The story behind the charity Christmas card pop-up shops in Cheshire

PUBLISHED: 00:00 18 November 2013

Sheila Hallas, Helen Battilana, Nanette Graham and Jill Dodson

Sheila Hallas, Helen Battilana, Nanette Graham and Jill Dodson

Archant

A chance remark in an Alderley Edge antique shop led to a charity campaign which has lasted 42 years and raised over £4m for good causes

Nanette GrahamNanette Graham

Christmas starts early for Sheila Hallas. In truth, Christmas keeps her busy for more than half the year.

For Sheila is the driving force behind the Combined Charities Christmas Shops Association, which sets up shops selling charity Christmas cards, gifts and stocking fillers in the run-up to the festive season.

The shops - running in various local libraries and the Curzon Cinema, Knutsford, until early December - are unique. Why? Because every single penny customers pay for the cards goes to the charities concerned. The shops take no cut, and Sheila finances the whole operation by the selling of those stocking-fillers and gifts.

Balancing the books is sometimes ‘nail-biting’, she admits, but after 42 years, the shops have earned a staggering £4.25m for a huge range of charities, an achievement for which Sheila was awarded the MBE in 1995.

I arrive at Sheila’s home in Wilmslow to find her in the garage, checking the contents of a huge stack of boxes full of giftware destined for the shops.

Just how much of her year is devoted to Christmas?

‘July to February,’ she replies. ‘July is the Harrogate gift fair, we order during August, things come in October and then the shops start at the end of October,

running through to the first week of December. We miss the best two trading weeks purely because the volunteers have their own Christmas to get ready and their own families to buy for. Then January we pay out - 100 per cent to everybody - and February it is the big international spring fair - three days hard slog at the NEC looking for gifts.’

The whole idea began in 1971. Sheila, a mother of two and grandmotherof five, was then new to Cheshire, having moved from Surrey through her late husband Max’s job in management with the Daily Mail.

‘I was in a little antique shop in Alderley Edge buying a rocking chair and made a passing comment to the shop owner that I couldn’t find any charity Christmas cards to buy,’ says Sheila. ‘She said “Well you can have this shop if you like because I’m moving onto the main street in Alderley”.’

Sheila rose to that challenge. She scoured local newspapers for references to cheese and wine parties and the like, looked up the organisers in the phone book and cold-called them, telling them she had an empty shop if they would like to sell their charity cards there.

‘It was freezing cold in this place. It had a stone floor and I just had a paraffin heater, a cash box and a pasting table,’ she says. ‘Amazingly, I got over £700 in ten days.’

The Combined Charities Christmas Shops Association was born. Sheila was setting up pop-up shops befwore the term had even been coined.

‘I had all sorts of shops - the coal board, a hairdresser’s, an old National Provincial bank, a shoe shop, and in each case I had to persuade the owners to let me have it for no money at all,’ says Sheila.

Gradually, the charity shops moved into libaries, making things rather more predictable for their customers. Meanwhile, Sheila gathered lots of able professional people around her as organisers.

What with the volunteers from the many charities coming into the shops to sell their wares, around 600 people were involved in making the project a success last Christmas.

But why should people go to one of these charity card shops rather than simply buying charity cards from their supermarket or another large store?

‘Most of the big retailers claim to sell charity cards, although I do try to explain to people that of the cost price of that pack of cards, probably 95 per cent is going to the retailers, and the charities get a tiny percentage,’ says Sheila. ‘There is something called the Scrooge Award, given by Card Aid every year. They research who in the retail trade is giving the least to the charities.’

The Christmas card shops operate at Wilmslow, Macclesfield, Hale and Sale libraries until December 7, at Altrincham library until November 30 and at Curzon Cinema, Knutsford, until December 4.

You can also order cards from www.christmas-cards.org.uk

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