While many Port Melbourne people lament the loss of Bay Street shops selling affordable and practical items with the decline in suburban shopping strips followed by the gentrification of the area, one shop provides a place where you can look for a woollen jumper, a cheap knife for gardening, or a good novel to take on holidays. This shop has toys down low, so children can play while parents or grandparents browse. When I had my first shift at this shop it was explained to me that it used to be a ‘real’ op-shop, but was cleaned up so that it started to be called the David Jones of Bay Street. I never heard this being said outside the shop during my time there, but I imagine the retail offerings have changed a lot on Bay Street since the op shop arrived.
This is an operation staffed by volunteers. The core volunteers seem to stay, so there must be something about the place that keeps them there because out the back is cold in winter, hot in summer and floods when it rains. When asked what it is they explain they are a family. The manager passed away last year, and while it took a local paper a while it did run an obituary, testament not only to the valuable work this lady had done in terms of the op shop but also the strong relationships she was able to foster in the are more widely. The church was standing room only for the manager’s funeral.
Aside from obvious affection for other volunteers, there are many ways in which the team resembles a family, not least of all in the degree of seriousness different people are treated with. When the pastry on the heated pies isn’t right or somebody needs to go to the toilet after the door has already been locked, the frustration is expressed. Some people are taken more seriously than others, some people are seen as needing more looking after than others.
This op-shop not only brings some variety to Port Melbourne’s shopping strip and an indoor, cheap place for children to play. It is also seen as a key service in our ‘throw away’ society. When I was around last year, the back roller door was open from before 8am most mornings, the need for the volunteers’ early start explained as catering to the needs of people who work.
Volunteer work is often sold as a way to feel good about yourself. However, op shops are also a way that people who own a lot of things can probably feel better about themselves too. It seemed normal to thank people for their donations, and it was always hard when items had to be refused. However, when you take the items down the back for the customer you are likely to receive some warm hearted, berating for giving the ladies working away more to deal with. Much of what comes in really is rubbish (worn out shoes, broken toys, long outdated magazines).
Head office sends out memos and posters advising the volunteers of what they are not allowed to do. No taking home items that are to be thrown out, no discounts for volunteers, no buying items before they go on the shop floor. There are also instructions for how stock is to be priced and which colour tags to use. Sometimes the directives seem to miss the point of op shops, such as the idea of only carrying seasonal clothes (often people going on holidays come in because they cannot find out of season clothes elsewhere). Apparently the store was rung up by head office once to say they had gotten a complaint about an undressed mannequin in the window – now if a ‘rudie-nudie’ is spotted, dressing it is a first priority (the same cannot be said for a children’s wear and toy shop further down the street which had a row of naked child mannequins for weeks in a row). The volunteers seemed to take these directives from faceless people in their stride.
As I said, the core volunteers stay. Like with so many other volunteer run groups, the volunteers do not seem to be there because they have nothing else to do with their time. Volunteers have children, grand children and/ or great grand children they often look after or have over for meals. They have dogs to mind, mothers to visit, and relationships to keep. There are birthdays to cook for, weddings to attend, and homes to clean. In addition, many of the volunteers have those extra health appointments that come with getting older and feet or ankles which show signs of protest after all day of standing on the concrete floor. There are complaining donors and customers, and always an endless number of items that fall on the floor or have been thrown over the racks. However, there are also people who call in to see how the volunteers are going and a sense of team work and friendship is evident.
Not everything about the op shop is a tale of warmth and joy but, like most groups, if you spend enough time there you get to witness all sorts of support and care through life’s big and little challenges.