Shopping is usually a pretty standard experience, whether you buy items online or in a physical store. Customers enter the store, examine the merchandise, select things and pay for them. But, imagine we took money out of the equation and the transactions were instead based on sharing and exchanging goods. Turns out this isn’t such an imaginary scenario, and stores like this already exist across the country. Free Stores and Really Really Free Markets (RRFM) are forums where people can share goods, skills, wisdom, and more without having to exchange money.
Learn more about the history of free stores, how they work, and how you can contribute or start your own below.
The history of free shops
The idea of a market or store without money is actually not new at all. Actually, it’s a 17th century idea that continues into the 21st century. The earliest known iteration of these “markets” was the brainchild of an agricultural-based communist sect in England around 1649-1650 called the Diggers. The Diggers’ original name was derived from their anti-monarchical act of claiming land (technically owned by the king) for themselves and farming it, sharing crops freely among other poor communities. The movement was quickly quashed by the ruling class, but the idea of a community in which each person contributes what he can and gets what he needs continued to evolve and appear in various iterations over the centuries.
In the 1960s, a group of counterculture activists in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco began referring to themselves as the “San Francisco Diggers” and offered free art shows, meals, and a free store of their own for the community. In the summer of 1967, the group collaborated with Roy Ballard and Larry Mamiya, civil rights organizers and supporters of Malcolm X, to launch what they called the Black People’s Free Store.
Today, contributing or even opening a free store near you can be a great way to get involved in caring for the community.
Free stores across the country
A quick Google search for “RRFM near me” will likely provide useful results (there are free markets in Grand Rapids, San Francisco, New Paltz, Seattle, and more). The same goes for free stores: they exist in Portland, Oregon, Baltimore, Maryland, and Nashville, Tennessee, among other places. To find out more, we caught up with some of the organizers behind some of the free shops and markets in the United States.
The Free Store Project (New York, NY)
Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, in October 2020, activist and organizer Myles Smutney decided to do something to help his neighbors in New York City. “The people who stayed in the city were those who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else, people who had been in the neighborhoods most of their lives,” she said. “I wanted to do something to cheer them up. Something fun.”
The first free store locations were in his own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, but the idea soon took off. Before long, there were dozens of free stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. People started reaching out and offering racks, printers, display racks, and more. “People would call me and say, ‘I see on your map there isn’t a store open for me, so how do I start one?'” recalls Smutney, “and I would always say, ‘I got you. Let’s go.'” “The stores are set up on the sidewalks, and each community is responsible for maintaining the store and keeping it in stock. They also provide more than goods. Neighbors have new opportunities to meet and form bonds that would not otherwise have been created. “I observe to people you would never, ever imagine together, united by Berenstain Bears books or Timberland boots,” says Smutney. “We’ve really created something special here.”
The Freecycle Network (worldwide)
Deron Beal is the founder and CEO of the Freecycle Network, a nonprofit grassroots movement that keeps 1,000 tons of trash out of landfills every day. “These are items that have a lot of good use left, they just don’t have any monetary value anymore,” says Beal.
The network operates both globally and locally: there are sharing communities around the world, but each community is moderated by local volunteers. What started as a Yahoo group has morphed into a phenomenon with groups on six continents. Freecycle Network sees its purpose as environmental at heart. “If you give away a used sofa on Freecycle, you’re keeping a hundred-pound sofa out of the landfill,” Beal said, “but you’re also saving 20 times more on industrial waste because the raw materials (cotton, wood, diesel, water, etc. ) don’t need to be plucked from mother nature for a new sofa. We, as consumers, can have a huge impact on the production cycle through reuse.”
The Store (Nashville, Tennessee)
Walking into The Store in Nashville, you might think it’s a regular grocery store. Customers wander through the pantry staples, dairy, and fruit and vegetable aisles, choosing items and placing them in a cart or basket. The only difference is that the cashier, who is wearing a lime green apron, will not ask for cash or credit. La Tienda is specifically focused on the issue of food insecurity.
“A society with access to robust nutritional services is one in which children are more likely to thrive educationally, less likely to have long-term medical problems, and more likely to find employment as adults and be an active member of their community.” Courtney says. Vrablik, CEO of The Store. “Food safety is a foundation for a lifetime of potential. In the long run, it is a great benefit to and investment in society.” Working in partnership with Belmont University, the grocery store provides the food, while the school provides the space, along with health and legal services to customers.
The Really Really Free Market (Ypsilanti, Michigan)
Local organizer Alexis King attended her first RRFM when she lived in Carrboro, North Carolina, where the city has had a free monthly market since 2004. “I was blown away. It was amazing,” King said. “There was poetry in the street, people playing guitars and handing out food. And it was all free.” When she moved to Ypsilanti several years later, she knew she wanted to bring the spirit of generosity and community to her new home, so she began working with two other local activists to launch the city’s first RRFM.
“We didn’t expect the first one to be this big, but hundreds of people showed up and kept bringing things,” King said. “We had a media area with CDs and books, and an area where people provided services and skills, free acupuncture, for example. And we had a potluck, so there was a lot of food. Everybody pitched in, helped us set up and break the event”. King and his collaborators now host weekly events and look to expand their project to include skills-sharing workshops, a human resources directory and more. “It’s not necessarily just about physical resources,” King explains. “It’s about supporting and creating a sustainable network of connection in a community.”
How to start a free store in your community
Launching a free store doesn’t have to be daunting. The organizers I spoke to recommended just starting somewhere. When Beal started The Freecycle Network, it was just a warehouse in Tucson. “I was running a recycling program at the time,” he said, “and we were getting donated items that weren’t recyclable. We needed to find a better way to find new homes for a warehouse full of used stuff, so we created a basic online forum.” .
It’s important to remember that the road to a free store shouldn’t be a lonely one. A sharing economy inherently relies on community members to make this happen. This is important for getting store items, but also for maintenance, community outreach, and fostering human connections.
“Something we’ve learned is more successful than having a community partner,” says Smutney. He also recommends learning from those who have experience in the field, while fine-tuning things to fit a specific community. “During our two years of operation, we’ve had almost 200 volunteers come and go, so we put together a kind of manual with tips for successful operations,” she says. “And then we’re here just as a resource, while also recognizing that everyone needs to have their own stuff if we want them to really feel a part of what we’re doing.” All organizers work with existing local organizations like community centers, cafes, bars, and art spaces. The idea is to reuse an existing infrastructure to create something new for the community.