Six months since I started volunteering in an op shop in a Melbourne suburb.
What’s an “op shop?” It’s short for “opportunity shop.” Same thing as a charity shop in the UK or thrift store in the US. Selling second-hand donated (and some new) clothes and household items with the proceeds going to charity, overheads notwithstanding.
I’d been travelling for six months and the last few had been intense. I’d overplanned, so a relentless pace around Southeast Asia. Bali, Lombok, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand. I was running on fumes and needed somewhere to stop. I’d had a week in Melbourne earlier in the year and it had immediately felt familiar. A sort of London-ish vibe. I was missing that. London yet not London. Ideal for some downtime, routine and stability. I’d made friends with my previous Airbnb hosts so a place was ready and waiting for me.
So I stopped in Melbourne for an indeterminate period of time. But I wanted something to do. I looked into volunteering opportunities online. Op shop seemed great. I’d worked in shops in my twenties and enjoyed the customer facing aspects. I’m social.
Why an op shop in particular? I used to go into them in the UK looking for books as a kid. When I packed up my life in Pimlico, London I donated the bulk of my kitchenware and other items to a local charity shop. They were received gladly by the friendly volunteers. All that made this a natural choice.
So about a week after signing up I had my first shift. A Friday morning. The manager was lovely, no nonsense and friendly. I jumped straight in, greeting customers and getting all the basics down. Cash register and point of sale system, loyalty cards, where everything goes etc.
Mostly the job was putting sales though, helping customers into changing rooms, tagging and putting items out and taking in donations. Making sure customers felt comfortable.
My shifts are Tuesday afternoons and Friday mornings. Shifts are four hours long. Sometimes an extra one if they need the help. Aside from my running, workouts and socialising I’m free. I am writing a book but that stalled months ago. There’s a little mentoring and pro bono consulting I do here and there but that’s minimal. I don’t work. Essentially a “man of leisure.” Temporarily retired. Except I’m terrible at doing nothing. Some have been perplexed that I would choose to do this when I could be doing anything, be virtually anywhere. Well I am doing something and I am somewhere.
A host of interesting characters frequent the shop. Many have interesting stories (I have more than enough of my own too). The customers represent a general cross-section of the local community. The area is distinctly “working class.” Not too dissimilar to the London suburb I grew up in. Most of the customers are women as we mainly have women’s clothes.
Sometimes someone in a bad situation comes in. Homelessness is rife in the area as are other problems such as petty crime and drug use. Not that different from parts of London, except they’re much more shouty here. Some care has to be taken in dealing with the more tricky customers. There is the odd bit of shoplifting, but anyone desperate enough to steal from an op shop is in a very bad place indeed.
Some are just lonely. A gentleman with a hoarding problem came in and spoke to me about his mother and her last days of palliative care. He thanked me several times for listening. I wonder if I was the only person he’d spoken to that day? Whether or not I was, I was glad to be there to hear him. It’s all part of the service. That could be me someday.
Of course there’s also the volunteers. Local retirees or young international students. Some of the latter signed up to practise their English but tend to be a bit nervous when talking to customers. A problem I don’t have as I find myself monopolising the sales counter, but being mindful at times to walk around the shop and let someone else have a turn. They all seem to be happy having me front of shop. Sometimes I feel like I have the place to myself. Don’t mind that. It’s good talking to the students, bright young minds. Future designers, engineers, product people. The whole neoliberal university thing.
I get to tell stories. From my recent travels as well as earlier adventures. Or I share tips and anecdotes from my many and varied interests and hobbies over the years. All of which I pursued with single-minded autistic intensity. Sometimes people share an interest, like photography, so I chat about techniques for exposure or developing film. Or a customer may be looking at a banneton (proving basket for bread dough) so I give some tips on how to ensure dough doesn’t stick after long proving times, i.e. sourdough. The secret is rice flour. Doesn’t absorb water. I help men with tips on how suits and blazers should fit and how to get them altered for a perfect fit. It feels nice to be useful. There’s a lot stored up in this head.
I get to try on different hats. Figuratively and literally. I had a phase early on of entertaining my Instagram friends with ridiculous photos of me in different hats or outfits. Here’s a montage.
It gets worse.
Okay that’s enough.
Mostly I’m just making myself laugh. A friend didn’t realise I volunteered in the shop and assumed I just went in there to take silly photos of myself. Now that would be a bit sad. To be fair, still something I’d probably do.
This has all been a good way to explore and understand the city, or at least a part of it. It has also been a good way to explore and understand aspects of myself. I don’t go into too much detail about my past at the shop. Broad strokes. My personal economic and professional situation is a bit removed from that of almost everyone I deal with here.
Occasionally when I have elaborated it has been met with some interesting responses. Disbelief, in reference to my previous role, in the form of “and they let you go?” Or not believing my British accent was real. I must be one of those clever brown guys from Bali or somewhere similar who can mimic an accent. It’s partly tall poppy syndrome with elements of race (something people find hard to talk about here). It all leaves me with an odd sensation. Maybe I’m like Jimmy/Saul Goodman working in a Cinnabon. Except I’m not hiding. Or am I? From myself perhaps.
I’m not sure why I set out on this journey. Wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Losing myself is a part of the journey. Deconstructing myself. But that’s hard, especially from an ego and self-esteem point of view. Daily I put myself in the path of silly assumptions based on some apparent background I may have come from. People fill in my backstory based on their own life experiences, which tend to be quite narrow sadly. He’s brown? Why’s he not married? Wouldn’t his parents have gotten him married off by now? Oh maybe they’re overbearing and he’s getting away from them? Doesn’t have kids? No home? No mortgage?
It can be amusing but also draining. If I were white I could be more of a blank slate, but this place is very “small town England”, and that’s not to slight small English towns. The truth of my backstory is weirder than anything anyone here could imagine. I really am very much my own thing, no particular cultural or religious background. Just a peculiar brown man from London who’s led a very unusual life. I’ve been forging my own way in the world since I was seven.
I smile and nod at well intentioned advice from people about finding places to stay (where I would be near other brown people) and tips on finding work and on immigration routes. Fighting back the urge to point out that I have a route to immigration that’s open to very few and no need for work beyond wanting something that offers a sense of purpose and motivation. That’s not a “job” as most people think of it, something I’ve rarely had. But then I would just confuse people.
Oh and some assume I’m a student. Sure, I am. A student of life.
Whether these interactions are recharging or draining depend on the day and what’s going on in my life and in my head. I have a lot of social energy and this is a good outlet. When it’s draining it’s down to the additional cognitive load in remembering to be careful about what I share. Compartmentalise. Almost as if I’m maintaining a cover story. It didn’t take me long to realise I couldn’t be my authentic self here. If I’m being honest, I didn’t have it easy in London either. Partly why I lived so centrally. It was easier than this. It may be Melbourne but it’s still conservative and conformist Australia.
So I reflect on my old and possible new life. And this in-between life. And sometimes post an Instagram story mid-shift.
I’ve also had a chance to explore parts of the city on my walks into the shop. Stayed in North Melbourne, Fitzroy North, Parkville, near Batman Park, and in the CBD close to Carlton Gardens. I almost exclusively walk. Public transport (trams and buses) usually take about the same time. It’s an adjustment from London where I’m used to the tube (one every minute or so) or the 12,000 bikes on the sharing scheme. Sadly no such scheme in Melbourne and not as cycle friendly. They did a trial a few years ago but people threw the bikes in the river. This is a car city and that doesn’t jive with my European sensibilities. But it’s unfair to compare Melbourne to London or any European city.
I sometimes daydream about ways the organisation could do better, be more modern. Did some research into the leadership, governance and corporate structures. Unlike some of their competitors they’re still very much a twentieth century operation. No social media customer engagement or presence at the shop level. This could be a huge boost if set up and supported corporately, creating a following in the local community. There are good examples, another charity with a sizeable presence does just that supported by a social media team who go to each of their individual shops. But where I am is not set up for this.
The area manager seems to be a micromanaging busybody. I don’t get involved in any of that. But I do feel a bit like Tim from The Office (or Jim in the US version), almost looking to camera whenever he whirls in like an oversized Tasmanian devil with his madcap ideas. Like the baffling “Buy Two, Get Two Free” promotion and the convoluted and non-intuitive process for working out which items would be free if more than four were being purchased. The point here is to reduce stock and increase sales of course but no one does “Buy Two, Get Two Free” for good reason. It’s bonkers. Thankfully they didn’t go with it. That must’ve required some serious pushback. Collectively the shop managers must be having to do a lot of upward management.
I’m content to observe. It’s like a reality TV show. Ah, middle managers.
Rounding off, the main reason for volunteering was to get the “pulse” of the city by talking to everyday people. Admittedly it’s only one part of the city, but I feel it’s broadly representative.
Can I live here? No, not really. Big fish. It’s a lovely city. Cute. Lovely people. I like the vibe, it’s familiar. Comfortable. But it’s not my speed. It’s not cosmopolitan. Six months and I’m understimulated. There is no sense of urgency to anything. I couldn’t thrive here and would quickly make myself a problem. Too disruptive. Which isn’t to criticise the people or lifestyle here. Different values and priorities. And of course it’s all very far from the rest of the world.
It’s been good but I’ll be moving on soon.
One of the highlights of my time at the shop was when some local photography students came in a few months ago. They wanted to interview someone in an op shop and take some photos for a project. I had a chat with them. Couple of months later they left me a framed photo as a thank you. Touching and a perfect memento of my time here.
Oh and then there was the time I tried to recreate the “Kramer as pimp” look from Seinfeld.