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For many people, the daily reality is dire: As of May 2022, 58 percent of Americans (approximately 150 million adults) are living paycheck to paycheck. Inflation recently hit a 40-year high, with prices for food, rent, energy, and basic consumer goods increasing by the day.
Despite this, the federal minimum wage remains locked in at $7.25 an hour — a rate that hasn’t increased since 2009 — and while wages have been increasing, they aren’t keeping pace with the cost of living.
Meanwhile, the mitigation and management of excessive waste is a concurrent issue. As the initial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic wane, families who are downsizing their lives or cleaning out their closets face the challenge of finding a new home for their excess stuff — or simply dumping it in a landfill.
How can these two groups of people be connected — filling the accessibility gap for some while offering an environmentally friendly waste management solution for others? In some communities, the answer lies in free stores.
The beauty — and necessity — of the free store
A former dumpster diver concerned with the environmental footprint of waste, Gisele Fetterman founded Free Store 15104 in 2012 in Braddock, Pennsylvania, to facilitate these exchanges in a dignified, mutually beneficial space. The free store, which operates out of three decommissioned shipping containers, is open three days a week.
If you ask, you shall receive, meaning that a lot of the answers to people’s needs are already in the community. — Gisele Fetterman, Free Store 15104 founder
Free stores are exactly what they sound like: Physical places where people can donate items they no longer want and others can shop among these items and take what they want or need without paying cash for them.
Items donated include everything from household items and small appliances to furniture, food, toys, and cleaning supplies, depending on a specific store’s physical capacity and purpose.
Differing models for differing needs
Operating models vary as widely as the items they carry and the clientele they serve. Free Store 15104, for example, is open to anyone without any restrictions or obligations.
In Porirua, New Zealand, a local free store operates in a similar, yet slightly differing, capacity. Originally an online distribution space, Free For All recently opened their brick-and-mortar shop, charging a small entry fee for prospective shoppers, who are able to pick up as many items as they want or need. Pennsylvania’s Free Store Wilkinsburg has both an item and time limitation for shoppers.
The FreeStore in Nashville, Tennessee, has a membership program that allows people to choose a set number of color-coded items when they shop.
Free stores as community infrastructure
Expanding on the original free store model, the Free Store Project, which was founded in New York City during the pandemic, is a series of 24-hour pop-up shops similar to Little Free Libraries or Little Free Pantries.
At the intersection of shuttered storefronts and a mass exodus of people from the city (and, therefore, an excess of discarded items), founder Myles Smutney saw an opportunity to support people who were out of work and waiting on COVID-19 income relief payments.
During [the beginning] stage of the pandemic, lots of people were trapped inside. They had made their sourdough starters and done their spring cleaning, so I had a lot of friends who had bags of things to donate. — Myles Smutney, Free Store Project founder
At one time, there were 15 pop-up shops in the Free Store Project community. Today, there are three shops, and Smutney is currently working on building a more sustainable model with partners, such as a school located near where one of the remaining free stores stands. “With strategic partners, we can grow and expand and recreate the magic of what we’ve already done,” she said.
Connecting for greater impact
Indeed, strategic partnerships are a vital part of many of these operating models. At Free Store 15104, for example, local partners like Costco and Trader Joe’s, donate fresh food items when the store is open.
An ongoing partnership with All Elite Wrestling (AEW) keeps the store stocked with high-demand infant products.
Every time AEW comes to town, they collect formula and diapers for us. When the rest of the country was struggling with formula, we never ran out of it. — Gisele Fetterman
Free stores are also beneficiaries of bulk donations of perfectly functional items that fail to meet brands’ quality-control standards, such as clothing items with misspelled words on interior tags and toys with slightly damaged exterior packaging. In the United States, where more than 292 million tons of waste is created each year (approximately 4.9 pounds per person per day) free stores offer a solution for extending the life of good-quality, useable items — some of which are brand new.
Meeting the needs of those in transition
While free stores offer a dignified way for cash-strapped folks to shop for common household items, they’re also an important resource for those going through transition periods in their lives. People reentering society after leaving prison or those who abruptly leave abusive relationships often lack the financial means to furnish their lives from scratch.
The FreeStore in Des Moines, Iowa, for example, serves more than 250 families a year only through referrals from social service agencies, so its clients are primarily victims of domestic abuse, veterans, women returning from prison, and youth aging out of foster care.
The shopping experience at the FreeStore’s warehouse is safe and comfortable and includes a suggested list of items to set up a home and time with a volunteer to think through new living situations.
“We talk about the size of their apartment or home and the age and sex of the children to find items that will fit, and appropriate colors and bedding,” said Diane Munns, chair of FreeStore’s Board of Directors. “Clients are extremely appreciative of the goods, the opportunity to pick out things they like, and the help in delivering to their new home.
[Starting over] can be overwhelming for anyone, and we try very hard to make it enjoyable and stress-free. — Diane Munns, chair of FreeStore’s Board of Directors
Some universities (like the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana) also operate free stores that serve the transitory needs of incoming and graduating students while also helping them minimize their environmental footprint.
Lasting, communal impact
People shopping at free stores do so for different reasons, but the ethos of these stores creates unique conditions for connection. As Fetterman said, free stores are “spaces that bring people together.” And though at first glance, the model may seem ripe for exploitation, it turns out the very opposite seems to be true.
“Everyone asks if they’ve been vandalized, and the answer is no,” Smutney said. “The people who pass by are our volunteers. They live on the block. They’re the same people you see at the grocery store. You know that it’s cared for by the community, and you know it’s kind of cool, so no one is messing them up.”
The localized nature of the operation, gives people a sense of purpose and ownership, Smutney explained. “It’s a really simple way to care,” she said. “It’s a small way to be an active part of your community.”
JoAnna Haugen is a writer, speaker, solutions advocate, intrepid traveler, international election observer, and returned Peace Corps volunteer. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the