This week our volunteer Chiara is going to tell us the story of the Oxfam Charity shop in Egham High street, shared by its manager Jasmine.
When we received an email from Jasmine telling us that she read our first article on our website and she wanted to be interviewed, I was incredibly happy. Our articles were actually doing their job; they were reaching those people we wanted to reach: Egham locals!
So, I immediately contacted her and arranged a meeting. When I entered and went to the back of the shop I found her immersed in a huge quantity of items left to the shop by donors. She welcomed me with a smile, a cup of coffee and some photographs that she has collected and saved over the last few years. I was supposed to spend not more than 20 minutes with her, but Jasmine’s information and memories were so interesting that we actually took the double the time we had initially planned. The following is an extract:
“Today Egham Sigh Street is terrifically different. Many of the shops are closed, now we have a lot more of charity shops, estate agents, coffee bars, hair dressers, fast foods and restaurants, but very few independent traders. 10 years ago there were more, but at that time there were not so many internet and online sales. It’s the same I think of every High Street, as the internet sales grow people tend not to go to shopping in small towns. They still go into big towns like London or Staines, but if it is just a small town then there is nothing too exiting in the High Street apart from charity shops. If you come into central town it is to have your hair done or have a coffee or a Chinese takeaway. Our shop has been open in Egham for 30 years, in this position for 25 years, since 1985 and we still have some of the original volunteers from 1985 with us Before I think it was just over the road, I don’t remember exactly where. I arrived here in 2006 as the manager so I’ve been here now for more than 10 years.
The rise in the number of charity shops is not happening just in Egham, but in every other small town like this. That’s because the landlords say “I rent to the one who can pay the highest rate, but it is not good to leave the building empty so I rent to charities”. Charities get a discount on business rates so it’s cheaper for them to operate. So many other normal businesses just sell online or rent a warehouse that is cheap. Charities are not just bad. There are lots of poor people who live in social houses, students or immigrants that prefer to buy in a charity shop and not to pay too much for clothes, and of course it’s good for the charity itself to be active in the community and make some money. This shop has a good turnover, we get many donations. We have a very good location here on the corner because people bring lots of donations to us. The other charity shops are in the pedestrian area so maybe they don’t have so many donations. It’s very easy to come here by car and just put it outside, otherwise in the other shops you have to park and carry down there.
I know it’s sad that with all these charity shops and chains Egham High Street is not so unique anymore. I agree that it has become just like any other high street. New independent traders cannot afford to open their businesses here. The only shops that can still resist are hair dressers, cafes and the tattoo shop, because although students have no money, they still have enough to have a coffee or to have a tattoo done.
Students in the last couple of years have doubled in number, so they take over many houses as students need accommodation and university is very rich because they have rich funders. They have beautiful buildings and their campus is becoming very big. However, it’s a little hard for local residents, because they don’t have a proper resident’s neighbourhood. It’s definitely changing the character of Egham and Englelfield Green, it’s no longer a little community of people who live there. Here now you have an extra 10,000 people around, so it’s a big change.
But there are also positive aspects of the University here: it’s attracting people, it’s getting many old buildings renovated, there is some more money coming in the area, there has been money to make the roads safer. There is still an historic aspect in the campus, you can take tours round the gardens, the University encourages volunteering so that’s positive, for example, they clean around the town and grab all the litter, they help disadvantaged groups, painting and redecorating facilities for disabled children and things like that. So they are trying to add a good contribution to the community. It’s such just a big change. It was a little village and now is a University town.
Lots of nasty things happened here. We had a flood and a break-in in 2014. They went away with £30 but they left us with £2,000 worth of damage. It was more that damage than the amount they stole. We also had a fire here in 2015, and also, the Blue Cross shop got set on fire by a drunk person. I remember that day, I came here on Saturday morning to open the shop and saw a black smoke. The police were already there. Luckily nobody was injured because he did it in the early morning. Doors and windows were damaged so we had to keep it closed until we bought a new window which cost us thousands of pounds.
There is not a very big sense of community, not as much as it used to be. Too much change. Not so many younger people. There are lots of old people and lots of students and not so much in between. From the traders point of view we are trying to build something thanks to the local Chamber of Commerce. They try to meet, to have breakfast, to exchange ideas. There you can get any information about what Runnymede Borough Council is doing. You can get lots of information, and they hold events like Magna Carta Day. You have to pay a small subscription but that’s ok. Of course, not everybody wants to do that, Costa for example, or Subway, they are part of big national chains, so they are not interested in the Egham community, they just have their business franchise, they just have to accept what they are told by their company head offices. But the Chamber of Commerce is good for the independent traders. They would still invite big chains but they would have nothing to gain from them. It is possibly true that, as many people here say, that big chains are destroying the community. They are basically coffee shops and fast food franchises. They are just a commodity; there is not a community aspect in this. Tesco is a big name. They try to get the community’s notice. They try to save food and you can donate food for the local community through Tesco.
I think the community in Egham needs maybe a market in the High Street, like there is in Staines. Also some improvements with car parking and the railway”.
Follow us next week for the next story from Egham High Street….
(Header photograph: aerial view of the High Street, with thanks to the late local photographer, Fred Parkin)