Joan O’Donovan, charity shop manager

9 Aug

Joan O’Donovan: “When your family and friends are behind you, doesn’t it make a difference?”

Everyone in Islington has a story, so meet charity shop manager Joan O’Donovan . Interview by Nicola Baird.

Despite radiating calm Joan O’Donovan, 64, never stops being busy. She started off in Co Galway, Eire one of eight sisters and two brothers, but by the time Joan was 19 years old she wanted to try London where her sister Greta was living at Archway.

“Everyone had come to England. My mother didn’t want me to go, so at first I worked in Dublin as a nanny for a barrister.  I’m not sure I told my mother I was going,” she admits. “I got off the train at 5.30am at Kings Cross and my brother-in-law wasn’t waiting. The police came over, and when they realised  I was on a half ticket* and didn’t know where I was going to they said ‘You shouldn’t come over from Ireland with no address’. But my brother-in-law Joe had over-slept. I knew he’d come, though he didn’t turn up until 10.30am! That was the Saturday morning. By Monday I was working as an invoice clerk in an office off Finsbury Square where Greta worked. Everyone said you’d arrive at the weekend and be in work by Monday. It’s not like that now is it? I stayed a year then went to work in Jacksons shoe shop on Holloway Road.”

Joan’s lived in Islington for 45 years now: brought up three children, who all still live locally, and had jobs nearby including running the Plimsoll Arms pub for a year (now known as the Auld Triangle).

“I didn’t get into voluntary work for being a goody goody,” she says emphatically, showing me into her shop’s back room. The carpeted floor is crowded with neatly sorted bags of clothes, shoes, toys and bits and bobs. The shelves are groaning with items ready to be priced, then moved on to rails when there is space out front. “It’s hard work, but I started volunteering at Second Chance because someone listened to me when I was feeling ill (with what turned out to be diabetes) and was stressed by family problems. It helped me so much.”

Since 2004 Joan has run the popular charity shop on Blackstock Road, N4 which was set up by Highbury Quadrant Congregational Church. The shop is a place you can pass on outgrown items and look for all sorts –  from wetsuits and picture frames to party dresses.  It also offers locals  a big extra – someone to talk to, especially if you are lonely.

“I like being around people. I like to talk to people and hear their problems. People know that I’m not going to repeat it or criticise,” says Joan, 64. “You should never repeat something that hurts or makes more bother.”

As I arrive at Second Chance Joan is at the counter reassuring a white-haired lady, who is just about to move into a care home, that she’ll be round later with packing boxes. As I leave a huge bear of a man greets her warmly. Even if you don’t yet know Joan, you’ll certainly notice that she knows a huge number of people in Islington. “It’s nice to go down the street and people you know greet you. I was walking with my husband Michael (who she subsequently divorced, and who has now passed on) to Arsenal tube and he said ‘Do you realise how many people said good morning to you?’ Well, they were all dads from Highbury Community Nursery where I worked.”

“I loved the nursery and the way a child would say ‘Look I’ve eaten all my lunch’.” Joan beams, remembering those years. “I overheard one parent saying ‘Joan, she’s only the cook’ and another parent, a committee member, went ‘What do you mean? She’s the most important person here.’ It gave me confidence. I cooked for 30 children and 10-12 staff and always did proper baby food, catered for special needs and had a vegetarian option, and if a parent came in I took on board what they said.”

Joan was the friendly cook at the nursery on Aubert Park for 20 years, and did plenty of babysitting too, until she became ill with bowel cancer. She went back after two years but it wasn’t the same. That’s when she needed a good listener. At first she volunteered in the shop but then became the manager. Now there are four paid workers and three volunteers who keep the shop open six days a week raising £12,000 plus each year for all sorts of projects including Libyan children, St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney and Macmillan. You can join the Macmillan big coffee morning at the shop on Friday 28 September 2012. “Greta makes fruit cake, everyone likes it!” adds Joan.

It’s not just hard graft running a shop which receives new stock daily. “You need patience too,” says Joan. “And I get so fed up when people steal. We’re not giving out charity, we’re raising money for charity. I went up to a young man last week and said, ‘you’re supposed to pay before you put it in a bag’.” Joan chuckles. “He put it straight back.”

Joan may have left the nursery but she hasn’t lost contact with children, partly because her two grandchildren are at school locally. “I see so many children I know because I used to babysit them. I loved my children, but with grandchildren it’s something really special. Perhaps because I have a little more money and time – I can go with them to the cinema, or the park, anything. Grandchildren are a real joy.”

Second Chance is at 161, Blackstock Road. It’s open from 9.30am-5pm Monday to Saturday.


  • Half fare – child’s ticket
  • Macmillan – fundraising group that runs the world’s biggest coffee morning annually. In 2011 people’s combined efforts raised more than £11 million towards cancer research.

Over to you
What do you think of this wonderful woman? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know. Thank you. And yes, this blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.


One Response to “Joan O’Donovan, charity shop manager”

  1. nicola baird August 10, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Hi Nicola
    Thanks so much for sending this on. It’s a lovely piece. Sarah

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