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How to Get Free Stuff at Free Stores & Swap Shops (or Start Your Own)

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Everybody loves a bargain. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of walking out of a store with a jacket that was originally priced at $300, knowing you paid only $30. But just imagine for a minute how it would feel if you could walk out of the store with that same jacket for free.

It’s absolutely possible – if you shop at free stores. These are like an offline version of the Freecycle Network: You can just go in and drop off all those unwanted, but still perfectly usable items that have been cluttering up your house, and in turn, you can help yourself to anything that anyone else has left. No money ever changes hands.

The earliest free stores in the United States appeared in San Francisco during the 1960s. An anarchist counter-cultural group called the Diggers – named after an earlier movement in 17th-century England – started these stores as part of their vision of an anti-capitalist, money-free society. More recently, environmental groups have promoted the free store concept as a way to fight over-consumption, save resources, and reduce waste.

How Free Stores Work

Free stores, also known as free shops or give-away shops, are basically just what they sound like: venues where everything on the shelves is free. All the goods are donated, and you can walk right in and take anything you like without having to pay for it. You don’t even have to leave something of your own in exchange, although you’re certainly welcome to do so.

For instance, suppose that you have an old car seat at home that your kids have outgrown, but it’s still in good condition. Instead of trying to sell it on Craigslist or give it away on Freecycle, you can simply take it down to a free store and drop it in an empty spot on the shelf, ready to be picked up by someone who needs it. Then you can browse through the shelves and look for something else that you can use, such as a board game to play with your family.

Of course, since free stores don’t make any money, they have to have some other way of paying their operating expenses. Most free stores are staffed by volunteers, so they don’t have any labor costs. As for the cost of rent and utilities, stores have various ways of handling it. These include:

  • Grants. A 2006 article about free stores in the Green American, the magazine of the environmental group Green America, describes the Baltimore Free Store as being financed “mainly through grants.” However, this method of funding is uncertain – in late 2010, the Baltimore Free Store lost its permanent home, and since then it has been able to run only on an occasional basis in public places.
  • Borrowed Spaces. The Portland Free Store operates its monthly events out of spaces lent by “churches, schools, and other organizations.” A USA Today article describes a free store in New Haven, Connecticut, as operating out of a donated storefront. However, this method also has its problems, as evidenced when the New Haven store was forced to move out when the owner of the storefront signed on a new paying tenant.
  • Donations. The Portland Free Store is in the process of raising money to buy a truck for hauling, hire a driver for it, and rent a permanent storefront to keep the store open on a more regular basis. The managers estimate they would need to raise $30,000 to meet all three goals, so if they could raise $100 each from 300 people, that would be enough to fund their entire operation for a year.

Free Store Variants

Very few free stores operate out of fixed storefronts and keep regular hours. Instead, most run on a temporary or ad hoc basis, setting up shop whenever and wherever they get the chance.

Some common variants on the free store include:

  • Really Really Free Markets. A Really Really Free Market, or RRFM, is typically an open-air gathering in a public place, such as a park. “Shoppers” come and go throughout the day, picking up and dropping off items. At some RRFMs, people also give away free food – either donated or scavenged – and free services, such as haircuts or computer repair. Most RRFMs are one-day events, and anything left over at the end of the day is given to charity.
  • Free Boxes. Probably the simplest type of free goods exchange is a free box. Passersby can just drop in unwanted items – as long as they’re small enough to fit – and take things they like. Before the Portland Free Store became an organized event, there were several such free boxes scattered throughout the city. Similarly, a Unitarian church in Morristown, New Jersey, maintains a “free table” for members and visitors.
  • Swap Shop. The difference between a swap shop and a free store is that you have to bring something to the store in order to take something. The two items don’t have to be of equal value, but there must be some sort of exchange involved. Some people who are embarrassed or ashamed to accept free goods from a free store are more willing to swap goods at a swap shop.

Free Store Variants

Examples of Free Stores

Free stores, free boxes, and RRFMs are found all across the United States – and in a few other countries as well. These stores are different in many ways: the places where they operate, how often they’re open, and how formally or informally they’re managed. The one thing they all have in common is that everything is free: no cash, no barter.

  • San Francisco Really Really Free Market. The San Francisco RRFM is held on the last Saturday of every month. For most of the year, participants gather in Dolores Park, a public park in the heart of the city; during the rainy winter months, they meet at an indoor venue. Its organizers compare it to a potluck dinner where you bring only one dish, but still end up with “a full belly and a balanced meal.” They ask participants to follow just two rules: Keep the event “free and non-commercial” – meaning “leave the business cards at home” – and take home anything you bring that no one else takes.
  • Brooklyn Free Store. The Brooklyn Free Store runs each Friday – weather permitting – on the corner of Marcy and Lafayette in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Clothing and books are the most popular items. The organizers invite everyone to take part by sharing not only goods, but “services, art, [and] performance.”
  • Really Really Free Market NYC. New York City’s Really Really Free Market NYC is a quarterly event, held on the last Sunday of January, April, July, and October. Hosted by the Judson Church on Washington Square, the market is limited to “useful items that can be taken home in a shopping cart.” In addition to goods, the RRFM includes music, food, workshops, and “skill shares,” such as free haircuts.
  • The Bolinas Free Box. For more than 30 years, the Bay Area town of Bolinas, California, has been home to an extra-large Free Box. It started when people began leaving old clothes in the vestibule of the community center building, and eventually a special shed was built for it between the community center and the grocery co-op. It has had its problems in the past, with some residents treating it as a dumping ground for obvious trash such as dead light bulbs and TV sets with broken screens. Today, however, the Free Box houses a wide variety of desirable goods, including designer clothing, and a sign over the door advises visitors to “expect a miracle.”

There is no nationwide directory of free stores, but the San Francisco RRFM maintains a list of RRFMs around the country and world. However, since new RRFMs are always opening and old ones moving or closing their doors, many of the links are out of date.

Starting a Free Store

If you can’t find a free store or RRFM in your area, it’s fairly easy to organize your own. However, you probably shouldn’t start by trying to open a permanent store with regular hours. Instead, plan a one-day event to start with, and if it’s successful, you can repeat it on a regular basis.

There are several steps you must take if you wish to start a free store:

1. Find a Location
The best place to hold your event is a central public location that’s easily accessible. Since a free store doesn’t bring in any money, it should also be a location that costs nothing to use. Possibilities include a church, community center, public park, school yard, or vacant lot. Call up the owner of the site you have in mind, explain what you’re doing, and ask for permission to use the space. City-owned sites, such as parks, often require a permit to use, but cities are sometimes willing to waive the fee for this kind of event.

2. Choose a Date
This probably needs to happen at the same time you select your location, so you can reserve the spot in advance. A weekend date is best, since more people are available to take part. Also, decide on start and end times for your event. The manager of the Portland Free Store recommends reserving the space for an extra two hours before the event to set up, plus an extra two hours afterward to clean up.

3. Ask for Volunteers
While you can try to do it all yourself, it’s much easier if you have others to help you publicize the event, set up tables, transport items, provide food, and clean up afterward. You can ask friends to help, or seek volunteers through social media and community bulletin boards. Other places to recruit volunteers include colleges and universities, religious congregations, and local groups involved in the sharing economy.

4. Promote Your Event
The more widely you advertise your event to the community, the more people and items you attract. Ways to publicize include hanging posters in public locations, passing out fliers at community events, sending announcements to local calendars and listservs, spreading the word on social media, listing your free store in the “free event” section of online classified ads, asking local radio stations to issue public service announcements, and inviting the local paper to do a story about your free store. If there are many non-English speakers in your community, issue publicity materials in their languages as well. On the day of the free store event, put out a sign-up sheet to start a mailing list for people who want to be notified about the next one.

5. Gather Items
Although people will show up throughout the day with new stuff to give away, it’s best to have some items ready when the free store opens. Start by going through your own house to clean out your closets and drawers, and ask your fellow volunteers to do the same. You can also advertise a location, such as your front porch, for people who can’t make it to the free store to drop off their unwanted items ahead of time. Make sure only to include items that are in good condition – if other people drop off donations, go through them ahead of time to remove anything that’s damaged or unusable.

6. Plan Activities
The best free stores include services and activities as well as goods. Invite musicians, dancers, and other entertainers to perform at the event. Other service providers, from massage therapists to bicycle mechanics, can contribute their skills as well. Also, think about ways to provide food for “shoppers” and activities for children.

7. Decide What to Do With Leftovers
You can expect to have some items left over at the end of the day, so decide ahead of time what you will do with them. If you plan to hold another free store event in the future, you can find a place to store the leftovers until then (if it’s free). You can also donate them to a charity, such as Goodwill or a local thrift shop, but be sure to ask first whether it can handle a large donation. Any leftover items that aren’t in good condition can simply be thrown away.

8. Set Up Your Free Store
Show up early on the day of the free store to set up tables and set out the “merchandise” grouped loosely into categories, such as clothing or tools. If necessary, set aside a clearly marked spot to store your personal items, such as coats or purses, so no one mistakes them for free goods. Have water on hand for the volunteers. You can also put up decorations to make the free store look festive.

9. Hold Your Event
Greet the “shoppers” with an explanation that everything is free, and remind them to show courtesy to the volunteers and each other. As new stuff arrives throughout the day, sort it and set it out on the tables. At the end of the day, clear away the leftovers and leave the site spotless – having a reputation for cleaning up after yourselves will make it easier to find a site for your next event, if you have one. Afterward, send thank-you notes to all the volunteers who helped, as well as to the people who provided the space.

Hold Free Charity Event

Final Word

One important point to make about a free store is that it’s not the same thing as a charity. Charity is all about helping those in need. Free stores, by contrast, are for everyone, regardless of income. They bring together all members of the community, from all walks of life, and give them a chance to meet and interact with each other.

At a free store, there are no donors or recipients, only participants. Everyone who takes part adds something valuable to the event, because both givers and takers are needed for a free store to work. And everybody benefits – some gain new items they can use, some clear away clutter from their homes, and everyone gets the satisfaction of sharing with others and giving new life to unwanted goods.

Have you ever “shopped” at a free store? What’s the best thing you found there?

(photo credit: Steven Depolo via Creative Commons)

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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