In the two years the shop has been in existence we have helped over forty families through difficult circumstances – marriage break up, divorce, unemployment, bereavement.
It can be a pretty bad situation when people don’t know where to turn. A lot of organisations out there can offer assistance. The main thing is biting the bullet and asking.
We offer practical help and will supply anyone who comes in with whatever we have. People may find themselves living in accommodation, through benefits, and can’t afford furniture – they may have very little. One fellow we helped was lying on a mattress – and that was the entire contents of his home. We go in and help out with whatever they need. There has been occasions where we actually went out and purchased fridges, washing machines, cookers. Again, with whatever money the shop is bringing in.
From we opened the shop two years ago I would say 50% of the stuff that has come in and out the door has been given away free of charge. You definitely get more satisfaction from helping someone who needs it, rather than selling something for a few pounds.
First and foremost we are a Christian-based organisation.
Husband and wife team, Betty and Stanley, set up the entire operation about 5 years ago. Initially it started with car-boot sales and progressed to what you see today. Primarily we set out to help children in Ethiopia, through a centre connected to Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle – the church that we belong to. The shop was established here two years ago. We recognised almost immediately that there was a great degree of poverty in the area where we live in North Belfast. So it didn’t take long to expand to help people in need, in the area – we help anyone – irrespective of race, religion, culture. That progressed to a need that we recognised on the streets of Belfast, working with the homeless. So, it’s a three-pronged operation.
The shop is managed by a team of four. Betty Looks after the staffing of the shop – which is entirely carried out by volunteers. No-one gets a penny. Carl looks after the finance, administration and also transport things like that. Myself and Stanley are involved in the donkey work – for the want of a better term. We do the deliveries/ collections and that sort of thing. We are here from 7.00 in the morning sometimes to 7.00 at night – but it’s enjoyable.
We act pretty much like a funeral director – you make the one call and it’s all taken care of. We collect and deliver. There are no time constraints either. If someone is working all day we will pop in down at 7 pm. We go far and wide. We’ve been to Dublin for a house clearance. If it’s worth our while we will go.
I joined the operation 5 years ago – at the first rung of the ladder. My background was with Tesco. I was in distribution night shift for 16 years so I have picked up a few tricks of the trade. You may not believe it but music also helps in the background. People linger for longer…. mostly Christian music. Nothing sectarian.
We finance everything that we do through sales from the shop. There are no wages involved and there are about 10 staff working in the shop – some do half a day, some do full days. The only thing taken out of the kitty is the fuel for the vehicles that we use. The shop does generate some money and all of that is re-invested into the three projects that we are involved with.
People drop bags off in person, or phone for pick up – and we will accommodate it where we can. If we get a call to go somewhere at 9pm– we’ll do that. When a bag is left in it goes into the sorting table. The girls will go through it and if its re-sellable at all it goes into the shop, if not, it goes into the recyclable area. Some of the volunteers will take stuff home to be washed – but obviously if something is going to sell for a pound it’s not worth your while so we’d prefer to put it in to be recycled.
We have an additional store down the street and everything goes there first to be cleaned up and evaluated. If it’s good its kept for the shop. If not, then we dispose of it.
On the sad occasion where there has been a bereavement. We will go out and clear the entire contents. When you see all your possessions that you’ve gathered up over the years stacked up in the back of a Ford Transit van – it’s not a very nice experience at all. It’s difficult for the relatives left behind.
We’ll go anywhere. There are situations when we are asked to do a house clearance and we say well this item is nice, and this item is nice… but you can’t pick and choose. The person needs the lot cleared. There’s also occasions, with maybe elderly people, that the settee they are donating is beyond repair, but we take it away and dispose of it.
If we get an item in that we think is of significant value we take it to the auction. Clothes that we get in may be past their best – to put it mildly – that aren’t of any value, are recycled and we get a price based on weight.
The shop was only opened about 2 weeks and we had a young girl 9 of years of age looking for a pair of shoes. She lifted a pair of shoes off the shelf and we asked her to try them on first.
“How much are they?”.
“How much have you got?”
“ I’ve got a pound”
“That’s how much the shoes are.”
She left her old pair of shoes and we saw that there were holes in the soles. That’s when we recognised there was a need here.
It’s all about location. We couldn’t have a better location. We’ve got a Doctors’ group surgery directly across, a chemist next door. We try to cater for all ages. There is quite an aged population around the area here. 70% are pensionable age. We have had customers from Andersonstown and the Shankill. They come from far and wide.
We have been out on the street for one year this month. We load up our van on a Thursday and travel into town at 10.00pm and we stay there until midnight. We set up a table in Donegall Place with tea, coffee, all hot drinks, warm clothing, sleeping bags and we distribute that amongst the homeless.
Everyone has a different story to tell. Most of them have a problem with addiction of one type or another, be it alcohol, or drugs. The majority of them are young people – which is really heart-breaking to see. Over the last year we have built up a relationship with them. They give us their trust and in return we don’t reveal their details.
There are a few who get into hostels but if they are not there before a certain time they’ve missed the boat, as it were. So… yes, in doorways you do find anywhere from 5-25 people in any given night. People won’t leave the doorways for fear of losing their spot. They can’t come to us, so we go to them – with our postman’s trolley donated by the Royal Mail. The Sleeping bags primarily come as donations from the congregation of the church,
The relationship we’ve built up with the regular rough sleepers in Belfast is out of this world. They’ve given us their trust. They tell us things, their backgrounds and stories, and some of them are really heart breaking.
The objective is not to have anyone on the streets for any more than two consecutive nights. Sometimes it works – sometimes it doesn’t. The other problem that we have identified is that people are coming and going. They are in Belfast tonight, Dublin tomorrow night, Coleraine, Ballymena, they move all round the place. Those people are very hard to track. We have our regulars who are with us each and every week that we have come to know and love.
Some nights you feel like you are firefighting. Other times its very quiet. No two nights are the same. I get a bit emotional. It’s down to what we see and what we hear.
We sell curtains, bedding, right across the range. Everything from socks and underwear right up to coats, hats…everything. Some of the heavier, warmer, items of clothing we would keep in our store to hold back for the homeless – especially at this time of year.
We get some items into the shop and think we won’t sell that – and its gone in an hour. We get other things in and think that won’t sit for too long – and it’s there 2 weeks later. There’s no way of telling… no magic wand for sales. I wish there were.
Some people come in and they are looking for up-to-date modern furniture to furnish a home they’ve just moved into. Others come in looking for vintage stuff. There’s no one specific favourite style, it’s across the range. It’s amazing what people buy. There are all different preferences, all different age groups. Some come in looking well-worn stuff that is getting towards the end of its life. Other people prefer stuff that still has the labels still on them. You have to cater for everyone.
If we sold a table and 6 chairs for £60 a fortnight ago, and get another one in, we put it out at £60. The price is based on historical sales. If we think something is of more value we could price it for we try the auctions. Everything is cleaned and washed before it goes on display.
Bric-a-brac is very hard to come by. People have a tendency to dispose of that rather than give it to a charity shop. It does sell. I don’t know whether it’s more of a sense that when someone comes into the shop for the first time they don’t want to leave without buying something, so the thing they can carry is an item of bric-a-brac.
We get corner suites, leather suites, material, you mention it we get it. Everything comes through the shop. All shapes and sizes, all different types and styles, everything shifts. Everything has a buyer – the hard part is finding them. But because we are confined for space there has to be a limit. We let it sit 2-3 weeks and if it’s obvious there’s no interest then we would dispose of it. That sofa was sold and then the customer changed their mind.
The majority of stuff we get is baby clothes and toddlers’ clothes – because they grow out of it that quick. There really isn’t an excuse for a baby not be kitted out well when you can kit a baby out for £2 in a shop like this.
Volunteers from the church do a bit of knitting so there’s quite a bit of support comes from the church as well. Something like a sale-of-work would be well publicised with posters all over the window. I’ve just had my first book of poetry released and all of that money is designated for Hope For Ethiopia. The sales are going well – due to the congregation of the church.
We try to put emphasis on seasonal stuff. As you can see there is a small corner of Christmas stuff. Around St. Valentine’s day we try to cater for that and Easter… which keeps it all moving. This time of year toys move fast. We love to see parents coming in with children because the children torture them to buy a toy before they leave, and that helps us out.
Word of mouth is a great thing. People from north, south, east, west Belfast and even further afield. Someone will go back and tell a neighbour “I got a good bargain over in North Queen Street, you want to try it out…They have that thing you were looking for..” It’s all down to word of mouth.
Interview with Mr Bobbie Greer
Manna 4 Many
140 North Queen Street,