I joined Oxfam in 2001, just 11 days before the dreadful attacks in America. It’s how I remember the start date bizarrely. The first shop was local to where I live in Sidcup. My shop was in Bexley Heath. I made some changes and made some more money, and the Area Manager said, “What else can you do?” They offered me another shop and I took that. Then one day he said to me, “Do you fancy going to have a look at a shop in Tooting? Brand new refurb, so I came here, that would have been I think 2004. On arriving here the shop was closed. It had been closed for six months and we had paid a huge amount of money to refurbish it – it had had asbestos right across the front. It was all brand spanking new downstairs, anyone who likes a shop could not have said no. Everything was brand new, painted, fitted the lot.
He said, “Are you sure?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Now, would you like to go upstairs?”
Upstairs had not been refurbished, nor emptied. The lift was condemned and I went back downstairs and he said, “What do you think?”. I said, “I need an army.” He said “It’s up to you, you either take it, or we give it back.” So I said I’d take it. So, I had a five year plan to come to Tooting from Sidcup and it clearly didn’t work.
So, the next time I came to Tooting was to work on this shop plan. As I came out of Tooting Broadway station the very first thing I thought of was Citizen Smith, and Wolfie, and having served his screen mum in Marks & Spencers many years before. It was really like, “wow”. I can remember walking down the High Street and instantly the vibe was incredible. The vibe, the smells, it was chilled, I can’t explain it. There was some brands here then, I remember seeing Marks & Spencers, it was very dated, with my M&S history I knew it was close; they hadn’t invested any money in it. There was a Clark’s shoe shop and a Mothercare. So it wasn’t rammed full of brands, which was kinda of part of its attraction, but it had some brands here, which told me from a retail view that it must be a good High Street.
Over the years, sadly, the brands have gone. Lots of independent shops have appeared. Plus the market – it’s absolutely amazing how people have used that space. One of the things that I love about Tooting is, somehow, on a Saturday, there is still a guy getting away with selling watches from his raincoat! It’s all portable but in all honesty I’ve never seen a policeman move a street seller on here! Loads of bhangra we used to hear on a Saturday – we don’t seem to hear it so much now, I don’t know what’s changed. There was just something about it…
I’m 60 now, so for me to endure a train journey that can be up to six hours a day, there has to be something to make you keep coming.
These days, we are very much trying to be a retail brand and outlet, because if you don’t present yourself in that way in the current climate, you won’t survive. One of the current misconceptions is that our shops are free [to run] and they are absolutely not. We rent and the majority of our shops, our landlords, are there to raise their funds – they have bills to pay at the end of the day. So, effectively, our guidelines are to run these as if they are a retail outlet, obviously with a volunteer team and with donated goods – so that’s what’s difficult; that’s what is the challenge, and that’s what’s fun.
The unique thing about us is the premises is the first floor that we have. We’ve been able to offer the space to Sewing and Sanctuary. We have area meetings here and we have warehoused for the area and we’ve done all kinds of things internally for Oxfam with this second floor. Sewing and Sanctuary is for a group of women from CARAS (Community Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers). We’ve had seven volunteers successfully start with us from this.
Sadly, I think as with food banks, there will be a rise in people buying second-hand. That’s why our offer needs to hit the criteria of feeling as good as new here and nice and clean and tidy.
Jan, Manager of Tooting Oxfam for 18 years
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