Graham Box volunteers at the St Andrews Centre thrift shop. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National.
Graham Box volunteers at the St Andrews Centre thrift shop. Fatima Al Marzooqi / The National.

We’re gonna pop some tags

Thrift shopping has gone from granny's pastime to urban chic, bolstered by Macklemore's chart-topping song Thrift Shop, and of celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Kylie Minogue spotted buying authentic vintage from their local charity stores. Abu Dhabi's own second-hand treasure trove, at the St Andrew's Centre, is managed by Graham Box, 49, a former DJ and youth worker from Portsmouth in the UK. He moved to Abu Dhabi in April with his wife, Samantha, and was so keen to volunteer for the thrift shop that he went there the very next day to ask for work.


I get up at 5.30am because my wife, who works as a coastal engineer, has to be at work at 7am. I drop her off to work, then I arrive at the thrift shop at around 7.30am. I am always the first one in, as I need to get the shop ready before it opens. Donations are dropped off continually at any time of day so when I turn up in the morning, I never know what will be there waiting for me. Large items get priced up first and put out in the shop, out of our way. I check everything is in good working order before it is put out to be sold, and all electrical items are tested.


We open the shop. There are customers who queue for half an hour outside the shop before it opens. Sometimes there’s a bit of pushing and shoving to get to the front of the line. But it’s got better recently, since we put a queuing line. Usually there are six or seven volunteers working in the shop at any one time when it’s open, and altogether 30 to 40 people help out at different times; mostly women, but there is one other man. The customers are great fun. There’s such a huge difference here in Abu Dhabi between those on lower wages and those who are better off. But we get people from all walks of life who come to the thrift shop, and integrate with each other here. It’s amazing what people will donate. About a month ago, we had a triathlon bike donated – we held an auction, and the buyer paid Dh1,600 for it. I’ve also heard of a lady who found unopened Harry Potter figure sets which were apparently worth a lot of money.


At some point in the morning we will ask everybody to leave the shop for five minutes so we have an opportunity to put out new goods that have been priced up.


The morning session ends and the shop closes to the public. I do the cashing up and get a receipt for the confirmed amount from the church office. About Dh500,000 is made annually by the thrift shop, and this money helps to provide charity schools and orphanages in India, as well as assisting the needy in Abu Dhabi and wherever else help is needed. Then I stay on to sort through donations and tidy up the shop. We donate all the items that were either out in the shop for a while but weren’t sold, or that wouldn’t be “sellable” – such as unwashed clothes, as we don’t have washing facilities here. Men’s clothes will go to the men’s labour camps, ladies’ items to the ladies’ shelter and some things are also donated to the Red Crescent. We are always happy to receive donations of the kits airlines give out on long-haul flights. We only refuse donations if they are too large to put in the shop, or if they are illegal. Just before Ramadan was our busiest time for donations, as people wanted to get rid of things before they left the country at the start of the summer. So we had a half-price sale throughout the whole of Ramadan, which is the shop’s quietest time of year.


On a typical Sunday, I leave about this time. I will listen to indie records to relax; my wife doesn’t finish work until 7 or 8pm. I do the housework but I do it very badly – she’s always moaning that the flat’s not clean. I am a terrible cook, so she does more than she should. I am also awful at ironing. I am not a natural househusband, but I do my best. It’s really hard for a man when the wife is the main earner because you don’t have the coffee morning social circle that housewives do. I love working for the benefit of others – that’s what motivates me.

The St Andrew’s Centre thrift shop is open from 10am to noon on Sunday; from 10am to noon and 3.30 to 5.30pm on Tuesdays; and noon to 2pm on Fridays.

Company Profile

Name: Direct Debit System
Started: Sept 2017
Based: UAE with a subsidiary in the UK
Industry: FinTech
Funding: Undisclosed
Investors: Elaine Jones
Number of employees: 8


Alisson Becker, Virgil van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum, James Milner, Naby Keita, Roberto Firmino, Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah, Joe Gomez, Adrian, Jordan Henderson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Adam Lallana, Andy Lonergan, Xherdan Shaqiri, Andy Robertson, Divock Origi, Curtis Jones, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Neco Williams


Company: Eco Way
Started: December 2023
Founder: Ivan Kroshnyi
Based: Dubai, UAE
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Investors: Bootstrapped with undisclosed funding. Looking to raise funds from outside


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Rating: 4/5

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'Young girls thinking of big ideas'

Words come easy for aspiring writer Afra Al Muhairb. The business side of books, on the other hand, is entirely foreign to the 16-year-old Emirati. So, she followed her father’s advice and enroled in the Abu Dhabi Education Council’s summer entrepreneurship course at Abu Dhabi University hoping to pick up a few new skills.

“Most of us have this dream of opening a business,” said Afra, referring to her peers are “young girls thinking of big ideas.”

In the three-week class, pupils are challenged to come up with a business and develop an operational and marketing plan to support their idea. But, the learning goes far beyond sales and branding, said teacher Sonia Elhaj.

“It’s not only about starting up a business, it’s all the meta skills that goes with it -- building self confidence, communication,” said Ms Elhaj. “It’s a way to coach them and to harness ideas and to allow them to be creative. They are really hungry to do this and be heard. They are so happy to be actually doing something, to be engaged in creating something new, not only sitting and listening and getting new information and new knowledge. Now they are applying that knowledge.”

Afra’s team decided to focus their business idea on a restaurant modelled after the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Each level would have a different international cuisine and all the meat would be halal. The pupils thought of this after discussing a common problem they face when travelling abroad.

“Sometimes we find the struggle of finding halal food, so we just eat fish and cheese, so it’s hard for us to spend 20 days with fish and cheese,” said Afra. “So we made this tower so every person who comes – from Africa, from America – they will find the right food to eat.”

UAE currency: the story behind the money in your pockets

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