Category Archives: Birmingham

a dress a day #4

vintage black shift dress, lace sleeves, empire waist, jewel detailing, 1960s, England
This dress found me at the Custard Factory’s vintage flea market held every Saturday in Birmingham, England ($30).  Its fun details made it stand out.  I adore the silvery bejewelled, empire waist. 

empire waist, shift dress, vintage, jewelled waist, embroidered

It’s label-less and homemade — demanding a trained eye to size it up.  In fact, all vintage dresses do.  I normally wear a US size 8-10, but I own vintage dresses in sizes 4 to 14; obey labels at your peril.   Wiggling into armfuls of musty dresses is key to finding just the right one.

vintage dresses, rack


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Filed under Birmingham, clothes, ethical living, green living, thrifty, Uncategorized, vintage

A dress a day #3

chain print, red dress, fashion,

When rummaging through racks of used dresses it’s easy to get lost in the heady mix of stained musty goodness.  But keeping the “classics” in mind will help you get a lock on vintage dynamite.  I spied this red, button down, shirtdress, with it’s classic chain print, while rummaging through Birmingham’s aptly-named Vintage Clothing store in Digbeth.  The tag reads 100% Baumwolle*, by Nak Stoffe, a German textiler.

red chain print dress

A staple of every designer’s winter cruise line, the chain print can also be worn by the rest of us — it’s graced shirts, dresses, belts and scarves at nearly every major retailer from J Crew to Guess (retch) to Top Shop.  And it’s all over the stores this season according to one New Yorker’s non blog. My current favourite is  Pringle’s geometric chain print on a classic day dress:

pringle day dress, chain print

*baumwolle: tree (baum) wool — commonly known as cotton

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Filed under Birmingham, cheap fun, green living, thrifty, vintage

The peoples warehouse

It’s a pity I’m leaving so soon because I’ve just discovered Brum’s thriving warehouse district.  Behind the shiny new Millenium Point and Masshouse developments stands the real gem: the as yet un-regenerated Eastside dotted with dilapidated buildings, cheap cafes, dodgy pubs and bargain basement warehouses. 
Latif warehouse Birmingham
My colleague took me to Latif’s one lunch hour.  Just a five minute walk from Aston University, M. Latif and Sons proudly proclaims to be the “Peoples Warehouse.” For Canadian readers, it is Honest Ed’s meets Bargain Harold’s – everything looks a bit naff, but sometimes you stumble upon a treasure.

“We send all the international students here to pick up everything they need to furnish their apartments,” she said excitedly.  And indeed, what student could go without a £0.30 pint glass? 
Pint glass Latifs warehouse
In fact everything from frying pans, to bedding is on offer here, for prices not found anywhere near the high street.  

  Latifs warehouse Birmingham frying pans
My colleague was on the hunt for a duvet cover for her caravan in France, but she didn’t find what she wanted.  And I have enough tat to cart back to Toronto with me, so I resisted the pretty pink slippers (£4.99) and polka dot teapots (£3.99) crying out for a better home.
pink polka dot teapot

beaded slippers
At these prices, Latif’s has something for every thriftygirl or boy.  But get there quick, because Birmingham City Council has pledged to “transform, revitalise and regenerate the neglected areas of Eastside, Digbeth and Deritend.” With nearly £6 billion in investment, it’s the largest urban regeneration projectin the city.  Somehow I doubt the “people’s warehouse” and its motley crew of shoppers from some of the poorest pockets of the city, factor into the new vision for Eastside.

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Filed under Birmingham, cheap fun, thrifty

Charity on your doorstep

After the harrowing car boot sale last week I was still left with piles of crap. 

But every cloud…  and this week it came in the form of junk mail.  Two separate charities – PDSA (vets for pets or some such thing) and Help the Aged – dropped collection bags through my mailbox and it was a godsend.  

One thing to watch for with doorstep collection bags is the small print.  Sometimes private agencies send bags emblazoned with messages like, “Help the needy in Eastern Europe.”  Your clothes will indeed get sent and sold there, but the agency will pocket the profit.  Even the Help the Aged bag had small print that said half the profit will go to the private collection agency which partners with HtA.


But beggers can’t be choosers.  I gave more to PDSA, but I like old people just as much as pets. 

 Now some lucky Brummies will now get to model my old clothes, handbags and leaf through fantastic Canadian novels – that is, if the neighbours don’t pinch them first.

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Girlfriends to boot

“If you can’t sell your stuff there, you won’t do it anywhere,” said my friend Ali when I told her I was going to hold a car boot sale at the Birmingham Wholesale Markets this Sunday.

“I’ve driven by there on a Sunday and it’s absolutely heaving,” she added.

I was pumped.  There’s nothing I like better than a good garage… er, car boot sale.  I knew I wouldn’t make much money, but I thought it might be a fun way to get rid of my stuff.

Having had no car and a boyfriend who hated “other people’s tat,” I’ve only ever been to one car boot sale in England.  Set in a field by a 13th century bridge in the lovely Cumbrian countryside, it was a real treat.  I picked some lovingly reared plants for the garden for about £2 each, a soft red leather worn vintage belt for £4, some antique rag rug hooks for £3 and new samples of makeup from Clinique makeup for a few pounds each.

So it was with big hangovers, a flask of tea and an air of anticipation that my sister and my friend Sarah and I loaded up her tiny car with my worldly possessions and set off for the Markets at the ungodly hour of 6.00 am.

And it was rammed.  We waited nearly 45 minutes in a queue just to get into the place!   

But as we drove past hundreds of stalls it looked more like a graveyard of The World’s Tackiest Products instead of a collection of people’s treasures.  Most pitches were tiny shops flogging new, shrinkwrapped TVs, DVDs, perfumes, £5 jeans, kitchen taps and, yes, even a sink. 

Being one of the last to arrive we paid our £8 fee and were allocated about the worst possible pitch known to man.  Right at the back of the markets and divided from the main thoroughfare by other cars – things were looking grim.

I asked the parking attendant where we pick up the tables. 

“Sorry lass, you have to bring your own.  But you can use that trolley over there if you like,” he offered.

The girls and I eyed the trolley and immediately doubled over with laughter, not speaking for at least five minutes.

car boot sale birmingham wholesale market

We were determined to make the best of a bad situation, flogging nearly all the stuff I can’t be asked to bring back to Toronto for .50p to £1 a piece.  We made signs and taped them to the pavement: Books £0.50, Clothes £1; MOVING TO CANADA – EVERYTHING MUST GO!

I parted with unopened picture frames, unwanted Christmas gifts, and piles of old clothes for peanuts.  I just wanted rid of the stuff.  But three hours later we were waning.   We were losing at least half of the traffic on the main thoroughfare, things were selling painfully slowly and the three of us were getting tired and moody.

But there were some nice moments.  A chat with a Polish immigrant – possibly the most homesick man I’ve every met – about Canada and his hometown of Lodz, which I’ve visited.  He paid me £0.50 for a picture frame.  “I will put pictures of my daughter,” he said.  As I saw him eye a nicer frame, I threw it in for free.

Many of the customers were extremely cheap.  But they were also some of the poorest people in Birmingham.  For them a car boot sale isn’t a place to pick up funky vintage “pieces” for the home, but a place to buy clothing for their kids.

Nevertheless my cut throat prices were beginning to hurt.  With a tenner on breakfast for myself and my staff, we had barely broke even by the time my two other best Brummie mates – Jen and Ali – rocked up at 11.

“You’re here to make money – not give the stuff away!” said Ali in dismay as she looked at our couldn’t-care-less faces.

And the pair of them swung into action.  Ali ripped our price sign up and said we should wheel and deal with each person separately.  She charged £1.50 for a crappy old statistics book I found in the attic.  A small fortune this thriftygirl would never dare ask! 

Meanwhile Jenn flogged people stuff they never even knew they wanted. 

“We’ve got to group things together and sell them as packs.  That way we’ll get rid of more and make more money!” she enthused after she sold a chef four cookbooks and a butter tray. 

Suddenly it was 12.30, the crowds dwindled and we still hadn’t sold everything.  My sister offered a young girl all of my old jeans for free when she took an interest in a pair. 

I looked around at my life laid out in little pieces on the ragged blanket in front of me and started to cry.  I missed Rob. 

“Gosh Crystal, I never thought you’d breakdown in the middle of the Birmingham Wholesale Market!” said Ali giving me a hug.  And we all laughed.

After the breakfast and pitch fee I ended up a measly £35 better off than the day before, but I was a thousand times richer thanks to the support of my friends.

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Filed under Birmingham, clothes, money making tips, thrifty, vintage

The long goodbye

Breakups are hard.  But international breakups really suck. 

When I flew to Brussels for what was to be my last European board meeting last week, it hit me.  The next eight weeks will be a long series of goodbyes. 

After two and a half years of trips to Europe for work, I was beginning to take them for granted.  This time was different.  It could be my last time in Brussels and I snapped some photos on my weary camera phone (the digi cam was his) on my way to the hotel.


Another mundane business trip suddenly turned into another last.  I felt sad.  After the first day’s meeting droned to an end, I decided to get outside for a quick jog before dinner.  Only five minutes later I was in the middle of the spectacular Grand Place, where I returned for dinner that evening.


Feeling much better I jogged on to the Palais de Congres.


Goodbye… I thought. 

Dinner that evening was great.  I chatted with one of my favourite Finnish colleagues, and realised that after two years of meeting this small group of Europeans in various hotels and cities across Europe, I had come to think of many of them as my friends.  Through them I began to know Europe.  They shared their secrets: the best restaurants, funniest movies, political perspectives and expertise about all things bioenergy.  A few even invited me to their homes for dinner.  But it’s the subtler things I’ll remember: the requisite “bon appetite” before every course whether in France or Finland, greetings and farewells signalled by kisses on the cheeks, and quirky mannerisms denoting one EU nation from the next.

Over three courses and flowing wine, my colleague and I bantered about music and Canada, passions we both share, and I felt excited about returning home.

My boss recommended the “Dame Blanche” for dessert and I eagerly poured Belgian chocolate sauce over vanilla ice cream and whip cream.    A Brussels specialty, this would probably be my first and last white lady. 


When it came time to announce my departure, I managed to hold it together.  I’ve been ready to move jobs for a few months now, but I didn’t expect it to happen this way.  Already feeling fragile it wasn’t easy to do, but I knew it was right. 

And so I’m back in Birmingham.   Ready for more lasts, goodbyes and farewells – and wishing for a happy ending.

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A hot cross bun too far


I knew it was time to leave the UK for good when I actually started enjoying hot cross buns.

This weekend I found myself inexplicably buying a whole pack of these sultana-filled Easter “goodies.”

On my first Easter in Birmingham, back in 2005, I was appalled that desserts in England always seemed to contain so many dried fruits and nuts.  You call that a dessert!  Where’s the sugar, chocolate, and fat???

 hot cross bun

But I love traditions – especially those surrounding holidays – and I discovered my father’s credo that butter slathered over cardboard would make it taste good, to be true for hot cross buns as well.

And you have to admit they do look yummy.

hot cross bun with butter

But they’re just not me.  So it’s hot cross buns and a broken relationship (mostly the latter) that will see me buying a one way ticket to Toronto in eight weeks time.

Sadly I’m leaving good friends and Primark behind.  But I’m a broken heart, fond memories and this blog with me.  I hope you will join me on my journey back home.

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