Fashion North meets Rik Bush: A volunteer for Age UK on Blandford Street, Sunderland

The transformation: from charity shop to vintage boutique

It’s a typical dreary Wednesday morning in Sunderland. The city centre is fairly empty for 10 am in the early days of December, the streets occupied with a small handful of shoppers about to embark on their Christmas shopping.

As for me I’m sleepy and rushing from Park Lane bus station in an attempt to be out in the rain for as little as possible. No umbrella means my hair is getting wavier and wavier by the second and a faux fur pink coat from New Look does nothing but absorb the raindrops. I finally make it to Blandford Street. If you have never been here in Sunderland imagine the opposite of Oxford Street: the polar opposite in fact. The street is an abundance of charity shops, a local butcher, Home Bargains and betting shops. During the warmer months Blandford Street can be a place of chaos as swarms of people weave in and out, the woman from the fruit stall bellowing ‘GET YOUR STRAWBERRIES FOR A POUND’. For me, as someone who grew up in Sunderland, the street holds some fond memories. The toy shop which I once visited every Saturday with my nana is still open, along with the bakery numerous doors down which often displayed the most magnificent wedding cakes.

The street is fairly empty today.

Age UK sign, photo credit: Annabel McEwan

I’m fifteen minutes early for my appointment, so I stand in the shop and browse some rails, hoping to dry off quickly as I catch my reflection in the mirror. Age UK is your typical looking charity shop, there are rails of once beloved items split into sections, a wall full of books and shelves stacked with children’s toys. Standing at the counter are two older women, past the middle age mark, chatting away to one another with a clipboard in hand. Once they notice me I’m welcomed into the conversation without haste as I explain who I am and why I’m there. Both of the women gush about how beneficial working at Age UK has been for them, the enthusiasm and true love for their voluntary roles is undeniable. It’s lovely to see that the purpose of Age UK is being fulfilled, even in this small way. As Age UK’s entire purpose is being dedicated to ‘everyone making the most out of later life’. As the two women chat away to one another I’m greeted by Rik.

“Rik Bush, that’s Rik with an R-i-k” he explains. Rik is wearing a casual outfit made up of a two-tone white and grey polo shirt paired with grey jeans. As we walk upstairs we leave the typical feeling of a charity shop and enter a vintage lover’s haven. The room is dimly lit with a lamp set upon a dressing table, the space filled with rails and open wardrobes full of vintage clothing. It’s as if no space has gone to waste, as every nook and cranny is merchandised with clothes, hats, and magazines.

“Eleven years, since it’s been open, I’ve been here,” Rik recalls, folding his arms. “We started off doing one room, and then it just took off. Now we get sent stuff from shops. A little while ago, it was from places as far away as Leeds that sent some vintage stuff up for us specifically.”

Rik Bush from Age UK, photo credit: Annabel McEwan

My favourite thing about Rik is his sheer enthusiasm. Walking into Age UK I didn’t know what to anticipate, but as soon as I met him the charisma was undeniable as every question I asked was responded to with genuine, non-rehearsed replies.

“How come you decided to volunteer?” This question felt mundane, but essential for me to truly understand Rik’s work at Age UK. I can’t deny that his answer made me laugh. The truthful account and decision making of beginning volunteering at Age UK felt like a reimagined version of Goldilocks and the three bears. Salvation Army, No. Children’s Society, No. Yet Age UK was just right.

“I’m disabled. I was getting loads of benefits, I wasn’t working. So I decided to go and do a degree and I still have loads of time left over so it felt like I was getting tons of money for nothing. So I thought I’d give a bit back and go find a charity to work for. So I walked up Blandford Street and it’s got 11 charity shops. First one I came to, Salvation Army – well I’ve got a house. Next one, Childrens’ society – I ain’t a kid. British Heart (Foundation), well there’s nothing wrong with my heart. Looked over the road and saw Age UK and thought well I’m getting old. So picked Age UK.”

The upstairs of Age UK is divided into three rooms that each has a different theme and merchandiser. I’m told that “the little room up the end is called Josephine’s room, that’s the changing room with special lighting and the other room is mine.”

So I get to do the men’s room with everything that’s left over.”

Inside Age Uk, photo credit: Annabel McEwan

I follow Rik into his room as I want to hear all about his thought process and decision making into converting a charity shop to something with a boutique feel, all products donated of course. The room is somewhat of a masterpiece – as no space is left unused. Shelves are packed with various items, cabinets filled with vintage cameras and film. Vinyl discs hang from the ceiling as if shaped to resemble a baby mobile, and a painting of a tiger dominating the wall.

Upon asking Rik if this use of space is beneficial, he begins to talk about Age UK and the charity as a whole. But what I really want to know is whether being a volunteer has been beneficial to himself. The response I got made the early morning bus ride and trek through the rain worth it. “Absolutely. I’ve been here 11 years and my house now looks like this. I love vintage, I’ve always loved it. I’m really happy.”




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