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Sharpen your elbows, says Liz Hoggard, and get ready to barter at the place to be – a car-boot sale

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My heart beats faster as I spy a pair of 1960s green stoneware jugs, just like the ones my grandmother had – but I’m still tenth in the queue. What if another discerning bargain hunter gets them first? I doubt Granny Hoggard’s pottery was worth a lot, but it has sentimental value for me. As I inch closer, I try to look nonchalant (never tip off others by looking excited). Eventually I thrust £10 at the stallholder. Success!

Welcome to the magical mystery tour that is car-booting. Every other Sunday morning, my partner Mike and I head for the Peckham Carboot, held in a school playground. We stand in line, clutching our £1 entry fee, as the queue snakes down my South London street. There’s camaraderie, yes, but we could end up fighting over the same thrifting gems.

At first, Peckham Carboot relied on word of mouth, but now, whether you’re a buyer or a seller (I’ve been both), the secret is well and truly out. Forget the ease of online shopping, nothing beats heading out to bag preloved items at knockdown prices. And as Britain’s cost-of-living crisis worsens, demand for second-hand goods is soaring in popularity, with our hand-me-down economy hitting an estimated £6.5 billion (up 48 per cent since 2020), and experts predicting it to double in the next five years.

Car-booting really does offer an alternative shopping experience. Need a winter coat? You can pick up one for £10. Ditto a leather jacket or vintage Levi’s. And there’s always a story behind each item – and stallholder.

In our new era of austerity, it's no surprise car-boots have become so popular across the country

In our new era of austerity, it’s no surprise car-boots have become so popular across the country 

Car-boots are different from vintage or antiques markets (run by proper dealers and much pricier). They’re slapdash, chaotic – you may need sharp elbows in order to get your dream piece. But in the past year, my haul (as the young ones call it) has included wicker baskets and leather bags (£3) and ropes of pearls (£2). My great find was a chunky Nicole Farhi cardigan (£8, and perfect for an energy crisis). And the four 50s-style frocks (£12-£15 each) I found have taken me from work interviews to parties, so it was worth wriggling into them in a freezing school playground, in front of amused shoppers, to check their fit.

Part of the fun is taking a risk. Will this fit? Will I wear it? Do I even need it? 

In our new era of austerity, it’s no surprise car-boots have become so popular across the country. I pride myself on juggling discount codes and vouchers, and rarely pay full-price, but you can’t eat a new Ghost dress when your invoices haven’t been paid for months. So I set myself a cost-of-living challenge to only buy from the car-boot sale. After all, it sells everything: clothes, jewellery, plants, books, cakes… The project was so successful I ended up thinking: why go to shops at all?

Fashionistas love car-boots, whether to revive a trend or set a new one. Fortunately, the youth who pour into Peckham are after 80s and 90s logoed sportswear, leaving midlifers like Mike and me to bag more classic pieces. Mike’s 21-year-old son even goes to ‘kilo sales’, where preloved clothes sell by weight – he staggered home recently with several tons to work his way through. Respect.

I’m not hardcore enough for a kilo sale. I like to know what I’m buying. But I’ve already snapped up original birthday presents at the car-boot, and it’s top of my list for Christmas shopping this year. 

HOW TO CAR-BOOT LIKE A PRO 

Remember, the early bird catches the worm 

It’s demoralising to stand in the queue and watch the best pieces go by, so set that alarm and get in there first.

You don’t need a car

Though if you buy too much to carry – and that’s easily done – you might need to buy a suitcase or wicker basket to take it all home in. While most sellers do come by car they too can arrive on foot and simply sell out of a bag.

Take enough cash

Who wants to find their heart’s desire then risk losing it by having to go off to find a cash dispenser? Not me. While some serious sellers have card readers (if you’re interested, they cost around £26, connect to your mobile phone and charge about 0.03p per purchase), coins and notes are king.

Be prepared to bargain

This is very individual. If you’re not sure, try offering £3-£5 less. The seller can only refuse. But if your heart sings, grab it – it’s horrid to return home and regret you didn’t buy that real find.

Beware boot fatigue

The pros go through rack after rack and often kneel on the ground to have a good root. I usually quit after an hour – ie, when it stops being fun.

Scarves, hats and gloves can be washed or dry-cleaned, then wrapped in tissue paper. Teens love vintage band T-shirts. One-off brooches and necklaces can be displayed in decorative soap boxes. Mike buys delicate hand-tinted illustrations and has them professionally framed. Mirrors, lights and cutlery also make fun presents. I’ve never paid more than £12, although I was once sorely tempted by a 50s red sofa for £50, and still dream about it.

Part of the fun is taking a risk. Will this fit? Will I wear it? Do I even need it? But actually, there is no risk. If you hate it when you get home, you can always take it back and resell it – car-boots are glorified ways of recycling. They’re also great for purging all your stuff – getting rid of dresses that don’t fit, shoes that pinch.

Eventually Mike and I decided to take a stall at the car-boot ourselves. He gathered up his kids’ old toys and books, plus cool finds from markets he’d grown tired of, and I spent a week trying on 30 years of clothes – quite a rite of passage. It was lovely to reacquaint myself with Lucille Lewin’s skirts and jackets for Whistles (her 80s era was best), plus an Ally Capellino skirt and another by House of Jazz. The depressing thing was, none of it fitted (the female body subtly expands every year after 50, even if you exercise). But it felt like the right sort of purge. The pieces had been in trunks and wardrobes for years. Time for someone else to have fun with them.

Slots are released a week before (get online early). We paid £15 to drive Mike’s car into the playground, and set up a table and rail, while my best fashion mistakes were pinned to the car. The proper dealers pay £5 to come in at 10am, looking for vintage finds they can resell. At 10.30am everyone else is let in for £1.

My first embarrassment was encountering a former date, with his kids. I could see he was thanking heavens he hadn’t ended up with an impoverished woman selling her possessions on a Nissan Note.

Surrounded by cool youth flogging T-shirts and posters, we soon realised we were the ‘parents’ stall. ‘That’s the sort of thing my mum would wear,’ said one girl, holding up my yellow Ghost dress. It was slightly surreal seeing people root through our things then walk on by – although when I made a sale I felt genuine pleasure. One girl looked so amazing in my Hobbs riding boots (sold for £10) that I exclaimed: ‘They’re going to have more fun with you than they ever did with me!’

My target customer seemed to be older Nigerian ladies – clearly, we share a like of bold patterns and gold shoes. When one kept circling back to look at a pair of unstable Robert Clergerie sliders, I let her have them for £3 rather than £5, and am still nervous about her climbing stairs. Mike’s African masks proved very popular (£10-£15 each). His daughter’s pogo stick went right away (£5) and he shifted a Crocodile Dundee-style hat (£5) and a Viking-esque drinking horn (£10). I sold three copies of the Ladybird book How It Works: The Cat (everyone gave it to me for Christmas four years ago and, presumably, Gen Z had never seen it before). A book on emotional trauma (with a jacket quote by Lady Gaga!) went for £4.

In the end I made £50, Mike £70. Then we had to deduct the £15 fee. It’s never going to rescue our fortunes, but it was fascinating seeing what sells. And it’s made me more discerning about what I buy.

Car-booting is the future, I think – you can give yourself a pat on the back for shopping sustainably, and no one is going to be wearing the same thing as you at Christmas parties. If you’re taking a stall, though, and are worried about bumping into your boss/old flame, I’d invest in a flattering hat with a veil.

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