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Gravesend swap shop the Mad Cafe is a big hit in cyberspace

PUBLISHED: 10:04 28 February 2013 | UPDATED: 10:04 28 February 2013

Clare Knowles with her children

On sofa l to r Aaron,Thomas,Clare,Jacob and Maddi Knowles

Clare Knowles with her children On sofa l to r Aaron,Thomas,Clare,Jacob and Maddi Knowles

Archant

How do you turn £200 into £1,000 without gambling or landing yourself in a police cell?

Gravesend mother-of-four Clare Knowles found the answer by setting up an online swap shop that has evolved into a virtual community hub, offering bargains and even the chance to find long-lost friends.

Mad Cafe is now in its third year and has 21,000 members all looking to shift clothes, televisions, toys – and even bombs!

“I suppose the weirdest thing we’ve had offered so far was an unexploded bomb from the Second World War,” said Clare.

“But ordinarily it’s iPods, computer consoles or clothes – it really is anything.”

After the birth of her fourth child, the 39-year-old quit her job as an optician.

With an abundance of baby clothes and toys on her hands, she took inspiration from an idea an aunt once had for swap shop coffee mornings and revitalised it for the 21st century.

Clare added: “I was giving so much stuff away come baby number four and it was an ice breaker for me. I knew the faces of people coming online, but I had never spoken to them when I was picking my kids up from school.

“It started as a swap shop but it just grew into a community within a community.”

Many correct Clare on her spelling “swopping”, but the term is the combination of swapping and shopping that she promotes on Mad Cafe.

Last Christmas she set herself a budget of £200 for each of her children but the value of the items she got on Mad Cafe came to £1,000 – including a Nintendo Wii, which cost her just £30.

“It’s become more acceptable to buy things from people you know. Everyone is feeling the pinch and my kids, like everyone else’s, have a wardrobe of perfectly good clothes that can be given a new home.”

Her online community is the culmination of a long journey for Clare who left school with poor grades and not many prospects.

Joining an opticians as a receptionist, she took herself back to the classroom for seven years and qualified as an optician before leaving to be a full-time mother.

Though the website started as a way to pass time, Clare found herself needing help and sadly found devious intentions hiding behind willing smiles.

She said: “Someone who I thought was helping with the website and Facebook page actually deleted my website and then launched their own with the same idea.

“I gave them my passwords and told them I was trusting them. They could lock me out of my own pages – and that’s exactly what they did.

“But they ultimately failed because they don’t have the community I do.”

This means Clare is still without a website of her own, though there is a Facebook page, but despite that Mad Cafe is still thriving.

She added: “I had people knocking on my door after the site was deleted saying ‘don’t give up’, telling me their family relied on it.

“You don’t realise people are living hand-to-mouth out there and really rely on it.”

Still running Mad Cafe for no wage alongside 10 voluntary administrators, Clare hopes she will soon be able to pay herself.

“That’s my dream swap – to change my job as an optician to earning a wage through Mad Cafe.”

For more details on Mad Cafe go to www.facebook.com/madcafeuk

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