The Life-Changing Magic of Op-Shopping in Australia

Mel Fulton loves to op-shop, and she’s collected many special old things over the years. But what is it about sorting through other people’s stuff that is just so special?

I’ve always felt at home in op shops. They’re warm and alive and a little bit melancholy. Living museums of stuff – some of it old and precious, most of it junk. I like to move between the racks and shelves slowly, in spite of myself, running my fingers over soft fabrics and dull glass display cabinets. My lungs fill with the scent of dusty books as I tune into the old ladies in the sorting room out the back, gossiping. It’s a ritual that anchors me to the world, and the things I find along the way – the special old things once owned and loved, now discarded like rag dolls and waiting for me – help to tell the story of who I am.

My flamingo-pink Saturday Night Fever pants that I bought from an op shop in sunny Barcelona, for example, or the deep blue Faberge jeans like my mum used to wear. I recently bought an eggcup in the shape of a sad-looking Alsatian dog’s head – it was $2 and I’m going to plant a succulent in it later. These things called to me, and I answered.

But, lately, it’s been gently suggested that it might be time to maybe think about possibly getting rid of just a few things. We moved house not long ago and it was a two-loads-in-a-five-tonne-truck nightmare. Still, I tend to rail against such suggestions.

Marie Kondo, tidying goddess, explains in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up that you should only get rid of stuff that doesn’t spark joy in your life. And, luckily for me, I own no such things: all my op-shop stuff sparks joy in my life. But what is it about stuff that I get so attached to?

I’d never met Catherine Reiser when she agreed to do a show-and-tell of her op-shopped stuff with me, but you get to know someone pretty quick when you’ve got your head stuck in their wardrobe. She’s a classy woman, Catherine, with her chic bob and her elderflower cordial way of speaking. She’s warm, yet composed. When she starts talking about her treasures, though, her voice gets a little higher and she smiles more. “This is one of my favourites” she might say, or “Ooooh I absolutely love this” or “These look fantastic with…”

She’s a dedicated op-shopper – a modern-day, bargain-hunting antiquarian. She op-shops for lots of reasons but, by the looks of her apartment, which is plush and luxurious and not at all cluttered, it’s not because she has to. Catherine loves the chase, is a firm believer in the recycle economy and loves adorning herself and her home with beautiful things.

“Each find marks a time, place and has a very particular personal context,” she says. Being drawn to something is not so different to being drawn to someone, she tells me, and you can’t always explain why it happens. “We are often drawn towards the familiar or something that is evocative of something else and that simply feels comfortable to be around.”

My favourite local op shop, the Salvos store in the regional Victorian town of Castlemaine, smells a bit like my dad’s car: dust, tea-leaves, wet wool and cigarettes. It’s in a shed next to a petrol station on the main road into town, and, like an old Carlton share house, it’s perpetually dark and bursting with stuff. Unlike so many op shops, my local Salvos is yet to be made shiny and corporate. It doesn’t have display windows or strategic lighting or a loyalty card system. The money they make there – and, according to the volunteers, they make a lot – still feeds back directly into the community via support services, food parcels and vouchers for people doing it tough.

Despite its drab physicality, it’s a magical place. From the heaving stash of moth-eaten doggy blankets to the buckling shelves of knick-knacks, it’s a place where everything belongs. You can buy knitting needles, romance novels, fishing tackle and VCR tapes. If you’re lucky, you might find a pristine 60-year-old jacket rubbing shoulders with the Miller’s Fashion Club hand-me-downs, or a perfect vermilion red wool cardigan with daisy buttons to brighten a cold day. You might find The Complete Works of Proust with loopy handwritten notes in its margins, or a pair of pants with a dirty tissue in the pockets, or a set of heavy crystal tumblers. You might find a mountain landscape puzzle with three pieces missing. You’re equally likely to find a soiled wig or a cashmere pashmina. That’s why when you find something to treasure, it feels almost spiritual, or at least akin to a win on the pokies.

Ima Lorimer volunteered at Castlemaine Salvos for five years, before retiring in the first week of May this year. I got to know her because she’d be on the register every Thursday morning when I’d visit. She’s sold me a mid-century, Italian-made wool and chrome sofa; a remote shutter cord for a Polaroid camera in original circa-1970s rainbow packaging; a cornflower blue jumper in 1974 Sharpie style; and a mirror with a dog on it. Ima has a warm open face and a lilting voice. She wears wool jumpers and silver jewellery and before the Salvos she used to volunteer at both the animal shelter and the hospital. She is generous and practical and kind and, though I treasure all the things I’ve bought from her, it is she who reminds me that op shops are about more than just the stuff.

“It’s not so much about what you sell,” she says. “It’s the people who come in here – it’s more about them.”

She tells me about customers who come in every day, many of them twice a day, many of them for two hours at a time or more. “Everything’s so cheap that they can always buy something so that they can have a chat – even if it’s only a saucer, or a couple of glasses.”

Those of us who op-shop are drawn to it for different reasons, ranging from comfort to necessity to desperation. There are people who visit op shops because they have to, and people who visit them because they like to. Some days when I visit I might see a giggling group of teenagers buying flammable fabrics and things with big lapels for a 70s party. There might be a lone man with a bald spot getting help to find slacks for a job interview. There might be vintage dealers negotiating at the register for special bulk prices on fur and woollens and lumberjack jackets. Sometimes there are young mums with screaming children. Sometimes there are people without shoes. Often, there are people seeking nothing but a chat. Our reasons for visiting are varied, but in the op shop, we’re all searching for something. Here, we’re all rummaging side by side.

Back at Catherine’s, and she’s holding out a pair of op-shopped tailor’s scissors now, ready for me to inspect. She keeps them on display in her dining room. They’re old and heavy, with handles bound lovingly in fabric to stop blisters. Catherine tells me about her mum, once a dressmaker, who now has advanced Alzheimer’s and can’t speak or do much for herself. “The scissors are a reminder of her creativity,” she says, “her capabilities and flair for making fabulous clothes for herself and her children. It’s a bit bonkers, I know, but do you get it?”

I think about how fleeting life is. How a perfect old thing might pass through many hands over hundreds of years, while we ourselves become old and weary. Yes, Catherine, I get it.

“The scale of the surrounding world, even the scale of a single human life, is nothing short of terrifying,” writes Australian essayist Fiona Wright in her book Small Acts of Disappearance. You can’t know it, you can’t map it, you couldn’t explain it were it not for the little stage props that help to guide you through the performance of being yourself.

Because special stuff, for the most part, is small: a red cotton bandana, a glossy jar of buttons, an embroidered silk jacket from China. Stuff has beauty and function and purpose and is easy to understand. Stuff is unchanging, unfeeling, reliable. We can put it in its place and make things tidy.

It’s like that saying: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Stuff is the little bites of the elephant of the universe.

On average, elephants weigh between two and seven tonnes. Our latest house move suggests my special stuff weighs closer to 10. I am 33 years old, and I weigh 10 tonnes. Ten tonnes of trinkets and dust and longing and memories. Ten tonnes of moments. I have many silly hats, and I have many silly stories. I found lots of them at the op shop.

Catherine and Mel’s Favourite Victorian Op Shops

According to the Op Shop Guide Victoria, there are almost 800 op shops in our fair state alone! Here are ten of Catherine and Mel’s favourites.

Castlemaine Salvos – 310 Barker Street, Castlemaine
A humble, community-run, truly local op shop of the classic variety. Expect low prices and friendly service. Mel has found everything from woollens to cameras to faux fur to furniture here. They also have excellent books.

Balnarring St Marks Anglican Church – 1 Balnarring Road, Balnarring
Tucked in the church in the centre of Balnarring Village, Catherine once found a locally made hardwood billiard table here.

South Melbourne Scared Heart Mission – 365 Clarendon Street, South Melbourne
This is Catherine’s favourite op shop. It’s not especially cheap, but prices are reasonable and the goods are high quality. Catherine has bought many items from here, including a full-length cashmere coat and a Ralph Lauren trench.

The Posh Opp Shoppe – 484 Glen Huntly Road, Elsternwick
Another favourite of Catherine’s, with a good range knick-knacks, home wares and clothes too.

Mansfield Vinnies – 8 Baldry Street, Mansfield
Mel has had exceptional luck with coats and kitchen wares here, and woollen blankets too. Perhaps it’s because Mansfield gets so cold.

Vinnies Coburg – 260 Sydney Road, Coburg
Always worth a quick look here before jumping on the tram to Brunswick. The cheese pies from the Lebanese bakery next door are very good too.

Carlton North Salvos – 747 Nicholson Street, Carlton North
Mel has found a lot of fancy brands and high end items here. The other week she almost bought a royal blue angora beret from here, before deciding that she had enough hats already. Although, maybe she’ll go back and try it one more time…

Community Caring Inc Op Shop – 6/175–179 Mornington-Tyabb Road, Mornington
Catherine outfitted the best part of a holiday house here. It’s a big op shop and they sell everything: furniture, electricals, clothing, knick knacks, textiles, curtains and shoes. Catherine says the home wares are especially good.

Beechworth Salvos – 37 Ford Street, Beechworth
This is another locally-run gem of the old-school variety. Mel narrowly missed out on a pair of brown lace-up Doc Martens from here, but picked up a Polaroid camera still in its box for $3.50

Toorak Opportunity Shop – 1A Carters Avenue, Toorak
Catherine says this one is particularly good for work clothes: tailored jackets, shoes and accessories.

Mel Fulton is a writer, primary school teacher and the new Big Issue intern.

Illustrations by Alice Oehr.