From left: Dawn O'Porter, Lily James, Pearl Mackie, Olivia Colman, Dermot O'Leary and Jamie Dornan. Image: Jamie Chung
Wearing a hot-pink sweatshirt with wide, black-rimmed glasses, Olivia Colman is in possibly the last place you might expect to see her – behind the till of a bustling shop on Carnaby Street.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, the Oscar-winning actress is joined by Jamie Dornan, expertly holding out a card machine to the next customer in a snaking line.
This was the scene at the Choose Love store on 22 November, a pop-up shop that does things differently. Inside the pink-and-white, glitter-filled store you’ll find games, a sleeping bag, sanitary products and coats laid out around the open plan shopfront, but none of these items are for sale.
Change a Big Issue vendor’s life this Christmas by purchasing a Winter Support Kit. You’ll receive four copies of the magazine and create a brighter future for our vendors through Christmas and beyond
Instead of buying a product for yourself, the shop invites customers to buy an item or support service for a refugee in need somewhere in the world. Items available range from mental health support to funds to reunite families, to warm clothing. You can buy someone living in a refugee camp or under the threat of air raids access to life-saving medical treatment for £40. A sea rescue comes in at £50.
The organisation is supported by a host of famous faces, and some of them have turned up to the shop’s launch to work behind the till. I’ve come along to volunteer too.
“Choose Love started with a few friends at a boozy Sunday lunch wanting to do something,” writer, presenter and co-founder Dawn O’Porter says, as she meets me outside the shop on a chilly November afternoon. “In 2015 we collected one truckload worth of donations for refugees and sent those to Calais. And now eight years later, Choose Love is the biggest source of aid to refugees across the world.”
Gesturing behind her to the storefront, decorated with giant printed letters spelling out the organisation’s name, O’Porter says, “Rather than buying tat this Christmas, you can come in and buy something for somebody who really needs it. And then detail what you bought into a cute little card and give it to someone and say you did this in their name.”
Customers tick the items off the list available and then pay at the till for what they would like to donate.
Each year the UK spends £700 million on unwanted Christmas gifts, and recent statistics by GWP have found that just 1% of all gifts given on the big day are still being used six months later. So the idea of giving supplies that could truly change someone’s life is an attractive one, and an idea that resonates with young shoppers.
Studies show that Gen-Z shoppers in particular are more likely to buy from brands with strong ethical and sustainable credentials. And Choose Love’s half-a-million-strong Instagram audience suggests an engaged youth following.
Still, spending the opening day of the store on the shopfloor serving customers, I see only diversity in the room. Guests of all ages approach me to buy something or ask a question. One of the other volunteers tells me that children often come into the store and hand over their pocket money to help buy young refugees school supplies or games.
After an hour walking around the shopfloor with a card machine, I’m summoned to the till – a task I’ve been nervous about. How am I supposed to follow Colman’s performance in the same role? But the energy in the shop is infectious, and next to the till actors Lily James and T’Nia Miller are boogieing to Laura Whitmore’s DJ set, alleviating my fears.
By my side at the till is Pearl Mackie, best known for being companion to Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord in Doctor Who. After I lean over the counter to serve a lovely gentleman who buys £125 worth of support services, Mackie turns to me and compliments the speed of my transaction. I ask what convinced her to give up her time to serve in the shop.
“I think the work Choose Love do is absolutely essential,” she states simply. “It’s just so important. And I think a lot of similar projects don’t necessarily work with partner organisations that are on the ground in the same way.”
Choose Love has been able to reach over 4.8 million people across 41 countries through their 476 partners. They have provided 1.2 million items of clothing to refugees, 3.2 million nappies, 594,000 shelter items, and funded 156,000 legal cases, leading to family reunifications.
“This is such a crucial way of getting the direct aid to refugees,” Mackie says. “Rather than filtering through lots of different systems. And this store shows that there can be joy in even the bleakest situations.”
And joy is the word to sum up the atmosphere. The pop-up shop will remain open until Christmas Eve, and Choose Love’s partnership manager Sabira informs me that as well as selling much needed support for refugees, the store will also be hosting live recordings of podcasts, DJ workshops, poetry readings, acoustic gigs, stand-up comedy events and film screenings.
After coming off my till shift, I buy a t-shirt for myself and bump into O’Porter again.
“Christmas is about giving,” she says, “and giving to people who really, really, really need help is the best kind of giving.”
The Choose Love store is located at 57 Carnaby Street, London, and open every day from 10am-7pm, except Thursdays (10am-8pm) and Sundays (12pm-6pm) until Christmas Eve. If you can’t get to London, all of their items are also available to buy online here
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!
If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.