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Free-Cyclin

From a free store to a grassroots network that's making it easier than ever for people to give things away, more and more young people are re-using and freecycling.
‘If it’s not tied down, take it.’ With those words, a store operating under the radar in Brooklyn is changing the way people look at commerce, ownership, and interpersonal exchange. On the internet, a grassroots network called Freecycle is making it easier than ever for people to give things away, no strings attached. Is an emerging ‘free’ market carving out its own niche beside mainstream consumer culture? Are young people helping to lead the way?

Located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Free Store is a colorful spot in an already vibrant neighborhood. The storefront has been artfully stenciled with bright colors, bidding visitors welcome, while a disclaimer posted on the door informs patrons that they enter this peculiar marketplace at their own risk.

Just inside, a bulletin board announces opportunity for communal gatherings of all sorts: bike repair workshops, food co-ops, music circles, startup communes. In the entrance to the space, a boldly lettered sign lays down the first rule to the Free Store: “If it’s not tied down, take it! If it is tied down, don’t take it!”

The space is filled with free goods that have been dropped off by locals. Chairs, couches, and bookshelves filled with books and kitchenware line the walls. Bins overflow with free clothes, and I notice two computer printers (circa 1998) sitting by the window. I look around for what’s tied down – an old cassette player in one corner of the space, an acoustic guitar in the opposite corner, and two worn guestbooks by the door that visitors have filled with scribbles.

‘The only person crazy enough to do it’

Jessica Baldwin is the facilitator of the Free Store. A 31-year-old artist, self-described “amateur social scientist,” and mother of one, she is an unlikely proprietor. “I’m an artist, but I’m not a very good salesperson,” she says. Baldwin spent four and a half years renting and living in the storefront on Grand Street, but the space offered no privacy, and by 2001 she was searching for another use for the space. It was then that a friend planted the idea in her head. “He said, ‘why don’t you open a free store, ha ha!’” Baldwin adds. “But he knew he was saying it to the only person crazy enough to do it. As soon as he said it, I knew that’s what I was going to do.” She now sublets part of the space to artists and that pays for the rent on the store.

In early fall 2001, the Free Store opened its doors. Anyone was welcome to drop things off or pick things up, and since the store was meant to be free in every sense of the word, it was often left unattended. “It really fit right in with my Sagittarian curiosity about how people function,” Baldwin says. “It’s an open offer for people, and they can use it either to their own advantage or in ways they think will help the store.”

When the Free Store reopened most recently in October 2004, Baldwin was approached by a group of local youth between 18 and 23 who offered to share some of the responsibilities. They redecorated the interior and put up literature in the store, and now they too open and close the store and keep it stocked with snacks. Baldwin says the “new kids on the block” have radically altered the Free Store for the better. “None of it’s pre-arranged. They’ve been great, they’ve been cleaning it a lot, and having events there,” she says. “Nobody told them to do it, they just did it.”

Now more than ever, Baldwin says, the Free Store is able to serve as an autonomous zone for free human interaction. “We live in a world of insurance liability, of almost degrading instructions on how to live our lives,” she says. “I wanted to create a space where people actually think before they act. That has always been its real intention.”

Reduce, reuse, Freecycle

A similar belief is the driving force behind the internet-based Freecycle Network, which was initially launched by a junk collector in Tucson, Ariz. in May 2003 as a way to reduce waste. In less than two years, Freecycle has exploded into an international network with 2,463 groups and 988,676 members exchanging goods that might otherwise be headed for the landfill.

Each local, autonomous Freecycle group operates through Yahoo Groups, which allows members to post offers and requests for free goods to other members in their area. Membership ranges from under ten people in some communities to over 14,000 members in the Dallas-Fort Worth group. The grassroots network is bound by a single rule: everything posted must be legal, appropriate for all ages, and completely free – no strings attached. As a new member in New York, my own first offer to the Freecycle community was an office chair I couldn’t use anymore. Within 24 hours, the chair had a new home with someone who was thrilled to have it, and Freecycle had a new devotee.

Freecycle's founder, Deron Beal, estimates that the worldwide Freecycle movement keeps roughly 40 tons of waste out of landfills every day, with each item averaging one pound. For a frame of reference, the world produced 12.6 billion tons of waste in 2000, which is an average of roughly 34.5 million tons per day. It’s still a small really tiny dent in total global waste, but not an insignificant one.

Members are free to post as often or as rarely as they like, and different people have different reasons for using the network.

Javier Enriquez, 24, says he uses Freecycle for a variety of reasons, including the environmental and anticorporate impacts, the potential to save money, and the opportunity to help others in need. He is currently using Freecycle to locate free books for his organization, the Associated Indigenous Movement (http://movindas.tripod.com/). He's gotten several offers, as well as a new potential member.

Raj Nath, 26, is too busy traveling for his job as a consultant to get much free stuff from Freecycle. But he does use it to give things away he picks up on the road. “Through my travel I have accumulated a mountain of hotel toiletries,” he posted recently, “and would like to donate them to a homeless shelter that could use them. Please advise.”

Nath says he received several e-mails – one recommending a church group, another pointing him to the Salvation Army, and a third from a woman sending care packages to kids in Iraq. But none of them panned out. “I haven’t given the things away yet, because no one’s written me back,” Nath said. “There’s a halfway house a couple of blocks down the street. I think I’m just going to drop it off on Friday.”

Even the most avid Freecyclers acknowledge that it can be difficult to make successful connections, both because of the intense demand for free stuff and the potential for a no-show.

“Sometimes people just blow off without telling you, which gets frustrating, and is why I don’t post offers as often as I would like to,” said Kevin Vasconellos, a 30-year-old master’s student at Parsons School of Design in New York. But Vasconellos says he has also enjoyed quite a few successes: in the six months or so since he joined Freecycle, he’s given away books, audio tapes and CDs, computer equipment, software, an air conditioner, and a snowboard, and he’s received an espresso machine, air conditioner, minidisc eight-track recorder, light box, sewing machine, books, and art supplies. “There are frequently things I need but don’t have enough money to get,” Vasconellos said, “and someone always seems to be getting rid of it somewhere.”

Katie Carman, a 24-year-old Brooklyn artist, says she manages to avoid a lot of the pandemonium by staying in touch with Freecyclers she’s met. “We keep an eye out for items we know each other are looking for,” she said. “I think what's even better than getting and receiving free stuff is that Freecycle is bringing people together in a really positive way.”

Recently, an announcement was posted on New York City’s Freecycle site informing members about the Free Store, and some members have referred to it as ‘the Freecycle Store.’ But Baldwin, who doesn’t own a computer and has only heard of Freecycle from others, doesn’t mind the confusion. “There’s no connection between Freecycle and the Free Store, but the notion of the Free Store can become as broad as people want,” she says. “People will link it to Freecycle and that’s fine. I think it’s cool that it can be expansive in that way.”

The Free Store is located at 131 Grand Street, between Bedford and Berry, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

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