Hyperlocal Sharing | A Store Where Everything is Free

Editor’s Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I have been involved with the TTM Free Store since it’s founding two years ago in our small town of Media, Pennsylvania. It is an initiative of Transition Town Media. The Free Store currently has more than 6,000 members on its Facebook Page, most of them locals. For a small store in the annex of a Methodist Church, it is a massive presence in our town. As the name says – everything in the store is free and on any give day, the place is packed with donors and shoppers. More importantly, it is a community hub where people who might not otherwise do so, meet, connect and share. The Store is funded by donations and run by committed volunteers. Many visitors find a social outlet at the Store, a sense of community some say was missing from their lives. Ramnath is a friend I introduced to the Store. R. Fabian

free store
Happy Shoppers

By Ramnath Shanbhag

I have been a volunteer at the Transition Town Media Free Store for the past 9 months. I started volunteering because I wanted to step away from my life for a little bit, even for a few hours. I needed to put my load down, belong somewhere, and just be. I saw tons of people bring in or take away donations. And as I smiled with them, I found a purpose – maybe not for my life but for that little while that I was there. And that is why I keep coming back. When I connect with the friends I have made here in the Transition Town Movement, they ground me and make me happy. These are simple yet very valuable feelings and therein lies the value of the Free Store. As the world moves at an ever faster rate, our isolated and fragmentary lives will require more community initiatives like this to bring us back to our basic humanity.

The TTM Free Store thumbs its nose at money as currency. They forefront good old social capital as the very basis of survival. They draw awareness to the consumer culture in this country. The Free Store allows for people to part with things that others might use, rather than mindlessly discarding them.  While this facilitates recycling through reuse, it is not enough. As far as consumption is concerned, the United States is the 1% of all nations. The US ranks among the highest in per-capita consumption of food, goods, services and energy. The bigger picture is that we are creating waste at an exponential rate and that recycling in the long run does not make a dent. We need much greater awareness about the impacts of our consumption and a willingness to make changes.

 Try it in Your Community?

Guidelines, from the original Free Store Plan, courtesy co-founder Marie Goodwin

  • 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.
  • 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.

Environmental and economic disasters will make us come to terms with our consumption one way or another – we will see breakdowns in markets, trade, economy, wars over resources, shortages, and so on. We will lose more and more public spaces and organizations as capital takes over the world.  While this is happening, the greatest price we will pay is the breakdown of democracy. We are already seeing public services and politics taken over by private equity. As I see it, efforts like the Free Store, TTM, and all forms of local cooperation play a crucial role at present. For cooperative initiatives like this to thrive, they need to:

  • transcend individual self-interest
  • not get absorbed by private enterprise or government interests
  • work solutions through a series of approximations and consider every solution as provisional; in other words, a work-in-progress.
  • offer citizens valuable space to discuss the politics of consumption, share their stories, become more aware of the changes around them and to re-learn to tread lightly on ourselves and on earth.

If we hope to make an impact that matters, we need to focus on awareness of our consumption and the politics of consumption. Each of us will have to take a good hard look at our lives and take personal responsibility for everything we have accumulated over our years on this planet. What we no longer need, or rarely use, we can share freely with others.

Articles about the Free Store:

The Birth of a Free Store, by Marie Goodwin

My visit to a store where everything is free (and without a catch!), by Peg DeGrassa

21 Stories of Transition: No. 7 – Media’s Free Store, Pennsylvania, US, by Rob Hopkins