I'm not a shopping tourist. Those very words conjour the slightly nauseating image of a busload of over-excited middle-aged white sneaker-clad women itching to swipe their credit cards. But throw the magic words 'op shop' into the mix and shopping tours take on a whole new level.
Melbourne Op Shop Tours was born in 2008 when three friends decided to combine their love for vintage with their local knowledge and business acumen. Jess, Jenny and Richmond began running tours around Melbourne's best-loved ops in 2009, their secret routes winding their way all over the city. Uni mate and op shop connossieur Jordi joined the ranks after Richmond's departure - and it was she who guided me on my own Op Shop tour around Hawthorn and Kew.
Our tour commenced at 9am on a Saturday morning, and I arrived at our designated meeting point feeling a touch vintage already. I was relieved to discover my other shopping companions - two ladies from Ballarat, a pair of friends from mothers group, a single American on a mission and another solo lass like me - were all clutching coffee cups and looking just as nervous as I felt.
Jordi, however, put us all at ease and after introductions we followed her to the gigantic Vinnies on Auburn Road in Hawthorn. As an unseasoned op-shopper, it came as a relief when Jordi enquired whether I was searching for anything in particular, and pointed out the tags that meant the clothes were half-price. And so with Jordi's eagle eye out for any fetching summer dresses, the hunting began.
Success was widespread and we gloated over our purchases on the tram to our next stop - no longer strangers but indeed comrades in arms. Jordi explained that while the tours are popular with people from out of town, they're also favoured by hens parties and groups of girlfriends. Men, though rare, have also been known to frequent the tours, with some legendary male shoppers even being rewarded with brand name suits for less than $50.
A variation in opening hours at our second shop meant that we had a 15 minute window in which to do our best work. "Look at the SHOES FIRST," Jordi advised as the doors were pulled open, and a frenzy of rifling and trying on ensued. Fifteen dollars later, I was weighed down with two dresses and a couple of silk scarves - and feeling very pleased with myself. After a bus ride and a couple more stops at smaller, quainter Op Shops around Kew (where my inclination for bowling whites was sensibly discouraged by Jordi) it was time for a quick and delicious cafe lunch.
Thus refuelled, and with a couple of bartering techniques now under my belt thanks to the lunch time forum, I fancied myself quite the discerning bargain hunter. Too much agonising meant that we'd had to skip a shop or two, but we made up for it with an extended visit to the Epilepsy Op Shop and a sweep of the impressive Vinnies Centre in Kew East. Laden with bags and with my wallet only $40 lighter, I was feeling markedly shabby chic. One of my companions had somehow filled a suitcase with her shopping wins, and the ladies from Ballarat were particularly pleased with their second-hand embroidered tablecloths.
Melbourne's best-known vintage shops are dotted around Carlton and Fitzroy - and Melbourne Op Shop Tours' Inner North East tour is very popular as a result. But the company offers tours in six locations around the city - including even Williamstown. If the Kew tour is anything to judge by, these savvy op-shoppers will know event the smallest of the diamonds in the suburbian rough.
These tours are sustainable tourism at their best, and offer five hours of shopping heaven - and not a white sneaker in sight.