The shop has helped people through difficult circumstances: marriage break up, divorce, unemployment, bereavement.
It is a pretty bad situation when people don’t know where to turn.
But, there are 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 on 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, that is from whatever money the shop is bringing in.
Since 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.
This entire operation was wet up by Betty and Stanley – a husband and wife team – about five 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. But almost immediately we recognised 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. That progressed working the streets of Belfast, working with the homeless. So, it’s a three-pronged operation.
We help anyone – irrespective of race, religion, culture.
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. Myself and Stanley are involved in the donkey work. We do the deliveries/ collections and that sort of thing. We are here from 7.00am in the morning sometimes to 7.00pm at night. But it’s enjoyable.
We collect and deliver. You make the one call and it’s all taken care of.
There are no time constraints either. If someone is working all day we can pop down at 7 pm. We will go far and wide. We’ve even been to Dublin for a house clearance.
If it’s worth our while we will go.
I joined the operation five 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 the background music we play in the shop also helps people to linger for longer. It’s mostly Christian music. Nothing sectarian.
We finance everything that we do through sales from the shop.
There are no wages involved .
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. All of the money the shop generates 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 I get a call to go somewhere at 9pm– I’ll do that.
When a bag is left in it goes into the sorting table to be cleaned and evaluated. 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 only going to sell for a pound it’s not worth your while, so we’d prefer to put it in to be recycled.
On the sad occasion where there has been a bereavement. We will go out and clear the entire contents of someone’s house.
When you see all those 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.
That 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 anyway and dispose of it.
If there is an item we think is of significant value we take it to the auction.
The clothes that we get in that are past their best are recycled and we get a price based on weight.
The shop was only opened about two weeks and we had a young girl nine of years of age in looking for a pair of shoes. She lifted a pair of shoes off the shelf.
“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 locally in this area.
There is a Doctors’ group surgery directly across the road and a chemist next door. We couldn’t have a better location.
We try to cater for all ages.
There is quite an aged population around this area here. 70% are pensionable age. But we have had customers from Andersonstown and the Shankill. They come from far and wide.
We have been working on the streets for a year.
On a Thursday we load up our van and travel into town at 10.00pm. In Donegall Place we set up a table with tea, coffee, all hot drinks, warm clothing, sleeping bags and we distribute those amongst the homeless. We stay there until midnight.
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.
In any given night you do find anywhere from 5-25 people in doorways – they won’t leave the doorways for fear of losing their spot. Because they can’t come to us, 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,
We’ve built up a relationship with the regular rough sleepers in Belfast. 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 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.
What we see and what we hear. I get a bit emotional.
We sell everything from socks and underwear right up to coats, hats…curtains.. bedding… right across the range. 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.
Sometimes we get some items into the shop and think we won’t be able to sell that – and its gone in an hour.
Other things we get in and think that won’t sit for too long – and it’s there two weeks later. There’s no way of telling… no magic wand for sales.
Some people come in and they may be 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.
People all have different preferences, there is 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 six 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 then we try the auctions.
Bric-a-brac is very hard to come by.
People have a tendency to dispose of it rather than give it to a charity shop.
I don’t know if it’s more to do with the fact 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 buy is an item of bric-a-brac.
Everything is cleaned and washed before it goes on display.
We get corner suites, leather suites, material, you mention it we get it. 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 for 2-3 weeks and if it’s obvious there’s no interest then we would dispose of it.
The majority of stuff we get is baby clothes and toddlers’ clothes – 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 all 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
140 North Queen Street,