excited, not even ultimately (I just wanted to see it be re-used) for a fiver. These shopkeepers seemed interested only in MFI-style wardrobes and sagging G-plan armchairs and, I suspect, houses whose contents they can clear for a pittance.
Defeated, I donated it to our children's primary school fair: it attracted competing bids and a very healthy price. So the buyers are out there, they are just not being reached.
And then there are adults' clothes. Women don't seem to mind buying and selling them, but why not men? After my late father's suits had been in the cupboard a few years and after a tailor had told me they were unalterable to my (shorter, narrower) size, I tried to find a shop to take them. They were bespoke, in perfect condition, hand-stitched: not a chance, not even a glimmer.
Loot can come up trumps for some things: the old Sony television went before breakfast. The curtains - still looking good but no longer matching the new wall colour - attracted some viewers, but no one bought. Again, friends met through school ultimately gave them a home.
The problem with the newspaper ad system is that by the time you have crossed London to see something, with the prospect of re-crossing to follow up another ad, you are not in a buying mood. Shops avoid this: you can compare things on the spot, or you can go away and think about what's there. Answering an ad, the would-be buyer is under gruesome pressure: you are in the seller's home, having to make a snap decision.
Charity shops are, of course, the main beneficiary of this gap in the market, but even they - I'm told by my local ones - don't really have room to display furniture or things like curtains. And when they do, they have trouble disposing of them.
The next time we need a new table or a spare bed or curtains for the box room, I want to be able to go to a specialist second-hand shop and look around for something.
Surely, in this huge city, I wouldn't be the only one there?
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