It is Saturday morning at 10:07 am and I find myself following a young man I have only just met down a narrow sidewalk between buildings, past a tall spruce tree to a humble but exceedingly well-kept little carriage house hidden in the middle of a block in North-East Portland. The slab of cement next to the garage has been swept clean, and on it, along with some hand painted pots of hellebores, sits a kind woman in her fifties next to a sturdy wooden table.
She is dressed in a navy blue and white linen suit that looks handmade. (Perhaps she has hand-stitched the trim herself?) The sun shines through the tree branches in this secret place and she smiles at me kindly and asks if I have been to the freestore before. I tell her no, but my friend has been here and he told me about it. I tell her I have brought something with me and hold out a bag containing two books I’d read, a pair of pants my daughter won’t wear, and the slippers my mother gave me for my birthday. (They were by far the best slippers I’d ever had, still brand new, but a half-size too small and the store wouldn’t take returns.)
She asked me to take each item out and set it on the table, and then, with her lightly wrinkled and intentional finger, she points to a small index card with the following words printed on it and reads them aloud.
“Everything I give, I give freely. These are things I no longer need and it won’t cause me hardship to do without them. The items I am offering are in good condition and I hold these items and those who will use them in respect. May these items contribute to the well being of our community, our environment and those who use them.
Anything you take from the freestore has been given freely for your well being. Take only what you need and what will bring you joy. If you decide you no longer need this item yourself please give it freely to someone else. Do you agree to these terms?”
With a nod of my head she guides me to a small gate, just next to a couple of people sitting on a bench, chatting and drinking tea out of mismatched fancy grandma cups. I see a well-tended garden to my right and the open door of the little yellow structure.
Immediately outside the door on a small table covered with an immaculate white lace-trimmed cloth are the “perishables”: bundles of lettuce from someone’s garden, a tomato start, a batch of vegan chocolate chip cookies (still warm), and a mason jar of daffodils. I remember a couple of free-food drop spots I had been to where boxes of semi-rotting produce would be piled in stained cardboard boxes. Something was different here.
Later that morning I watch as a woman in a jogging suit and rain boots near the edge of the adjoining garden sorts a box of the very same vegetable cast-offs from a nearby grocery. She gently places the ripe and edible pears into a clean shiny red bowl, and gives the rest of the scraps to a horde of eager chickens at her feet. She breaks down the box and arranges the pears on the “perishable” table next to a basket of eggs.
I enter the small garage and it looks as if I have entered Gepetto’s workshop. The room smells of cinnamon and the floor is swept clean. A warm bulb from under a round green banker’s shade lights the tables, along with sunlight that filters through the windows. Around the walls an eclectic combination of things decorate efficiently spaced shelves and tables. In front of me a wooden dowel hangs from the ceiling with neatly spaced clothes hanging on hangers. Next to that a bookshelf organized with adult, children’s books, CDs, and DVDs. On an empty counter to my right a teenage boy is deftly folding t-shirts.
Alongside the window a small set of shelves is hanging from the wall with meticulously arranged items: a jar of paper clips, a Lladro sculpture of a young girl with geese, an antique wooden mortar and pestle. Next shelf: a vintage edition of Maurice Sendak’s Nutshell Library, a beautiful silver necklace with delicate blue roses and a topaz stone displayed on a velvet pillow, and an egg slicer. Their artful arrangement on the shelf makes them seem more intriguing like items in an art museum and less like junk in a garage sale.
The eclectic menagerie is a reminder of how the need for a specific item can fluctuate from day to day, that objects hold no intrinsic value, rather they have value based on the circumstances of the one in need. I feel like it's a sacred act as I place my slippers on the shoe rack beneath the clothes, settling them in so the toes are pointed the same direction. I glance to the left and I see… an electric saw? You’ve got to be kidding! This is just what I had dreaming about for months with every odd repair I had been making on my house, but couldn’t quite justify a “luxury” purchase for occasional use. But I really do need it! Upon closer examination I see that the cord is carefully coiled and tethered with a twist tie. There is a hand-written note taped to the handle that reads “Works well. Repaired professionally and blade replaced on 12/6/11.” I reach over and pick it up and a surge of excitement washes over me.
As I am about to leave I notice a bulletin board by the door, with little yellow cards neatly pinned to the cork. Each one offers a gift or expresses a need:
- I will trim your bangs. Nine years of experience making bangs even and attractive. Barb. 555-1234
- Gray corduroy sectional sofa. Please pick up by 4/15. Bill. Bill@...
- Wanted: Size 9 adult tap shoes. happyfeet@…
The store is open Saturdays from 10 to noon, or by appointment. Everything about the freestore is given freely, including the items and services, the space it occupies, and the organizers' and cleaners' volunteer hours. Unlike other stores, the priority is on the respect, kindness and care in the relationship between the giver and the receiver. The act of receiving is honored as much as the act of giving. With that in place there is no concern for supply; demand, cost, profit, branding, or marketing.
Volunteers at the freestore are fluent in the culture of kindness, caring, and generosity and it is their presence that holds things together. Occasionally someone shows up with a garbage bag of stained clothes, chipped plates, and puzzles with the pieces missing. Sometimes two inexperienced swappers tug on the same item in a spark of panic, raising the spectre of scarcity. Or perhaps someone comes by who lives in constant fear of that scarcity and practices hoarding. The volunteers handle each of these interactions with the same respect, mindfulness, and care that say, a sweater missing a button would receive. There is a strength in the overall essence of the freestore that has been created with every offering and every need met, that prevails even when the occasional disturbance arises.
This is the freestore. Everything is free. There is enough for everyone. The inventory is never the same, but there is a constant supply of abundance, mindfulness, gratitude, and the caring exchange of giving and receiving. It is a place where everyone is welcome, everything is free, and where people work together to meet everyone’s needs. This is my dream, it is our dream, our daydream. I see it in bits and pieces here and there. I would like to go there again and again.