It takes me a while to find William, owner of The Junk Shop in Greenwich. He’s hidden among the stuff that’s been his life’s work: piles of dog-eared theatre programmes, cabinets of doll’s heads, bone-china tea sets and a few actual bones. Eventually, I see a chink of light under a half-hidden door and his voice calls me into his backroom snug where he’s drinking a pint, the air a thick fug of cigarette smoke and nostalgia. The shop’s been in his family since 1967, he explains, gesturing to the yellowed, handwritten original lease on the wall as evidence. But now times are tough. ‘Look at my customers, swarming in!’ he says, with a sarcastic gesture towards the empty shopfloor (what’s visible of it, anyway).
In another junk shop, just off Roman Road, Gina is in a reflective mood (and a snug fur coat) as she prepares for the closure of her shop Gina’s Closet in April. ‘The building’s been sold and the new owners really want to crucify me,’ she says. ‘They’re asking for two and a half thousand a month in rent! I’d dearly love to stay here but I doubt I’d make that kind of money.’
And down in Lewisham, flat cap-wearing Billy is taking a breather from moving the ever-changing array of bargain sofas that fill his shop Second Time Around to reflect. ‘There used to be loads more secondhand shops round here,’ he says. ‘I think we’re becoming a dying breed.’
From Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop to Mr Gruber’s antiques emporium, junk shops are places that capture the imagination, and their stock in trade is memories of bygone times: ‘I could tell you stories about a million things in here,’ says William, and I believe him. But in a city where rents are rising, homes are shrinking, and Marie Kondo’s captured the anti-clutter zeitgeist, they’re under threat. So I’m chatting to their tenacious, charismatic owners to find out why.
Changing times, changing tastes
What quickly becomes clear is that the downfall of the classic junk shop has occurred in several distinct phases. The first was a massive change of taste at the close of the twentieth century. ‘All the old brown furniture has gone out of fashion,’ mourns William. ‘In the ’80s and early ’90s I used to buy things like Victorian dining tables and mahogany wardrobes, and dealers would come from all over Europe. Often they’d turn up before I’d even unloaded the van.’
According to Antique Collector’s Club’s analysis, in the ’70s and ’80s old furniture was seen as a sound investment but it lost two-thirds of its value between 2003 and 2016, as the nation abruptly turned its back on the kind of heavy wood fixtures that had filled British homes since Tudor times.
People were starting to live in smaller modern homes filled with more tat than ever before, making space-efficient furniture a priority. And IKEA’s famous ‘chuck out your chintz’ ad campaign was salt in the wound. Just as early cigarette adverts got women smoking by styling death sticks as rebellious feminist accessories, this 1996 telly spot used female empowerment as its weapon. Sensibly dressed women chucked wooden standard lamps and floral sofas out of their windows into a waiting skip, singing:
‘We’re battling hard and we’ve come a long way, in choices and status, in jobs and in pay. But that flowery trimmage is spoiling our image, so chuck out that chintz today!’
The current popularity of mid-century furniture has helped turn things round a little, but there just aren’t enough original Danish pieces to go round: that kind of hairpin-legged, low-slung, solid wood furniture was only bought by a fashionable and monied minority.
And it’s not just furniture that’s the problem. For William, it’s the modern world’s general love of minimalism (and suspicion of clutter) that’s the issue: ‘If you live in a brand new flat, you might choose one old piece you love and make a statement of it. But if you filled it with stuff like what I’ve got in this room, it would be a mishmash, it wouldn’t blend.’
Easy come, easy go
Junk shops traditionally got their stock from house clearances, but that’s a less profitable route as people fill their homes with cheap stuff with low resale value: ‘Nowadays when people die their home is all full of old MFI, old IKEA,’ says William. ‘And I don’t want that.’
Gina agrees. ‘It’s very much a throwaway society nowadays,’ she says. ‘With flatpack furniture, if it lasts a couple of years you’ll be lucky.’ She gestures to a huge hunk of carved wood, groaning with densely patterned china cups and plates. ‘See that sideboard? That it’ll still be here in another hundred years.’
People’s all-consuming thirst for new – if flimsy – stuff to fill their homes with is fed by a growing raft of companies entering the market. Made.com was an online furniture pioneer, seducing a generation of consumers with mid-century-inspired wares before it abruptly went bust last year, overwhelmed by competition from rival outlets that borrowed its aesthetic but undercut its prices. But who could hear the wailing of thirtysomething Hackneyites who’d missed out on a chrome-legged velvet sofa when there was already an excited murmur from people rushing to buy fast fashion homewares from Zara or H&M’s new home ranges? Or to snag knockdown dupes for mid-century designs on online outlets like Wayfair? Finally, the sought-after minimal home aesthetic was accessible to everyone, at budget prices that everyone could afford.
And even seasoned bargain-hunters, the ones with a taste for all things tatty, are finding fertile new hunting grounds on Facebook Marketplace, Shpock, eBay and others, places where you can find that hyper-specific knickknack that’ll complete your collection without leaving your (vintage) sofa.
These sites also make it easy to sell your own stuff, compared to the days when converting your castoffs to cash meant freezing your arse off at a carboot sale. But do we value our stuff less, in a world where it’s easier than ever to buy stuff (and then to get rid of it again when Marie Kondo bids you to banish the clutter)? This ease creates a revolving door attitude to possessions that perhaps weakens the connections we feel with each individual item. Our belongings often aren’t financial investments any more, and perhaps they’re not emotional ones either.
American sociologist Juliet Schor has spent her whole career reckoning with consumerism and its impact, and one of her discoveries is that the easier it is to buy something, the less pleasurable it is to own it: ‘The psychologically satisfying process of personalisation that occurs when products are acquired and retained, is truncated,’ she writes, in one of her unsparing analyses of consumer culture. ‘Attachment is briefer and there is the constant pain of divestiture [having to get rid of things].’
There are massive ethical reasons to buy secondhand. It’s hard not to be a bit horrified by the devastating impact on the environment of manufacturing, shipping and selling new products, not to mention the poor conditions under which factory workers often labour.
But perhaps there are also emotional reasons to buy secondhand, ones that massively outweigh the frictionless process of one-click online shopping.
The power of personality
‘You see this pair of shoes?’ says Gina, pointing to a pair of pastel-blue platforms, studded with jewels, sitting incongruously next to some battered old lampshades. ‘It’s always going to be better to try them on and see if they’re any good. There are plenty of people who like to come in and have a good rummage, and find things they never imagined they wanted.’ With her fetching turban and fur coat, it feels like Gina also probably inspires people to be a bit bolder than they might otherwise be.
On summer afternoons, she sits out front with a glass of prosecco (she shows me her stash, secreted away in a ’30s cabinet with an ingeniously hidden booze compartment). ‘I’d even hang clothes in that tree,’ she says. ‘So many people have been coming in to say they’ll miss seeing me here. Some of them have been coming in since their mum took them as toddlers, and they’re in their twenties now.’
We know the community, and the community knows us
Adrian tells me that he sees the cycle of his customers’ lives, as they buy a sofa or a rug from him when they get a new place, then sell it back to him when they move somewhere new: ‘We know the community, and the community knows us.’
And William is always ready with a story that’ll invest each purchase at his shop with memories: ‘I’ve got all sorts of weird things,’ he says. ‘And you know what? The weirder the thing, the less likely I am to want to sell it,’ he says, indicating a stuffed two-headed calf that’s mounted on his wall.
He’s deeply attached to the objects around him that tell the story of him and his family: like the photos of his dad beaming as his Greenwich business empire expanded, or the battered sign that used to hang outside the family’s old pub down the road. He tells me to look closely, and points to a patch of the darkened paintwork where he says the outline of this late father’s face can now be seen: ‘That was never there when my grandad painted it,’ he says. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in energies… It’s a bit uncanny, that is.’
It’s not the kind of experience you get in Habitat, that’s for sure. Still, if buying stuff in person offers benefits you can’t put a price on, it’s also something that’s under threat. Economic pressures are making life tough for pretty much every high street retail business, except maybe vape shops and off-licences. Council rates are rising, as are electricity and petrol bills. It’s no coincidence that the junk shops that do survive tend to own their own premises, letting them keep overheads low in a business where profit margins have never been all that great.
TV’s Mary Portas has made it her one-woman mission to save the British high street, but perhaps the problem with her approach is that she quietly lays the blame at the door of individual shop owners, rather than pointing to the wider structural and economic factors at play. Gina takes a pretty dim view of her experience on the show, explaining that Portas only spent a couple of hours in her shop, and tried to persuade her to invest in pricy French antiques that would never fly on Roman Road.
A quick facelift won’t help when customers are moving away from irl shopping en masse. In 2022, an astonishing 16 percent of retail units sat empty across the UK, and even in London, that figure is one in 11. One clear answer is to empower councils to take over all those vacant premises and turn them over to businesses that help communities and reduce waste. Businesses like junk shops. Last year, a government bill was proposed that would give councils the right to forcibly find tenants for premises that have been empty for more than six months. That could help. So could a rethink of the often-unaffordable business rates paid by bricks-and-mortar shops, which allow online retailers with lower overheads to thrive.
For now, the secondhand retailers that are surviving in this tough retail landscape rely on a mix of good fortune (owning their own premises) and savvy (finding a niche and exploiting it, both on- and offline). Islington’s Past Caring thrives because of its carefully curated approach that appeals to well-heeled locals. As its seasoned vintage seller James explains, it’s not a junk shop. It sells vintage items and collectables carefully designed to catch people’s eye. ‘We deal in nostalgia,’ he says.
‘The thing that people say the most is “My mum, grandma, aunt, whatever, had one of those,”’ he says. ‘You can’t keep everything and that is intrinsically a part of why old things are valuable. Because people didn’t keep them.’ His mother used to run the shop, and he got a taste for the trade by selling his old toys in it (‘I’d feel like making a millionaire just from making a tenner’).
At the other end of the spectrum, Second Time Around is a seriously efficient operation, with a second premises in a huge old church in Kent and a website that’s a hub for bargain hunters. It also offers perks you might associate more with online retailers, like free delivery and six-month warranties. It’s a reminder that however tough times might be, there’s still untold value in buying stuff that comes with a bit of history attached, along with the dust. ‘I believe we’ll be around for a very long time,’ says Adrian. ‘With the cost-of-living crisis, a lot of people can’t afford brand-new stuff. Secondhand stuff is just as good.’