In a silent moment, just as sleep was catching hold, my daughter opened her eyes and asked me, “Mom, is Santa real?” I told her the truth. There were some tears, but we talked about the beauty that remains in gifting, and she relaxed into her new found knowledge. As I lay next to her as she slept, I realized that the most distressing part of losing Santa is that many of her toys now had ceased to be part of a larger story. I had, single-handedly, de-mythologized her mountains of stuffed animals, her fairy house, her nesting boxes with “Be My Valentine” on them. She loved the idea that Santa wanted her to be his special someone. This left her feeling empty.
We all suffer from a deficit of stories in many areas of our lives, especially with our things. It is true that many suffer from profound scarcity of basic needs, but many people reading this article will recognize that, conversely, many also suffer from a surfeit of possessions, most of which lack meaning in our lives. Many of us work long hours at tedious jobs to afford things that we've been taught (by advertising and our culture of consumption) fills a void. That is a lie. The objects that fill our homes don't fill voids or heal wounds. They create more voids, more responsibilities, and more pressure to accumulate.
Valued objects have been with us for tens of thousands of years. The archaeological record tells us that we first had objects and ornaments made of rare, earthly substances: stones like carnelian, turquoise and obsidian; metals like gold, silver, and copper. There was also a lively trade in feathers and shells, coral and amber, bone and teeth. Later, but well before the invention of money, items of high value represented the tremendous time, complex trade-relationships, and access to resources that one person would give to another to gain status or repay a gift.1 Even low-value items, given between friends and relatives, denoted a complex web of interrelationship. Gift-giving and objects enmeshed us in community.2 These object carried memories and debts that needed to be repaid. They bonded us through obligation.
Now imagine that a friend makes you a skirt. She knows your color palate and sews something to match your style. She refuses outright payment. A year later on her birthday, you throw a party at your house, because you know that you are special to her and that she is a kind person. You meet her friends. They become your friends too. And every time you wear that skirt, you think of her.
We all have the capacity to live surrounded by "things" that are part of the fabric of relationships. For most of us, most of the time, however, this is not the case. Money has, over the last century, creeped into exchanges managed by friends, family, and community: child-care, elder-care, home cooking, gardening and farming, building houses, making music, talking through troubles. Now, much of this is purchased from strangers. The precious, intimate opportunities for connection are lost in the commodification of every day life. And we continue to try to buy our way to happiness, looking for meaning in things, but end up feeling empty.
Transition and the New Story
This aspect of consumerism felt like a core, deep-story, issue to our Transition Town's Steering Group. Changing this story has the power to transform peoples' minds and habits, which is at the root of the wholesale environmental destruction on our planet. How do you infuse meaning into at least some of our community's exchanges? How do you invite people to become more conscious consumers, more critical of their purchasing opportunities, more ready to share rather than purchase things anonymously?
We, as a group, had come to the conclusion that lectures and “awareness raising” had limited impact. How might we invite a wider community into the conversation? Could we provide lived, joyful experiences of alternatives for those not involved in the work of Transition?
Enter the Media Pennsylvania FreeStore. Our path to opening our FreeStore worked so well that it almost seems premeditated, but it wasn't. The initiative might not have worked as well without all our prior efforts:
In 2010, our Transition Town group applied for (and received) 501(c)(3) status.
Three years ago we started a Timebank
About the same time, we started a Facebook-group focused on gifting, reselling, and swapping for our local community. Locals use the group to ask for, sell, and give things away. Think of it as a hyper-local Craigslist (with 900 members).
In 2011, we began holding a “FreeMarket” one day a year. The Market was held every year on the heels of a community-wide garage sale, and served as a place to bring your unsold items instead of placing them curb-side for the trash pick-up.
We held a well-attended book-reading group of Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics two years ago. This book discusses gift-economics in some detail.
All of these initiatives created enthusiasm for the sharing economy. People recognized its power to be of service to Transition goals, and were willing to work to bring them to life.
All items would be free and available to anyone in the community.
All staff would be volunteer, but paid in “timedollars.” This would in turn help the Timebank recruit new members.
As a 501(c)(3) we could offer receipts to donors. This includes businesses who might want to cull inventory as a donation to us.
A donation jar would be available at the Store.
We would do a fund-raisers periodically and apply for grants.
We would not compete with other charities. In fact we would donate to them when at all possible.
All items have to be small enough to be carried in by the donor, and the donor would be responsible for putting items on the shelf. (“Self-Service in and Out”)
We would have a space in the Store where people could sit and chat, and a significant area for children to play with toys.
We would recycle responsibly any items that came to us that were not taken after a time.
We would identify businesses/non-profits in town that could make use of donated items.
We would identify populations that had significant need and outreach to them (churches, domestic abuse shelters, etc.)
We would not pay to advertise.
We would be transparent to our volunteers and to the public in our running of the Store, including finances and operations. This transparency would be created through an active FB-group open to the public.
We would empower community members to create events around the idea of the Store, such as Fix-It Fests, reading groups, etc.
Inside the FreeStore
We have only been open a month, but the observations from people in the community are a constant topic of conversation. I get stopped by strangers in the street to ask me about the FreeStore and to tell me about their enthusiasm for it. For example, an acquaintance told me at a party that she's begun to question whether the things in her house are really needed by her family. Others note that the FreeStore has become a public repository for rarely-used items, and if they've given something and need it back at some point in the future, they now know that they can find it in the FreeStore or ask for it on the Swap page. This way they get their needs for security met (think Maslov), but not by actual ownership. One community member writes: “I think it also teaches us... that we don't always need as much as we think we do. I went in there just to look around. All these things that I could have used were there and knowing they were there - I didn't necessarily need or want them anymore.”
Others related that they have come into the Store and found just the perfect thing, the thing they had been needing: the lid that fits a casserole dish (just like the one that broke years ago); a book that they thought a friend might like, only to find out that this same book had been that friend's favorite book as a child (and a rare edition to boot); a person looking for a bike helmet found one in her size just as she had dusted off her bike to begin riding for the summer. This is a daily occurrence, and there are too many examples to relate here. The synchronicities are bountiful.
Related to this “synchronicity” phenomenon, people tell our volunteers what they need, and quite often that thing appears within a day or two in the FreeStore. Several new mothers have found carriages, slings, and baby gates this way.
Another observation is that people enjoy giving to the Store because it feels more personal than giving to other charities because there is a community that comes with the FreeStore. Often items don't even make it inside. People walking in with items are met with friends or strangers (new friends in disguise) who say, “Oh, I want that...” and it changes hands as a person-to-person exchange.
Children seem to enjoy the freedom of having money removed from the experience. Rhonda Fabian, one of our volunteers, blogs about it on the FreeStore's website. She writes, “Lots of times in traditional stores I have seen kids whine or beg for this or that... When kids (from 5 to about 15) come in, they are a bit shy at first because they don’t have a reference point for 'free.' But within a few minutes their delight is palpable. You can see them get it. And here’s the thing. Instead of getting excited, they calm down. Rather than running from thing to thing, they seem to inspect items more slowly and closely. The tension with the parent vanishes and they get lost in the possibilities of making their own choices.”
Adults too relate to the FreeStore in unexpected ways. One man took home earrings, merely to see how they were made, and returned them the same day. VHS tapes and DVDs come and go, as do books. People treat the store as a free-lending library.
Other successes include: support (physical and emotional) from local business leaders; enough monetary donations to pay our rent and make signs; grant possibilities that did not exist before; outreach for Transition Town Media and the Timebank has expanded, and we have many new people involved in our work at the organizational level.
We were warned early in the planning of the FreeStore about some of the challenges we have had by a few prescient people in our organization. In our hurry to open (we opened the FreeStore in six weeks from start to finish) we didn't establish a clear way to identify and resolve disputes or to handle problems within the Store itself. As these challenges presented themselves, we've struggled to solve them.
Two main challenges stand out:
The relationship that people have to “things” can become addictive and destructive. Hoarding behavior and obvious reselling behavior is divisive to the community, tolerated by some more than others. This led to division within the community about how to deal with these challenges to the “ethos” of the FreeStore, especially when the behavior is related to supporting suspected substance abuse.
(Admittedly rare) behavior by visitors that sits outside the Store motto of “self-service in and out:” Customers demanding that volunteers be responsible for unloading their car, shelving items, or wrap/bag items for them. The FreeStore is very different from other retail stores, and we struggle with messaging this difference to our community, keeping in mind that some visitors may have physical limitations that demand such help sometimes.
Our biggest challenge, however, is not either of these two issues, but how we create decision-making around them. Transition Town Media moved forward with the FreeStore initiative assuming that decisions would be made by our Steering Group. Almost immediately, it became clear that Steering was not equipped to make FreeStore decisions. Rather, it seems that the volunteers (defined as those actively sitting shifts at the FreeStore) are the best decision-making body because they manage the Store day-to-day and will ultimately be responsible for carrying out any guidelines or rules we put into place. Our commitment to transparency on the FB group page generated a great deal of input about these issues as well. We are in the process of hammering out a “leaderful” horizontal organizational design with our volunteer base through mediated meetings of all the volunteers (who at the time of writing number 45.)
Critiques of the sharing economy continue to emerge. There is merit in a good deal of what's said. However, most critiques miss the crucial point, which is the desire to re-establish relationship as the basis for every-day activities and exchange of goods. Or, conversely, this critique dismisses the positives of relationship-building, preferring the anonymity of monetized transactions. People critiquing large, for-profit sharing businesses do so, for the most part, at the level of economics and safety-standards, while ignoring the profound need that all of us have for direct relationships, trust in our community, and exchanges that meet needs beyond the material. Whether it is a room from Airbnb or an exchange made at the FreeStore, people meet people and replace monetary, face-less purchasing with new relationships and a personalized, unique experiences that invite story, connection, and memory. That this kind of experience can be the stuff of one's every day life, that we are all richer for it is the main lesson of our FreeStore.
1 Helms, Mary. Craft and the Kingly Ideal: Art, Trade, and Power. University of Texas Press. (1993)
2 For general reading on Gift Economics: Eisenstein, Charles. Sacred Economics. North Atlantic Books (2011); Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. Vinage (1983); Vaughan, Genevieve. For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange. Plain View Press (1997).