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All Aboard branch manager Damjana holds an original Prada handbag (“There are ways of checking if it is real”) that is priced at £50 because it is slightly damaged, and a vintage Francesco Biasia box handbag

Charity shops are ubiquitous on every high street, but don’t dismiss them, argues Debra Barnes, for they can be a bargain-hunters dream… 

Charity shops generate £290 million in profit annually in the UK and have more than 213,000 volunteers helping to make them work efficiently.

The evidence of their success is on every high street where they often sit beside well-known retailers and hope to attract as many customers – if not more.

Promoting their good causes with little more than a sign and a collection box by the till, the charity shop has to work hard to make money as some feel awkward going in to root through the rails, while others will pop in for a gift card or an official pink00 ribbon T-shirt for Breast Cancer Awareness.

Picking up a genuine bargain or something fabulous is just is not on their radar, which is a big mistake as you’d be amazed what you can find. Take Cancer Research in Mill Hill. Only last summer, a Prada suit that had gone unsold on eBay was delivered to its door and sold for £150 just hours later. “You have to look, but you can find” says Julie Cecen. “We were also given a first edition TS Eliot proof copy with corrections, which went to auction for the charity. It sold for £400, which was less than I thought, but that is still amazing.”

Having come to terms with the fact I would never again waft along Hampstead Heath in that long tiered peasant skirt and the baggy cargo pants, which were actually too tight to wear as trousers, I put them all in a bag for charity.

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Manager Donna Sanders with her mum’s donated Toby jug

With so many to choose from and all of them raising money for worthwhile organisations, it’s not easy to know where to go, but picking a Jewish charity shop does simplify the choice. With the exception of Norwood, which runs eight shops and JAMI, which has one shop, the only other Jewish presence on the high street is All Aboard

With its nautical theme, you would be forgiven for thinking this particular chain of 19 shops benefits old sailors or boating enthusiasts, but All Aboard in fact passes on its net profits to more than 50 registered charities, the majority of which are Jewish, from the well-known Jewish Care, Chai Cancer Care and Kisharon, to the smaller Jewish Marriage Council and Jewish Deaf Association.

Both Norwood and All Aboard can collect donations, but if you can take them to a shop, you have an excuse to have a look around for any bargains, especially if you have decluttered and have all that extra space in your wardrobe.

Charity shops have come of age, and now hold a niche place in the high street thanks to the vintage revival, the recession and because recycling is so cool. Even Golders Green Road has been in on the act for some time and that’s where I headed to meet the people who work and visit charity shops.

At one shop, staff – who wanted to remain anonymous – told me that the most unusual donation they had received was a wooden chastity belt and that ‘certain items’ were common – batteries included!

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A leather biker jacket with badges and pins donated to Norwood charity shop

All Aboard at 125 Golders Green Road (opposite Carmelli)

Like most All Aboard shops, the Golders Green branch goes for the ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ approach, which clearly works as the organisation had a turnover of £2.2 million in 2014. I saw a few interesting items; an Ivanka Trump dress for £25 and a Gina Bacconi jacket, and branch manager Damjana assured me that the week before, pieces by Missoni and Armani flew out within hours of being displayed.

The rest of the shop was filled with high street fashion, bric a brac and Judaica, such as books, art and a couple of black Shabbat hats.

My faith in humanity was momentarily restored when I witnessed a customer willingly offer 30p to a stranger who didn’t have enough to pay for his purchases. “It’s all going to charity” she said, and the next minute she tried to barter down the price of a lace tablecloth from £6 to £5.

Norwood at 84 Golders Green Road (next to Goddess beauty)

Norwood’s retail units look more like boutiques than charity shops. Clothing is displayed by colour and style and household items are carefully arranged on shelves.

There were plenty of current fashion biker jackets on sale when I visited, and I was tempted by a pair of hardly-worn green leather and snakeskin vintage Baldinini Gimmy boots for £30 – but luckily they were not my size.

I hesitated over a 114 piece gold-plated cutlery set priced at £150 but eventually chose a £13 Toby jug as the item I wanted to photograph.

“That was my mum’s” said shop manager Donna Sanders. “She loved buying in charity shops. She died recently and I donated nearly all her belongings to the shop. I know that Mum would have loved the idea of it all going back to others, and I’m happy because all my customers are regulars, some come in every day just so they are not alone, so I know where my mother’s things have gone.”

Norwood at 87 Golders Green Road

Across the road is the second Norwood shop in Golders Green Road, where I met relief manager Nyree.

She showed me a fabulous leather biker jacket complete with badges and pins, which was hidden in the stockroom until a price had been decided. I immediately wanted to know who it had belonged to and why had they donated it when it had clearly been well-loved.

Why hadn’t they wanted to keep the pins at least? “You stop wondering after four years of working here” said Nyree. I shook visions of the possible scenarios out of my head and took the photo. A huge green cardboard box was suddenly delivered to the shop. “Harrods!” said Nyree and opened it to discover a wedding dress and veil.

Alas, the veil was partly disintegrated and the dress quite badly discoloured. I was more interested in trying to make out the date on the box label, 1936 or 1986? Nyree got out her magnifying glass but it was illegible. Visions again filled my head of a beautiful young bride 80 years ago…  

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Jami shop worker David Kibel models a Crombie wool coat

JAMI at 89 Golders Green Road

Onto next door, to the only shop run by the Jewish Association for Mental Illness. If you like to rummage, then this place, which is literally jam-packed full of stuff, is for you. I was very warmly greeted by David Kibel, who works at the shop two days a week.

“I’ve been here for more than three years, first as a volunteer but now as a paid part-time worker. I attend the JAMI social club and I live in a JAMI flat. It is a wonderful organisation and working in the shop has really boosted my confidence. All our customers are regulars, maybe 150 people who come in every day. We are very friendly and make them feel welcome.”

I didn’t doubt this for a minute, as David was the perfect host for my visit. I carefully negotiated my way around the shop and found a suede Banana Republic men’s jacket for £35, which David kindly agreed to model for me, but then we discovered a Crombie wool coat which better suited the outside temperature. Similar coats sell new for £795, but JAMI hadn’t decided on a price yet.

I could easily have spent another couple of hours in the shops that afternoon, observing the people and listening to the stories, but I finally managed to tear myself away, promising to return with donations next time.