Professor Joe Goldblatt
Most weeks, for a couple of hours, I serve as a volunteer sales assistant at a Cancer Research UK charity shop in my neighbourhood. I sweep the floor, dust the counters, price and display merchandise for sale, and banter with the customers to raise thousands of pounds for vital cancer research.
Throughout the United Kingdom there are 600 Cancer Research UK charity shops and my shop is one of the smallest. However, this tiny shop is part of a charity that in the financial year 2021 / 2022 helped raise enough funds to support life improving and saving research of £668 million. I am simply a very small cog in a very big and important wheel.
When I retired from 47 years of University teaching, I wanted to continue to make a positive impact upon peoples’ lives within our increasingly fragile society. My criteria for finding a regular weekly volunteer post was to locate an organisation within walking distance of my home and to feel as though I am making a positive contribution every time I walked through the front door. The small Cancer Research UK shop just around the corner has over many years become my solution for contributing to the progress in extending the lives of persons with cancer.
In the previous month, four of my life – long friends have died due to different cancers. Instead of wringing my hands in grief and agony, I chose to roll up my sleeves and volunteer in a shop where we contribute the funds to support scientists who seek to save lives. While doing this, I also have a lot of fun!
My late father owned a small hardware store and I worked in his business until my early teenage years. I learned that when a customer enters the shop they must be welcomed, greeted and provided with an offer of assistance. The first time I did this in our Cancer Research UK shop my customer appeared startled as this approach is so rarely provided in many businesses.
Undeterred, I also followed Papa’s mantra of laughter being the best way to encourage a customer to relax and part with their hard earned cash. Therefore, I regularly tell our customers that “All of our trousers are on sale. If you purchase one leg, you get one free!” They often smile and laugh and then go on to purchase other items.
When I notice a customer looking at our extensive book collection I tease them with a sly wink and say that they must be at least 18 years old to purchase certain titles. The customer is usually over fifty years of age and they also smile and sometimes even wink back as they know that I am telling them how good they look for their age.
When one of our customers enters the dressing room I note the colour of the garment they are about to try on and then I select items such as jewelry, shoes, scarves and other items from the shop that will perfectly accessorise their selection. When they emerge from the dressing room they carefully inspect the treasures I have selected and often add them to their purchase which helps raise more funds for vital research.
Finally, upon check out I tell the customer at the till that I have selected them as a “Chic Customer of the Day “and offer them shoes, gloves, a chapeau (hat) and even ladies lingerie on the third floor (we have never had a third floor). Once again they smile and sometimes even raise their eyes up looking hopefully for the third floor.
When they decline my invitation for additional purchases I apologise for my offering them additional items and then explain that I am a volunteer and I work every week to find a cure for cancer and appreciate their help. When their final amount appears on my computer screen I invite them to become my “Philanthropist of the Day” by making a small additional contribution (top up) to help us fund progress in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer. Over ninety percent of my customers make additional donations and some are quite sizeable.
One day a young woman said to me “If all the volunteers in shops like this were as enthusiastic as you, cancer would be cured!” I blushed and smiled. I then told her, I was just doing what I pledged to do when I accepted this small volunteer role. Each time I walk through the door I am working with others to help people with cancer.
Our volunteers range from university students to senior citizens and are from many backgrounds. Some provide a couple of hours each week as I do and some donate full days of their time. The full time manager is excellent in looking after her volunteers by regularly offering us coffee and always saying “Thank you” at the end of our shift. Some volunteers have worked at the shop for decades while others only a few months. However, we all share the same commitment to the cause.
Our customers are also varied in age and background with about fifty percent who are what I call regulars who visit us once a week or even more in search of the latest treasures. Many of these customers are also donors of merchandise that we are able to sell. Nothing that comes in is wasted. If we are unable to sell an item in our shop it will be taken to another one in our network.
One of the best aspects of the dozens of charity shops in Edinburgh is the reuse, recycling and reduction ethos that supports the sustainable development goals of our city and country. Our shop annually receives thousands of items from local citizens that are used to raise critical funds for cancer research keeping items in use for longer.
While standing at the till, I have heard many sometimes tragic and always heartfelt stories from customers who have suffered from cancer or have lost loved ones to this disease. Each one of them offers to top up their purchase price out of gratitude for the excellent cancer care they have received.
I now know where these miracles begin and how they are cultivated. Thousands of charity shop volunteers produce these miracles selling one frock, one tea cup, one book at a time with the hope that our efforts will help scientists reduce suffering for others.
And all this magic happens in a little shop of miracles just around the corner.
Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University. His views are his own. To volunteer for Cancer Research UK please visit https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/get-involved/volunteer/shop-volunteer-edinburgh-south-clerk-street