Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Guess Who?

I was poking round a traditional op shop, dark and tiny and located at the back of a shopping strip, when I found a Dutch version of Guess Who? – Wie is Het? – with the beguiling hand written label Improve your German! ‘Tee hee hee,’ I thought, and picked it up to give my kids. They can play Guess Who? just as well with Philippe and Lucas as they can with Richard and George, and with any luck they might even play it in German or Italian or any of the other languages in which they know half a dozen phrases – sadly, like whoever wrote the label, this doesn’t include Dutch.

Then I turned my attention to the stacks of linen, and there, carefully folded, was an Onkaparinga blanket. These gorgeous blankets, incredibly soft and warm, were once manufactured in the Adelaide Hills; they are the stuff of my childhood. This particular one was pink and green and absolutely perfect, so I snaffled it up. On the coldest nights, we sleep under a hodgepodge of picnic rugs and crocheted lap blankets; whenever we have a family stay, we are a blanket or two short; there was no question that we would use it.

Thrilled, I paid for the game and the blanket, then tottered around the corner to pick up something for dinner. At the grocery store, the assistant asked me if I had found the blanket at the op shop. ‘Oh yes,’ I gabbled, ‘I’m delighted – I have three girls and this will be perfect.’

‘I’d hope you’d give it to the homeless,’ she snapped as she totted up the bill.

I stood there gasping, my mind racing in frantic guilt overload – was I really such a thoughtless bitch? – and found myself right back in an argument with my mother, who has been dead these eleven years.

Op shops are for those who need them, she said, and you can afford to shop somewhere else. Stop being so selfish!

But there’s too much stuff in the world, I muttered, and anyway, far more is donated than the op shops can ever sell; the rest has to be shipped overseas or sent to the tip.

The homeless are freezing to death, she said. There are people on the streets who need that blanket!

My kids are cold too, I said, and anyway, the homeless wear their blankets until they are fetid and then throw them away. This is too beautiful to throw away!

So the homeless shouldn’t have beautiful things?, she asked.

And on and on it went. We debated whether op shops are fundraising stores for charities or opportunity shops for the poor; we agreed on the need to limit manufacturing waste and share resources but argued about what that really means.

I couldn’t win. Her voice runs round my head like a broken record.

On the other hand, she’s long dead; perhaps, I thought, I might have the last word on this one. So I tossed my head, stood up straight, and said rather briskly to the shop assistant, ‘We give thousands of dollars to charitable organisations every year; I feel quite good about taking this blanket home.’ Then I grabbed my change and the groceries, gathered up the blanket, and stalked off.

Later, when I unfolded it, I discovered to my delight that it was a double. I have been sleeping under it ever since, tucked in safely with the comforting heaviness I remember from childhood. My daughters are asking to nap under it, and in less than a week it has become a fixture of our household, one of those items that will be used for decades, an object of nurture and care.

And even I can now see that this a good enough use for my mother, their grandmother; she must be pleased. As for those voices in my head who masquerade as her, like the predictable characters in a game of Guess Who? they have yet again been unmasked as demons; they can just fly away.

Until it's time for the next round.

Guess Who?


  1. I think that op shops are wonderful and that in our current climate you are not only wise to shop there, but should be able to do so without needing to justify it to anyone. I am all warm and fuzzy thinking of your new blanket and am remembering mine.

  2. Yeah, we usually shop second hand and very cheerfully - I just get flown into a tizz when someone makes a comment, and am right back to the teenage fights with my mother. Writing about it is one way of trying to exorcise those ghosts; one day I hope I'll experience more friendly ones!

  3. This is a late response, however...
    I manage an op shop in a wealthy eastern suburb of Melbourne, just one day a week. We have a variety of customers representing different demographics, but the majority are comfortably-off locals who come in out of a variety of impulses - to save money, to recycle, to reminisce, to discover, to play, to help our charity - which raises money for the poorest of the poor in developing countries.
    A woman once left our shop in high dudgeon when I would not give her a discount on an Onkaparinga blanket. She told me our shop was greedy and we had lost sight of what op shops were about. Her daughter was volunteering for the homeless, and she wanted to collect blankets to give her daughter to give to the homeless. She was clearly privileged, and principled, and she gave me a lecture on charity and did not grant me right of reply. The incident shook me for many days, but I am glad I stood firm. We occasionally have homeless people visit our shop. When this happens, we will allow them to take a coat, a blanket, and a few items of clothing for free. Most op shops have this policy. But the money we make on sales helps the needy much more, and the woman who berated me could easily have afforded to buy the blanket, thus helping two charitable causes at once. Op shops rely on people who can afford to pay a good price for a quality item. Pricing is always a delicate issue, but we try to strike a balance that is fair. Your buying the beautiful blanket has helped people, and your patronage of op shops helps to maintain a unique, but fragile, system of charity and recycling. Your money goes as far as it would go if you dropped it through the slot of a charity money box, but in this case you get something nice for it, too! It's win-win. Snuggle under your blanket in good conscience.

    1. Thank you Moss - late is good as it tells me the things I wrote awhile ago haven't disappeared altogether. And thank you for your reassurance. Only this week did I fold the blanket and put it away, as it is getting too warm - but I have slept under it every cold night since I bought it, with gratitude and a thought to East Timor and the project supported by that particular op shop.

      Never thought to haggle - I can afford op shop prices! I do wonder what's going on for people who feel the need to lecture perfect strangers on their charitable impulses / buying habits (the checkout chick for me, the woman for you). Seems so unreasonable - it's not as if they would lecture people they see at a department store for the things they buy and the prices they charge/pay! A conversation could be so much more fruitful and generous.


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