Shopkeepers of the World / by lucy jefferies

On a chilly January day in St Leonards, a seaside town on the South East coast, we hosted our first ‘free lunch’ event to kick start ‘Shopkeepers of the World’, a new project exploring the provenance of charity shops in St Leonards, the objects they house and the stories they tell of the local community. We teamed up with Bargain, an artist studio collective to host the event at their community gallery and studio on Kings Road. As their tenancy draws to an end, Danielle Castelino and Alfie Bell from Bargain reflect on the lunch, the stories shared and new connections made on Kings Road.

Exploring ideas of value and currency has become our speciality at Bargain Studio. Amongst other things, we’ve hosted a £1 sale of art and objects, a community swap shop, and an exhibition featuring a toilet sponsored by local businesses. Therefore it was a pleasure to be asked to host Quiet Down There’s first free lunch event at our HQ and help them get their Shopkeepers of the World project off to a good start.

We founded Bargain Studio after coming across a vacant shop unit going cheap on Kings Road, St Leonards-on-Sea. The whole building cost the same as the studio rooms we’d been considering renting and it had a lovely double shop front so we decided it would be ideal to take on as both studio and community art gallery.

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The three of us had a special affection for Kings Road anyway – its mix of charity shops, secondhand shops, bargain stores, takeaways, betting shops and small businesses, all housed in beautiful Venetian-inspired architecture makes it a unique place to be. It’s become a hub for locals coming to do shopping, groups of young people and (self-confessed) street drinkers to congregate and also, – increasingly and perhaps inevitably – tourists from London and Brighton hunting for quirky yet affordable items to furnish their houses and wardrobes.

Designing exhibitions and events that would appeal to these varied inhabitants and passersby was a fantastic challenge for three recent art graduates, looking to develop and test our skills outside the safety of our art school bubble and engage with our community. It’s pretty much a perfect microcosm. Naturally, this makes it an ideal place for QDT to work their magic too…

Danielle Castelino

There is no such thing as a free lunch and I am sure no one would be more aware of this than the unpaid charity shop volunteer. If you don't pay for something in cold hard cash than you invariably pay for it in time, in your attention, in your person. So it was with great relief that we opened our doors at twenty Kings Road to the first trickle of local charity shop workers who decided that a free lunch was definitely worth the sacrifice of their personal time.

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The event was well attended and it was a joy to hear people talk openly over homemade soup and French Fancies about, not only the creative and curatorial aspect of the charity shop, but also the social role these places play. Subjects of discussion ranged from the sense of purpose and focus the charity work gave volunteers, to the responsibility the volunteers felt to their customers. An interesting example of this responsibility was raised by one volunteer who admitted turning a blind eye to the shoplifting of those who appeared in a state of obvious need. Although the ultimate aim of the charity shop is fundraising they clearly provide a valuable social service to the local community as well.

The lunch helped to illuminate the multifaceted nature of running and working for a charity shop beyond simply shifting merchandise, exploring how the dynamic of the charity shop allows the value of the objects within to take on a fluid and subjective nature.

Having a base on Kings Road for the past year, and variously organising exhibitions, workshops and creative events, it was interesting to be introduced to other locals who work in a not too dissimilar capacity. There was an obvious understanding of the pastoral responsibility of the shop owner to its visitors. Working in a charity shop is also much like curating an endless exhibition, constantly challenged with the monumental task of organising and categorising a disparate mass of man-made ephemera to present, price and ultimately sell.

These conversations reinforced what is interesting about the Shopkeepers of the World project. In bypassing the straightforward economics of a high street retailer we begin to construct other means of defining value, beyond the purely economic. Objects become narratives, family histories, emotionally charged or benignly utilitarian. When browsing a charity shop you try and draw connections, who was the ACDC fan? Did they die or simply develop a taste for classical? Were all those shoes from the same woman – mid-life crisis, Buddhist re-awakening? The objects present fertile ground for creative exploration and community engagement. The positive response from local volunteers was an exciting validation of this.

As our tenancy comes to an end and we leave behind the security of a permanent headquarters amongst the charity shops, off licenses and antiques pedallers of Kings Road, it is comforting to imagine the shopkeepers of the world quietly taking care of business, organising the ceramic frogs of St. Leonards and re-purposing the personal histories of the local community.

Alfie Bell