Free Stores Are a Real Thing—Here's How to Find and Donate to Them

If you're looking for more ways to participate in community care, this might be it.

free store

Going shopping is usually a pretty standard experience, whether you're buying items online or at a brick-and-mortar shop. Patrons enter the store, peruse the merchandise, pick things out, and pay for them. But, imagine that we took money out of the equation and transactions were instead grounded in sharing and bartering goods. Turns out, this isn't such an imaginary scenario—and stores like this already exist around the country. Free Stores and Really Really Free Markets (RRFMs) are forums within which people can share goods, skills, wisdom, and more without any money trading hands.

Below, learn more about the history of free stores, how they work, and how you can contribute to or start one of your own.

The History of Free Stores

The idea of a moneyless market or store isn't actually new at all. It's actually a 17th century idea being continued in the 21st century. The first known iteration of these 'markets' were the brainchild of a communist, agriculturally based sect in England around 1649-1650 called the Diggers. The original Diggers' name was derived from their anti-monarchy act of claiming lands (technically owned by the king) for themselves and cultivating them, sharing crops freely among other poor communities. The movement was quickly quelled by the ruling class, but the idea of a community in which every person contributes what they are able and gets what they need continued to evolve and crop up 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 provided free art performances, 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 followers of Malcolm X, to launch what they called the Black People's Free Store.

Today, contributing to or even starting a free store near you can be a great way to participate in community care.

Free Stores Around 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, Ore., Baltimore, Md., and Nashville, Tenn., among other locations. To find out more, we caught up with a few of the organizers behind some of the free stores and markets around the United States.

The Free Store Project (New York City, NY)

Several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, in October 2020, Myles Smutney, activist and organizer, decided to do something to help her neighbors in New York City. "The people who were left in the city were those who couldn't afford to go anywhere else, people who had been in the neighborhoods most of their life," said Smutney. "I wanted to do something to uplift them. Something fun."

The first free store locations were in her own neighborhood, the Lower East Side, but the idea soon took off. Before long, there were dozens of free stores across Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. People began reaching out and offering shelves, printers, display racks, and more. "People were calling me and saying, 'I see on your map that there isn't a free store by me, so how do I start one?'" recalls Smutney, "and I always said, 'I've got you. Let's go.'" The stores are set up on sidewalks, and each community is responsible for maintaining the store and keeping it in stock. They provide more than goods, too. Neighbors have new opportunities to meet one another and form bonds that wouldn't otherwise have been created. "I watch people who you would never, ever picture together bond over 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 executive director of the Freecycle Network, a grassroots and nonprofit movement that keeps 1,000 tons of trash out of landfills each day. "These are items that have a lot of good use left in them, they simply no longer have monetary value," 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 began as a Yahoo Group has morphed into a phenomenon with groups on six continents. The Freecycle Network sees their purpose as environmental at heart. "If you gift a used sofa on Freecycle, you're keeping a hundred-pound sofa out of the landfill," said Beal, "but you're also saving 20 times that in industrial waste because raw materials (cotton, wood, diesel, water, etc.) don't need to be extracted from mother nature for a new sofa. We as consumers can have a huge impact on the production cycle via re-use."

The Store (Nashville, Tenn.)

Walking into The Store in Nashville, you might think it's a regular grocery store. Customers meander down aisles of pantry staples, dairy products, and produce, picking out items and placing them in a cart or basket. The only difference is that the cashier, who's wearing a lime-green apron, won't be asking for cash or credit. The Store is focused specifically on the issue of food insecurity.

"A society with access to solid nutritional services is one in which children are more likely to thrive educationally, less likely to have long term medical issues, and more likely to find employment in adulthood and be an active member of their community," says Courtney Vrablik, The Store's executive director. "Food security is a foundation block to a lifetime of potential. Long-term, that's a huge benefit to and investment in society." Working in partnership with Belmont University, the grocery provides the food, while the school provides the space, along with health and legal services to patrons.

The Really Really Free Market (Ypsilanti, Mich.)

Local organizer Alexis King attended her first RRFM when she was living in Carrboro, North Carolina, where the town has had a monthly free market since 2004. "I was just blown away by it. It was amazing," said King. "There was poetry on the street, people playing guitars and handing out food. And everything was free." When she relocated 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 so big, but hundreds of people showed up and kept bringing in stuff," King said. "We had a media area with CDs and books, and an area where people were giving services and skills, free acupuncture, for example. And we had a potluck, so there was a lot of food. Everybody just pitched in, helped us set up and break down the event." King and her collaborators now host weekly events and are looking to expand their project to include skillshare workshops, a human resource directory, and more. "It's not necessarily only about physical resources," King explains. "It's about support 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. Organizers I spoke with recommended just starting somewhere. When Beal began 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 items donated that were not recyclable. We needed to figure out 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 should not be a lonely one. An economy of sharing inherently relies on community members to make it happen. This matters for sourcing the items in the store, but also for maintenance, community outreach, and fostering human connections.

"One thing that we've learned is most successful is having a community partner," says Smutney. She also recommends learning from those who have experience in the realm, while tweaking things to fit a specific community. "During our two years of operation, we've had almost 200 volunteers who came and went, so we put together a kind of handbook with tips for successful operations," she says. "And then we're just here as a resource, while recognizing that everyone has to have their own thing if we want them to really feel part of what we're doing." All the organizers work with existing local organizations like community centers, cafés, bars, and art spaces. The idea is to repurpose an existing infrastructure to create something new for the community.

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