Community Exchange

Thrifters of the world unite! Maybe you can save your spare change!

Since early adulthood I have done much of my shopping at thrift stores, garage and estate sales, in dumpsters, and on freecycle and craigslist. In recent years I have become strongly disillusioned with the major thrift stores, particularly goodwill which is also the biggest. Their prices have been climbing, I lived with someone who believes she is underpaid and undervalued as an employee at her job at GWill, and after trying to volunteer in their adult basic education classes, my impression is that those are pretty crappy too. I don't know this for a fact, but my impression is that they make no effort to deal with stuff they can't sell in an environmentally ethical manner, and I heard that they won't even giveaway stuff that they can't sell (I suppose they put it in the per pound outlet store, but there is only one in Seattle, and there are poor people all over the region.) Someone told me Oregon is looking at revoking GW's nonprofit status because they aren't really a charity anymore.

Usually garage and estate sales offer much better deals, and many small thrift stores have friendly owners who are also generous. The problem is they are spread out, haphazard, unpredictable, while the big thrifts you can usually depend on to get things like clothes and kitchen stuff.

After a local friendly thrift went under, I started thinking about figuring out some creative ideas for actually challenging the monopoly of the big chains. I think we need to preserve the friendliness, generosity and ethics of a small scale sale, but infuse it with the vision, foresight, planning, coordination, and especially seriousness and commitment that large corporate structures offer. I think that getting started will be very hard, but if it gathers steam, I do not think it is unrealistic to forecast a massive shift in the flow of donations and customers in a matter of years maybe decades. I believe it is possible to beat the prices and selection of the major chains all while maintaining a high level of integrity and building community, especially with the organizational power of the Internet.

What I would like to see is a network of web sites, many storefronts, and basements, all coordinating with each other, with a minimum of overhead. For me the benefits of this are much more then getting cheap stuff. It is an opportunity for people to meet their neighbors, redistribute wealth, provide dignified work for the unemployed, and perhaps most important a chance for people to prove to themselves and each other that by working together we can make a real difference.

Following are some more concrete ideas I brainstormed to flesh out this concept.

some ideas for a community exchange

1) web-based system and database for figuring out what people need and what people have to offer

2) physical location:

a) storefront with lots of people donating to keep it open, or hopefully in the long-term paying sliding scale membership dues.

b) network of small thrift stores with private owners

c) combination of both

3) means of exchange

a) volunteers/paid staff who gather things and watch over the store, make sure people are dealing in good faith, keep stuff organized, deal with paperwork

b) similar to free cycle or craigslist where people deal with each other as individuals.

c) hybrid system

i) through doing work on behalf of the exchange, get first dibs on the good stuff, get paid, some other compensation?

ii) central web site that allows for many styles and forms of exchange by linking to many sites, some of which are sort of like free cycle.

iii) pay people a nominal amount or offer them some sort of compensation for taking the time to donate or advertise on the web site the things they want to offer.

iv) keep a strong and public inventory so that people know what is available/needed

v) alternatively, keep a running list that generally describes what is in high/low demand.

4) miscellaneous other ways to bring this to reality

a) have a grantmaking system where someone has a community project or even a small business proposal in the case of an unemployed person, and we make microloans of stuff to help them out. Or even microloans of volunteers.

b) a "Hoarder help" program– instead of someone paying a professional to help them with their hoarding problem, we pay them for all their stuff, and work with them to sort it and get it out of their house, and possibly to learn the skills to simplify their life.

c) vocal and active support for unionization of workers at the big thrifts (goodwill, value village,) unionization of shoppers (less likely,) and vocal criticism of company policies that are profit oriented and not charitable.

d) exploration and support for creative recycling and reuse ideas:

i) free plastic and assorted crap to anyone using it for an art project or really anything useful.

ii) figuring out how to bargain with plastic recyclers so people can get money for plastic waste that they might just throwaway.

iii) sort of like with cans, find ways to create an army of destitute people who can scavenge waste.

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