It’s a busy Saturday morning in Mary’s Living and Giving shop in Primrose Hill. The manager, Monica Nsue Jurado, is checking the inventory room; volunteer Nada carries downstairs the donation bags that a local resident brought in; and John, a former charity communications manager, is happy he managed to fix the window display.
“The interesting part about volunteering,” Monica says, “is that you get to work with what you are good at; and when you do that for a good cause, the impact is multiplied.”
Monica is the new manager of the shop. She left her job in PR and events for a career aligned with her values and a company that had a positive impact on people’s lives. Mary’s Living and Giving was set up eight years ago by retail expert Mary Portas for the benefit of Save the Children, the non-profit organisation dedicated to changing children’s futures. Following Mary’s own vision, Monica wants to invite local people to become volunteers, in order to continue making the shop a place for the community to come together.
“Why not?” she asks as she files documents and tidies up some clothes on the rack. “There is an opportunity for everybody: if you are a student, a parent, somebody in-between jobs, have just retired or are new to the neighbourhood, your skills are needed.” As Monica describes the shop’s layout, she points to the books section. “We have a wonderful woman named Nina who used to work in the library at Cambridge University, and all these books have been carefully selected by her. She’s been off on holiday for two weeks, and you can definitely feel her absence. This is like her own curated collection.”
Flexible for Volunteers
Volunteers need to commit to just four consecutive hours every week. The idea is to work at whatever needs doing: selling, looking after the shop, sorting clothes, engaging with customers or coming up with ideas to increase sales. This season, for example, Monica has decided on two focus points: items of menswear, and selling products from companies with a social purpose (e.g. the soaps and body creams from SoapCo, a bestseller from the summer, which help the blind).
Although it sounds clichéd, every day can bring an opportunity. Monica explains: “We had a customer who tried on a beautiful dress and ripped it. The woman never mentioned it and left it on the rack. We were disappointed when we noticed, because we thought we had missed out on a great sale. When one of the volunteers spotted what had happened, she took out a needle and thread and managed to fix it. We did not know how talented she was! From then on, she uses her skills to repair and upscale garments.”
Volunteers are the backbone of the work of Save the Children. The organisation started at the beginning of the twentieth century as the joint effort of two sisters who were worried about the living conditions of children in Europe. Their extraordinary efforts led to the growth of what is now one of the most important NGOs for the welfare of children all over the world.
Mary Portas wrote the statement that “Mary’s Living and Giving isn’t simply a shop name, it’s a philosophy.” There are over a hundred outlets in the UK, and they are treated as boutiques rather than charity shops. Each one is a unique concept with its own particular wall colours, style and original products. The idea is to give a personality to each branch. This helps volunteers to sort and classify donations, making sure they are sent to the place where they are most likely to be sold; items of higher quality can obviously be sold for a higher price. The shops have won a place in the high streets of some of the trendiest neighbourhoods in London. Sophie, from the Primrose Hill branch, says, “I have been volunteering and working in charity shops since I was fourteen, and the donations I see are unbelievable. Mary’s Living and Giving is the most impressive I have seen.”
It’s true. The stock ranges from high street labels to fashion power houses like Alexander McQueen or Stella McCartney. Coats, dresses, shirts and shoes are carefully selected and arranged to attract savvy costumers. It’s common to see a great pair of Italian leather boots arrive in the morning and disappear by 2 o’clock the same day.
Article by Mariana Gutierrez Reyes
Photos by Sarah Louise Ramsay slrphotography.co.uk