If I’m brutally honest whenever I’ve been into a charity shop, and that’s not often as I’m a bit of a snob, I’ve always thought the volunteers must either be on community service for mugging old grannies or they’re a little bit nuts. The idea of working all day to receive no pay or at least some kind of prize ashamedly baffled me.
I was invited by a friend who calls himself Idiot Rich to volunteer with him for a day. I jumped at the chance as it was something I’ve never done before, and also I wanted to find out how much of idiot he actually is. We were to help at a bookshop that offers all their books for free; certainly not a business plan that’s Dragon’s Den worthy although I doubt the people running it care as they go by the name The Kindness Offensive.
I met Idiot Rich at Camden Road Station. We had to take a short bus ride to the free bookshop (I’m not sure it can technically be classed as a shop if no money passes hands, but that’s just being picky) and during the journey I was told a little more about the unpaid job ahead. He explained the charity saves unwanted books before they head to landfills and instead offers them to the public for free. The charity don’t wanted another book in return or any donation money, it’s completely free – a pure act of kindness.
I was instructed by Idiot Rich that we would be arranging a large jumble of books into genre sections in the shop and, time permitting, alphabetising them too. I thought to myself the people running the shop will be very pleased with the free work I’m about to give them and at a bare minimum I’ll get a certificate from the Mayor of London, or at least a party thrown in my honour by the local residents – at this point I still wasn’t quite grasping the concept of working for kindness not reward.
When we arrived at the shop I must admit I was somewhat impressed. I was expecting a small rundown charity shop with the whiff of damp ginger biscuits in the air, perhaps a crazy bag lady in the corner searching through a pile of odd shoes (all based on my limited experience of charity shops), however the Kindness Offensive’s Free Bookshop is in fact located in a beautifully converted pub. The former Camden pub has been completely redecorated into a welcoming bright open space with shelved books around the edges and bunting hung from the ceiling. Parked outside the bookshop there’s an old Route Master Bus that’s been painted in the bright signature colours of the Kind Offensive. I’m later told they won the bus (I’ve only ever won a pot of jam) and it’s now used to deliver free Christmas presents to children in hospitals – an even kinder act of kindness.
Inside the bookshop I meet two male volunteers both wearing high visibility jackets which is the uniform of their offensive. One of the men, after I explained I’ve come to volunteer for the day, informs me all I have to is greet people and tell them they are allowed three books for free. The man then informs me Idiot Rich likes to arrange the books in order which is possibly pointless because the entire shop’s being moved around in few weeks, also you can’t label the sections because for some reason the cleaners don’t like it, and furthermore new books are piled on top of the old ones every day – despite this I begin the task of categorise the books, which now seems like an idiotic way to spend my afternoon.
In general I’m not a big fan of working and tend to find as many distractions as I can before commencing any form of labour. After reading all the posters on the walls and staring out the window for bit, just like I used to at school during Religious Education, I finally started arranging the books.
As Idiot Rich and I continued organising the books into some kind of order, the other two volunteers sat waiting for someone to enter the shop. In the almost three hours I was there only five people entered – five people who were smart enough to realise what a great shop a free shop is. I overheard one customer ask a volunteer if the books are in any order and he replied “not really”, that’s great I thought to myself.
Later on Rob, who is the leader of the Kindness Offensive and had just returned to the shop in the ‘Funbulance’ (another vehicle they’d wonderfully converted), presented one of the volunteers with a plastic medal for his commitment to being super kind. At the start of the day I would have murdered for a medal or any kind of recognition for my free work, but I was happy for the man who’d clearly committed more time to kindness than my miserly half-hearted almost three hours.
By the end of my time in the bookshop I was proud of the work Idiot Rich and myself have achieved, even if the customers didn’t notice there was actually a complex system of book arrangement.
I was surprized to find it was great doing something for the community and for a short while being part of something wonderful and, with the fear of sounding cliché, I guess that IS the ultimate payment of volunteering.
The kindness Offensive are awesomely kind people, so if you’re near Camden do go visit their bookshop which will hopefully be there for a long time, or even better why not donate some of your time to them.
NEXT NEW THING HERE I COME…
P.S. When you enter the bookshop Arts and Crafts are on the left by the entrance, Science Fiction at the back and Novels on the right.