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Nell Whittaker: 'Charity Shop', an excerpt

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Photograph by Nell Whittaker.

This is an extract from Nell Whittaker's chapbook Charity Shop, published in 2020 by death of workers whilst building skyscrapers press.

Homer and Langley Collyer were brothers who lived in Harlem in the 1950s. After the deaths of their parents, Langley began to fill their tall brownstone with stuff — collecting things on nocturnal missions outside, throwing nothing away. The house became a warren of pathways and hollows, like a complex nest. Over time Homer lost his sight and became partially paralysed, and so Langley cared for him, bringing him food and water, reading to him, playing the piano. Their reputation for eccentricity spread, and there were attempted break-ins, which led Langley to construct elaborate booby traps along the corridors.

After a long period in which neither of the brothers was seen outside or at the windows, the police were called after neighbours reported a bad smell. There they found Homer, who had died of starvation and heart failure, slumped in an alcove. It was believed that Langley had left the house and failed to return. They cut a hole in the roof so that they could begin to pull out the stacks of rotting newspapers, furniture, and clothes from the house. It was two and a half weeks before they found Langley prostrate in a collapsed avenue of things, crushed by one of his own booby traps. It was the smell of his decomposing body that had reached the neighbours.

The police eventually removed over a hundred tons of junk from the house over two floors, finding ‘baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three body forms, painted portraits, photos of pin-up girls from the early 1900s, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer's hope chests, rusty bed springs, the kerosene stove, a child's chair, more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of the old Model T with which Langley had been tinkering, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and other fabrics, clocks, fourteen pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines, some of them decades old, and thousands of bottles and tin cans’. This list comes from Wikipedia, and it’s difficult to track the sources down, but it doesn’t matter particularly. Endless things, made extraordinary by the fact of their being kept, by their being fashioned into somewhere that held two people safe until it didn’t.

This story lingers in the collective imagination because it is about a collective drive, taken to its logical and tragic conclusion. In his poem ‘Newspapers (The Collyer Brothers)’, Lewis Todd describes Langley seeing a policeman on the roof gazing down into the house: ‘He knows the horror / of our accumulation as his own: his magazines dog-eared and curling / in lack; the bead-black eyes of childhood toys in the attic; the radio-god / giving sermons to the empty kitchen; his daughter entombed in the folds / of the inanimate.’

A crocodile mug, where his long green tail is the handle (99p, Severn Hospice, Shrewsbury). An orange and red blanket made from recycled silk saris (£8, Sue Ryder, Chorlton). A faded yellow linen duvet cover which is much longer than it is wide (£5, Sue Ryder, Chorlton). A lion made from wire and beads, with big pendulous beaded balls, a present for Sophie (£5, St Vincent’s, Dalston). A tiny penguin, the size of my first knuckle, made from blown glass (99p, Barnardos, Levenshulme). Small boxes in the shape of birds made in Kashmir from paper and painted with gilt lacquer (various). Little rickety wooden picture frames (price and origin long forgotten). A long blue robe embroidered with elephants (£6, Age Concern, Shrewsbury). A book about telepathy, which has black and white pictures in it of seated people with ectoplasm issuing from their mouths and noses (33p, Barnardos, Levenshulme). A little wrinkled brass elephant (a present from Coco, 99p, Wem). A panoramic camera (£2, Stockport). A moss green wool coat (£8, Severn Hospice, Wem). A mug that only says I AM ONE FART AWAY FROM A POO on it (which I didn’t buy, and wish I had, near Euston). A rare plate from a South Wales pottery with a stork painted on it, which I found out later would be worth about £500 were it not for the hairline fracture on the rim (£2, Sue Ryder, Withington). A plate with A PRESENT FOR A GOOD GIRL painted in the middle (99p, Barnados, Levenshulme). A plastic jelly mould in the shape of a rabbit that Yvette, Josie and Lani used to make a candle during the summer lockdown of 2020 (49p, long-forgotten location).

These are my beloveds: one fraction of the masses of things I have bought over the years, so many items of clothing, books, presents I have now forgotten I gave, so many failures among the successes. I bought things just for them to sit in a drawer until they are given back to charity again. What kind of taxonomy is this? Desires unfelt until encountered, a history of money (so little, and so much) passing through my hands like water.

Desire and its excess can define a life. Sometimes I’m thinking about what I’m going to eat next as I’m still eating; I drink until I’m blank and stumbling; I finish one cigarette and I want another. Collecting with no real goal or endpoint makes me feel guilty, sometimes, particularly as minimalism gains traction as a signifier of emotional maturity or moral worth. Sometimes I google pictures of Kim and Kanye’s house, a secular Californian monastery consisting only of smooth off-white surfaces, not a single possession in sight. This is rejection of excess taken to its nadir by the super-rich: those who want, literally as it turns out, for nothing. The purpose of money is not what it allows you to have, but how it allows you to live: without effort, floating above the excremental human traffic of wanting and buying, eating of the chameleon’s dish, only air.

Charity shops receive business rate relief, which means that they are often able to move into properties that might otherwise be empty. The aftermath of the 2008 financial crash saw a rash of charity shops moving into newly vacated high street properties, and the number of charity shops in the UK has risen year on year since. The UK has also seen the largest fall in home ownership in Europe in that time, and the average tenant in the UK spends around 30% of their income on rent (compared to 10% in 1980). Many people experience the inhabitation of a house as a precarious luxury: no pets, no prams, no blu tack, we’re coming around to photograph the entire house and charge you for the rot around the windowpanes, your fault as per the tenancy agreement where it is your responsibility to prevent condensation from collecting on the windowpane in such a way that it runs down into the wood. 8.4 million people live in overcrowded, unaffordable or insecure housing, according to the National Housing Federation. Charity shops are cheap, above all else, and might offer a person a chance to acquire beautiful and thoughtful things, but they are incapable of providing the access to dignity which is stripped away through austerity: privacy, time, space, comfort, the ability to rest.

A tweet from the poet Kyle Carrero Lopez: ‘beauty isn’t everything, nor is it always enough, nor should it be the main goal.’

Charity shops are not accessible to all: they often only open well inside working hours in the week and are closed on Sundays, they require you to spend time and energy sifting, and their clothes — reflecting the fashion industry from where they came — are weighted in favour of people who are thin or non-disabled. But there remains a kind of opportunity latent in charity shopping: a more democratic access to high-quality and beautiful goods, the direction of money towards people who need it, the possibility of incubating new intimacies with the stranger.

Nell Whittaker is a writer based in Manchester. Her poem 'Something Burning' was featured in Traces. This excerpt is taken from her chapbook Charity Shop, which was published in 2020 by death of workers whilst building skyscrapers press.