Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Land of the Free

I've already posted more than once on this site about my fondness for Freecycle.  Its many benefits include
  1. finding a new home for your unwanted stuff so it doesn't end up in a landfill;
  2. finding stuff that you can use at no cost; and
  3. saving the resources used for making new stuff by keeping old items in circulation.
However, it does have a couple of drawbacks.  One is that my local group draws from such a broad area that often I'll see things listed that I think I could use, but it would take an hour or more of driving to pick them up, and the time and gas used would cancel out any potential savings.  Another is that receiving individual e-mails for each item that's posted would quickly drown out all the other messages in my inbox—but receiving the "daily digest" of 25 postings at a time instead, I often don't see the listings for desirable items until they've already been taken.  And of course, there's the problem that with Freecycle postings, you usually don't get to see items before you request them, so you can't be sure they're really what you want.  In fact, in many cases you can be pretty sure they aren't exactly what you want; people who have multiple items to give away often list a whole box with the direction, "must take all," so you have to take a bunch of unwanted items to get the few that you want.  Of course, you can just turn around and re-post those unwanted items for others to take, but you can never be sure anyone will want them—or, for that matter, any other item that you post.  And there is always the problem of "no-shows," people who say they'll come at a particular time to pick up a particular item and then leave you waiting by the door.

So what would be the perfect way to keep all the benefits of Freecycle without any of the drawbacks?  This month's Green American has an answer: a free store.  These range from actual storefronts to folding tables set up under a tarp, where you can drop off any unwanted items and pick up anything that looks useful.  According to the article, this business model does not, as you might think, encourage people to sweep in and grab everything on the shelves, the way some extreme couponers have been known to do during extremely good sales; since everything that's free today will still be free tomorrow, there's no particular urgency about nabbing the bargains before they disappear.  Of course, it's apparent that a store where everything is free does not generate any income, and a store is bound to have higher operating costs than a Freecycle group, so these stores rely on outside funding, generally in the form of grants, to pay their overhead.  (Interestingly, though, a free store in Portland, Oregon is managing to operate on a for-profit basis by charging $20 a year for membership, which is probably a good deal if you consider how much you could save in a year by "shopping" there.)

Free stores of various types are operating successfully in several U.S. cities, including Portland, Baltimore, and San Francisco.  (Historical note: the free-store movement in the US was actually started in San Francisco by a hippie group called the Diggers, who took their name from the 17th-century English farming collective celebrated in the folk song "The World Turned Upside Down.")  A quick Google search didn't turn up any free stores in New Jersey, but there is an informal one in New York City (which has apparently, and bizarrely, been the target of repeated arson attempts).  Also, Philadelphia recently hosted its first Really Really Free Market, a gathering at which individuals can swap services as well as goods.

Unfortunately, I don't know if I'll have a chance to get up to Brooklyn any time in the near future, and it certainly isn't something I could do on a regular basis.  But those of you who live or work in large cities might find it worth your while to do a quick Google search on "free store, city name" and see what turns up.  The location may not be terribly convenient, but you can't beat the prices.
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